Pilot Fatigue: a Problem FAA Still Needs to Address

Flying Magazine published an article by Stephen Pope, Fighting Pilot Fatigue: New Views on Staying Alert.PDFThe article looks at the long history of fatigue-related accidents, and the insights collected in recent years.

The article refers to the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo on 2/12/09, as well as the crash of a Beech Baron in Teterboro at 3:05AM on 8/21/2009. Fifty died in Buffalo, in an accident that put HUGE political pressure on FAA about many commercial aviation issues:

  • FAA’s ongoing refusal to resolve pilot fatigue risks,
  • the apparent lower quality assurance standards at commuter/feeder airlines,
  • common long-distance commutes by underpaid pilots,
  • and the deceptive sales of tickets by major carriers, but for flights flown by commuter/feeder airline subcontractors.

Both accidents were fatigue-related, but in a decision that reveals how NTSB can be pressured to help FAA accommodate the financial interests of the airlines, the actual reports were drafted to direct attention at other, non-fatigue issues. This finally caused a minor rebellion by two NTSB members in 2011, when the Teterboro [KTEB] crash report was finalized. Both Chair Deborah Hersman and member Mark Rosekind submitted dissenting opinions. “Despite substantial indications of fatigue effects,” Rosekind wrote in his dissenting brief on the Teterboro crash, “the present accident report fails to acknowledge fatigue’s role in the accident. Based on the factors identified, fatigue was a likely contributory cause.”

In the years since, some minor rule changes have been implemented, but they exclude the sector of pilots most susceptible to fatigue issues: cargo pilots, who commonly work overnight shifts. One such example was the UPS Flight 1354 crash at Birmingham, AL on 8/14/13, which killed two.

So, that’s some of the background. Here are three short excerpts from an article well worth studying, about an aviation risk FAA still needs to address…


 

EXCERPT “In the last decade alone researchers have made tremendous strides in sleep research, noting in studies, for example, that getting even 30 minutes less rest in a single night can impair performance and memory the next day, and that the effects of sleep loss are cumulative, meaning that the sleep we get is like money we deposit in the bank. If we continually draw down our “sleep accounts” for several nights, the effects can be cumulative — and lethal.”

EXCERPT “GA pilots who fly for transportation are at high risk of flying while fatigued. The same factors that go into becoming a pilot/owner of a high-performance airplane, an attractive income and high-achieving attitude, are often associated with a lifestyle that lends itself to fatigue. Typical GA pilots have crazy work schedules, many family commitments, and hobbies about which they’re passionate but which further impact their schedule. The lifestyle of high-achieving individuals puts them at constant risk of flying while fatigued.”

EXCERPT “The NTSB put pilot fatigue on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements and kept it there for 22 straight years, but it wasn’t until the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York, in February 2009, in which 50 people died, that the FAA rewrote airline pilot rest and duty-time rules.