Saturday, February 19, 2011

You Gotta Sleep Sometime

Reading about the problems that fatigue and boredom are causing in the cockpit and radar rooms, made me think back some. Sleep, we must remember is something we can’t do without. At some point it will come, regardless. The problem of course is that if you are alone at the controls, it could be a disaster unless corrected right away.

When I was flying occasional charter up in Vermont, I frequently would get a call late in the evening or even the wee hours to take a flight. It always was some type of emergency, some more vital than others. The powers to be knew that I didn’t drink much and could be counted on to be sober, hence the late calls.

One evening, about 2300 hrs or so, I got a call from the dispatcher. There was a Saab 340,a small airliner, at the Hartford Airport with a bad starter on one engine. They needed me to fly a mechanic and spare parts to fix things ASAP. Off I went down interstate 89 at METO speed and was ready to go in a little over 30 minutes. Oh how I did love to fly those birds.

The mechanic and I took off in one of the Pa-31’s and we were in Hartford (KHFD) in about 40 minutes. It was after midnight when we arrived, and I had been up since 0700 that morning, working at my “real” job as a radiologist. Yes, it was already a long day, and I was starting to yawn a bit. As the mechanic was doing his thing, I stayed in the cockpit and tried, successfully for a few z’s. An hour or so passed and in bounded the mechanic. Repair done and ready to go. I shook myself awake and cranked up the engines. Not much clearance needed, good VFR, and away we went.

I used the autopilot as was customary, fortunately. As the flight progressed, I caught myself nodding off for just a few seconds every few minutes. Somehow I was able not to get into deeper sleep. The passenger was sound asleep in the right seat. What confidence.
Staying awake while at cruise with little to do, monitor or communicate about, was the worst. Once nearing home (KBTV), things were required of me and no time for a snooze.

I feel now, even in retrospect, that if an emergency had occurred I would have been able to respond. The question is, what if something like a near miss that required me to be looking out had happened? Might not have been a good outcome. Well, there is a gamble in so much we do. Most of the time we do get away with it. This can be a dangerous way of thinking however, especially if other lives depend on us.

So, when doing your thing. Whatever it may be, flying, driving or just playing, do get your sleep, or who knows?