September 25, 2008
This is Your Captain Sleeping … Passenger Jet With 40 People on Board Flies 15 Miles Past Airport As Air Traffic Controllers Make Frantic Bid to Wake Pilot and Co-Pilot
By ALASTAIR DALTON TRANSPORT CORRESPONDENT
PASSENGERS on board Go flight 1002 may have felt a little uneasy had they noticed their plane had flown 15 miles past its destination. That would most likely have turned to blind panic had they known that behind the cockpit door, both their pilots were fast asleep.
The mid-morning aviation nightmare happened at 21,000ft over Hawaii, when air traffic controllers found themselves unable to contact the flight crew for more than 17 frantic minutes.
They finally roused the dozing pair, after making nearly a dozen calls, as the plane headed over the Pacific Ocean on autopilot, away from its intended destination of Hilo.
The Bombardier jet, carrying 40 passengers on what should have been a 45-minute flight from Honolulu, then turned around and landed safely.
The United States' Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has suspended the pilots for the "careless and reckless operation of an aircraft".
They had already been sacked by the Hawaiian Go airline, but it is not known whether they have moved to another carrier.
Captain Scott Oltman, 54, who was also cited for failing to maintain radio communications, had his licence suspended for 60 days.
He has been diagnosed with a severe obstructive sleep apnea, which causes people to stop breathing repeatedly, preventing a restful night of sleep.
First Officer Dillon Shepley, 24, was suspended for 45 days.
The FAA said no action was taken against Go because it did nothing wrong and had provided the pilots with a 15-hour break before their shift, nearly double the minimum required.
The US National Transportation Safety Board has determined the two pilots unintentionally fell asleep on the flight on 13 February. However, it remains unclear why they both dozed off. No problems were found when the aircraft's pressurisation system and carbon monoxide levels were examined. In recordings, an air traffic controller is heard repeatedly trying to contact the pilots and talking to the crew of another Go flight in hopes of reaching Flight 1002. "I'm worried he might be in an emergency situation," he is heard saying.
The safety board has urged the FAA and airlines to monitor pilot fatigue more closely.
It said the pilots had been on duty for four and a half hours that morning, and "were on the third day of a trip schedule that involved repeated early start times and demanding sequences of numerous short flight segments".
The British Air Line Pilots Association said it was not aware of any other incident in which both pilots had unintentionally fallen asleep.
It said there was a requirement for two pilots on aircraft with more than about six seats.
Many airlines' operating procedures include cabin crew regularly visiting the flight deck to bring refreshments and ensure the pilots are OK.
Go, an inter-island carrier run by Arizona-based Mesa Air Group, declined to comment on the suspensions.
AIRCRAFT passengers may be reassured there are pilots up front, but for much of the time they do not fly the plane.
Flight crew habitually switch on the autopilot when reaching 2,000ft, after take-off, and take back manual control only when the aircraft has descended to that level before landing. At major airports, such as Heathrow, many planes land automatically during poor visibility, using an "auto land" system which has been around since the 1960s.
However, passenger aircraft do not take off automatically because of the high cost of the equipment required.
David Reynolds, flight safety officer for the pilots' union Balpa, said: "It is far better for computers to fly the aircraft while pilots focus on monitoring the controls."
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