46 Seconds of Fear – Air Canada Pilot – What is Your Sleep Plan?

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HEADLINE:  Sleepy Air Canada pilot thought Venus was a plane

SUMMARY:  A sleepy Air Canada pilot first mistook the planet Venus for an aircraft, and then sent his airliner diving toward the Atlantic to prevent an imaginary collision with another plane, an official report stated last week.

“Under the effects of significant sleep inertia (when performance and situational awareness are degraded immediately after waking up), the first officer perceived the oncoming aircraft as being on a collision course and began a descent to avoid it,” Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said.

The airliner dropped approximately 400 feet before the captain pulled back. Fourteen passengers and two crew were hurt, and seven were taken to a hospital in Zurich. None were wearing seat belts, even though the seat-belt sign was illuminated.

Original story from MSNBC
Dr. Don Donahue, Director, Firestorm Healthcare Response Team

ANALYSIS:  One of my earliest professional memories was forged as a brand new soldier on a missile site in Cold War West Germany.  The air defense (i.e. anti-aircraft) battery was undergoing a major tactical evaluation.  The NATO evaluator’s first question was not about air sectors, munitions, or perimeter security.

It was “what is your sleep plan?”

As a society, we promote and celebrate strength and endurance.  Cal Ripken Jr. is known as much for his longevity as for his skills as a baseball player.  This need for endurance is particularly true in times of stress or crisis.  Accountants buckle down during tax season.  Business and community leaders stay on the job following a disaster.  The question becomes “how much is enough?”  As humans, we are fallible and fragile.

Research demonstrates the benefits of brief naps and sufficient sleep.  That same research and some notable events have shown the impact of inadequate rest.  In 1989, a New York State health department-commissioned report documented the adverse effects of excessive work hours.  The Bell Commission report changed how medical schools train residents.

The Air Canada pilot did right in taking a nap, but erred by sleeping too long (contrary to company policy) and falling into a deeper sleep that requires more wake up time.

A look into the night sky earlier this month revealed an exceptionally bright planet Venus, so much so that it did appear to be an aircraft.  It is not inconceivable that a groggy pilot seeing an unexpectedly bright light ahead would experience a panic reaction.

Closer coordination between complimentary components – pilot and co-pilot in this case – is critical to effective performance.  Understanding the physical needs of the human body and honoring those needs can be literally lifesaving.

It is also instructive to note the number of passenger and crew members injured.  While flight attendants by necessity are not buckled in their seats, it seems likely not all of the 14 who were injured were using the restrooms.

Safety recommendations are based on decades of research and experience.  While the seat-belt may be uncomfortable, it is less so than the injuries that can be suffered on rare occasion.

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