Thursday, May 14, 2009

Asleep at the Wheel

Pilot fatigue now appears to have been a factor in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which went down Feb. 12 in Clarence Center, NY, killing 49 people on the plane and one man in a house hit by the plane.

Investigators have determined that the plane’s pilot, Marvin Renslow, slept in the Newark Airport crew lounge – against the policy of the flight’s operator, Colgan Air.

The plane’s co-pilot, First Officer Rebecca Shaw, commuted through the night for Seattle, catching rides on connecting Fed Ex flights to get to Newark, where Flight 3407 originated.

The lack of sleep is a well-documented cause of human error. Even moderate sleep deprivation, for instance, can cause brain impairment equivalent to driving drunk. And with increasing fatigue, as with increasing intoxication, people demonstrate a greater willingness to take risks – which is probably not what you want when those people are flying an airplane or wielding a scalpel or doing any of 1,000 other jobs. Yet this is exactly what happens.

Between 2003 and 2007, for instance, there were at least half a dozen cases in which pilots in the U.S. fell asleep – mid-flight! In one case, the pilot and the co-pilot fell asleep while descending toward Dulles International Airport near Washington D.C. In another, Frontier Airlines acknowledged that two if its pilots fell asleep on a 2004 red-eye flight from Baltimore to Denver. Fortunately, one of the pilots woke up after “frantic calls” from a controller.

There are staggering numbers of sleep-deprived people out there (you may even be one of them). At last count, 42 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were filled in the U.S.; that’s about one for every seven Americans, a number that has increased 60% increase over the last five years.

People are so sedated that the federal government has begun to warn of a new peril: sleep-driving, which occurs when people drive while under the influence of sleeping pill. They also sleep-eat; people have reported ingesting buttered cigarettes or waking up gasping for breath with a mouth full of peanut butter, a particular sleep-eating favorite.

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