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Today's word on journalism

May 8, 2009

The Last WORD

The Fat Lady Sings, Off-Key, Drools

At about this time every year, like the swallows to Capistrano or the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio, the WORD migrates to its summer musing grounds at the sanitarium —St. Mumbles Home for the Terminally Verbose.

The reason is clear, and never moreso than as this season —the WORD's 13th —peters out.

It's been a fraught year of high palaver and eye-popping transition, both good and not-so-much. An interminable presidential campaign saga finally did end, and in extraordinary and historic fashion. Meanwhile, the bottom and everything that's below the bottom fell out of the economy, with families, homes, entire industries and —of particular interest to WORDsters and the civic-minded —dozens of daily newspapers ("I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying--it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off." --Molly Ivins). . . all evaporating. What replaces them, from the individual to the institutional to the societal? Are we looking at a future of in-depth Tweeting?

As any newsperson or firehorse knows, it's hard to turn your back on day-to-day catastrophe --we just have to look at the car wreck. But even the most deranged and driven need a rest. As philosopher Lilly Tomlin once observed, "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."

So this morning, as a near-frost hovered over northern Utah, the unmarked van pulled into the driveway and the gentle, soft-spoken men in the white coats rolled the WORD out of bed and into a straitjacket for the usual summer trip to St. Mumbles, where the blathering one will be assigned a hammock and fed soothing, healthy foods --like tapioca, dog biscuits and salmon --while recharging the essential muscles of cynicism, outrage, sarcasm, social engagement and high-mindedness, in preparation for the next edition.
Summer well, friends.

Speak up! Comment on the WORD at


Feedback and suggestions --printable and otherwise --always welcome. "There are no false opinions."

Pilot fatigue: Is FAA sleeping on the job?

By Storee Powell

April 13, 2009 | James Lipscomb was en route on a seemingly ordinary flight from Alaska to Hawaii. Lipscomb had flown it before and anticipated no problems for the more than 10-hour ride. He was piloting a Delta plane over the Pacific. Not too far into the flight, Lipscomb took a look at how many miles were left to his destination: 602. The next time Lipscomb remembered blinking he saw there were only 80 miles left to the Hawaiian destination. His heart skipped a beat or two. Lipscomb had nodded off at the pilot’s wheel. How could this have happened?

Anyone who has flown before is asking themselves the same question right now: “How many times has my pilot fallen asleep?” But Lipscomb was experiencing something dangerous that too many pilots feel everyday on the job, something preventable. He had succumbed to pilot fatigue. This pilot like most others was not dog-tired by choice or irresponsibility. The airline and outdated FAA regulations had worked him over to his limit. The inopportune combination of the airline’s need for pilot productivity and the Federal Aviation Agency’s outdated regulations regarding rest time for pilots caused Lipscomb to be exhausted ultimately putting him and others at risk.

What is pilot fatigue? Lawrence Hemingway is a friend of Lipscomb. He teaches Human Factors and Safety in Aviation at USU with 35 years of flying experience under his belt. According to Hemingway, pilot fatigue is feeling brain dead and completely washed out from lack of sleep and flying too many hours. A Wall Street Journal article explains pilot fatigue can cause headaches, irrationality and micro-sleep, which is when pilots become unresponsive for up to a minute, though their eyes are open. These mental and physical effects in turn cause technical mistakes such as mixing up switches as well as impaired communication such as missing a radio call or not getting along with the crew.

Lipscomb isn’t the only one who has slept on the job. Hemingway recalls one trip when he was co-piloting a flight from Panama to Rio de Janiero. After taking off at midnight, Hemingway dozed off and woke up several minutes later to discover that all of his crew members were also sleeping.

“It really scares you,” Hemingway said. “It takes you longer to perceive what someone is telling you when you’re that tired. I stayed awake for the rest of that night.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the National Transportation Safety Board identifies pilot fatigue as one of its 10 “Most Wanted” safety improvements. At least 10 U.S. plane accidents and 260 fatalities since 1990 have been attributed to fatigue, which increases drastically after working more than 12 hours in a row, the article said.

