Pilot wakeup calls get new attention after near disaster
Brain impaired after sudden awakening from long nap, sleep expert says
An Air Canada pilot who woke groggily from a long nap and sent a transatlantic airliner into a steep dive that caused 16 injuries among passengers and crew has prompted the airline to remind its pilots of the proper procedures for rest — and for waking up.
The first officer on the Air Canada flight from Toronto to Zurich in January 2011 had been asleep for 75 minutes when the captain awoke him to mention the approach of a U.S. military plane. The disoriented pilot mistook the planet Venus for the approaching plane, turned off the autopilot and initiated a steep dive before the captain took over control of the Boeing 767.
Standard procedures call for naps of no more than 40 minutes and then a 15-minute transition to wake fully before resuming duty after an operational briefing.
Sleep expert Dr. Charles Samuels of the Centre for Sleep and Performance in Calgary says there's a good reason for that protocol.
"If we allow the brain to enter into later stages of sleep, waking up out of that … the brain will be very, very optunded or impaired."
Jock Williams, a corporate jet pilot, who has been flying for 46 years, first as a fighter pilot with Canada’s air force, says there is a proper procedure for a pilot to take a nap after reaching cruising altitude.
"I’d move the seat back as far as it would go," he said, which moves the stick well out of reach. "Chances are, a guy’s not going to wake up, grab the stick, push the [autopilot] button here and take control of the plane."
In a written statement, Air Canada says it has already reinforced among pilots the proper procedures for controlled rest and is also developing a system for pilots to report and track fatigue issues.
Air Canada says it is acquiring new software to help it identify factors that can induce fatigue and is working with its pilots on a fatigue risk management system, to figure out the best ways to deal with tired flight crews.
With files from the CBC's Ron Charles