Hemingway said one of these accidents occurred in Guantanamo Bay. A plane banked too sharp and crashed. The captain survived and said he was so tired he couldn’t understand what his crew members were telling him. Another incident in Little Rock killed ten people after a plane flew into a thunderstorm and the crew lost control, sending the plane off the end of the runway. The mistakes were caused by fatigue. While 20 accidents have been attributed to pilot fatigue, numerous close calls have been reported, said the “WSJ.”

The problem of fatigue isn’t always easy to pinpoint, Hemingway said.

“You can go back and check how the pilot spent the night, and all that stuff, but we can’t know exactly how the pilots were feeling at the time of the crash,” Hemingway said.

Regulations are difficult to create because it’s tough to decide the point of fatigue when a pilot is unable to fly safely, Hemingway said.

“It’s somewhat like driving a car when you’re really tired,” Hemingway said. “When do you pull over and take a nap? Well, you can’t do that in an airplane.”

Although it’s difficult to assess how tired is too tired, the issue isn’t if pilots are fatigued because of their tough schedules. Rather, the disagreement is what the best solution to a complicated problem is.

Why doesn’t the FAA just demand pilots get more time for sleep? What seems like a simple solution—pilots getting proper time to rest—is complicated by many variables such as flight times, layovers, flying in bad weather, differing aircraft type and the ailing economy, which the airlines are feeling.

The FAA did in fact propose new regulations in October 2008, a “New York Times” article said. The current regulations mandate eight hours of consecutive rest in any 24-hour period. The new regulations only focus on ultra long-haul flights ignoring the problems of multiple short-leg flights. The new proposal would require flight crews of ultra long-haul flights to have 48 hours of rest-time rather than 24 to ensure pilots get two full periods of sleep before making a return flight, according to the New York Times.

However, airlines shot down the FAA’s proposal like an enemy aircraft. Several of the companies, including Continental, sued the FAA. Hemingway said it was because they were not concerned with the rules per say, but because of the cost of implementing them. Airlines would have to hire 20 percent more pilots among doing other costly things, Hemingway said.

The thorny nature of this problem is one of the reasons nothing has been done sooner, since essentially the ‘60s. Working something out that is economically feasible for airlines is tough. According to the “WSJ,” since 2001 struggling airlines are squeezing an extra 10 to 15 hours per month out of pilots, bringing them very close to the 100-hour maximum allowed by the FAA.

“The FAA is a dinosaur as far as changing things,” Hemingway said. “They are so slow it can take up to 10 years where there’s a money situation. There’s a lot of lip service saying that safety is number one.”

Many pilots also shot the new regulations down, but for different reasons. Hemingway, who flew for Pan Am and SkyWest for several years, was at first in favor of the proposal.

“We’ve been studying the effects of fatigue for so long and the FAA finally does something to help pilots,” Hemingway said. “But I didn’t realize it was only for long-haul flights.”

In many ways, multiple short-leg flights are more exhausting than long-hauls. Hemingway said that as soon as the plane is parked, the eight-hour rest-period starts. If landing at 11 p.m., it takes an hour to unload passengers, finish paperwork, clean and lock the plane and wait for crew transport to arrive. It is already midnight, but it is still 15 minutes to the hotel and another hour to eat. By the time a pilot actually falls asleep, it’s 2 a.m. In three hours, the pilot has to get up. Since the crew has technically had the eight hours of rest-time for the 24 hours, the crew is required to fly half a dozen short trips in several days. Since many commuter flights shuttle between hubs, flights run late and start early. The proposals don’t even take into account downtime for weather that long-haul flights can avoid. Hemingway said he thought this was “legal abuse of the system.”

Twenty-year American airline pilot and 1980 USU graduate, Pete Rasmussen, flies ultra-long haul flights all over the world. Rasmussen was also against the new FAA proposal. Long-haul flights are taken into account by the proposal; nevertheless, the new rules would make fatigue worse. According to Rasmussen, this is because international flying covers many time zones, which operates against Home Body Time. HBT is Rasmussen’s way of saying circadian rhythm.

According to the “New York Times,” the body has a system that regulates a person’s sleep time, what Rasmussen calls HBT. The problem is the time changes dramatically halfway around the world. Crews will leave in daylight and arrive in daylight ready for bed, but HBT says bedtime is when it gets dark, Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said the longer one stays at one destination, the more the body adjusts to the foreign time zone. The two-day rest period proposed by the FAA would confuse pilot’s HBT on the trip back, making them fatigued, Rasmussen said.

Some pilots were in favor of the proposed regulations, however. Lipscomb, a Delta long-haul pilot for over 35 years, said he disagreed with the rejection of the FAA proposal. “I think that sleep deprivation on long-haul flights is insidious. Your mental capacity shuts down, and you don’t even know it,” Lipscomb said. “The effects are cumulative. It takes longer to get back on schedule.”

Rasmussen agreed that something is needed to prevent abuse of pilots by airlines. Despite the fatigue policy of his airline, which allows pilots to call in to say they’re too tired to fly with no questions asked as well as the four-man pilot rotation for ultra-long haul flights, Rasmussen is still abused. Rasmussen said he is logging an extra 10 to 15 hours per month, not including layovers and bad weather.

The demanding flight schedule fatigues Rasmussen so much he has to make up for it in other ways.

“It’s to a point where vacation time is used to recover to make sure you’re safe to fly rather than for fun,” Rasmussen said.

What would be an alternative solution? Rasmussen thinks the FAA needs to reconsider their starting point.

“I don’t think they got input from people who really do it. That’s the impression I’ve got from other pilots as well,” Rasmussen said. “A better solution would be to stay on HBT somehow.”

Hemingway thinks he knows how to accomplish this feat. The NASA Strategic Safety Team has been researching strategic napping. This, according to Hemingway, is taking naps less than a half-hour while flying at altitude. Hemingway said the naps over a half-hour put people into deep sleep, but the short time pilots have to rest doesn’t allow them to get enough deep sleep, leaving them more exhausted after an hour than refreshed. While long-haul flights achieve this by taking an extra pilot, Hemingway thinks a two-pilot crew can do the job. This would allow short trip pilots to rest as well. This would permit a pilot to take a 10-minute refresher while the other flew the plane, Hemingway said. However, this idea isn’t yet approved by the FAA. Hemingway said it’s because the FAA thinks that without someone overseeing the operating crew member, he or she could make a mistake. Hemingway said that making a mistake at altitude with autopilot is less likely.

After Lipscomb realized he had fallen asleep at the wheel, he checked to make sure they were en route to the correct destination. Thanks to modern auto-pilot, a tragedy had been averted, this time. Everything was fine, except Lipscomb.

“I didn’t sleep the rest of that night,” said Lipscomb.

It didn’t end there, though.

Hemingway said that as Lipscomb approached retirement age, he became “haggard,” and eventually chronically fatigued. Lipscomb had to be medically retired.

“We used to play 18 holes together,” Hemingway said. “But Lipscomb became so exhausted he couldn’t even play 3 holes.”

The lifestyle of a commercial pilot undeniably takes its toll.

“It is mentally exhausting to try and stay awake,” Hemingway said. “You’re always in a different bed. Sometimes you’d wake up and say, ‘Where am I?’ You’d go to the window and try to figure it out. Not sleeping in your own bed is tough.”

The FAA’s lethargic approach to change pilot fatigue regulations is cause for concern. Pilots will have to hope that the sleeping dinosaur of North America, the FAA, isn’t extinct.


Copyright 1997-2009 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-3292
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