Dozing for dollars at 39,000 feet

Imagine being a train driver in a single-manned engine cab across the Nullabor Plain of Australia trying to stay awake staring at 300 miles of straight railway tracks. The Trans Australian Railway uses an alerting device called a dead man’s throttle, a handle on the master controller. If the driver falls asleep and releases his grip, engine power is cut off. All the train brakes are thrown on, getting the attention of any passengers who might be aboard and upsetting any nearby kangaroos. What does this have to do with all the latest chirping by the media about pilots falling asleep in the cockpit… read on, McDuff!

The faint afterglow of sunset was fading behind our port wing. We’d just left Tokyo ATC’s airspace two hours after leaving Seoul eastbound out over the North Pacific. The westbound trip the day before was like a recurring nightmare fraught with the usual frustrating airport ground delays at Vancouver. They compounded further ATC slot time clearance delays made worse by strong headwinds, turbulence and the normal eyeball searing glare of flying westbound into a never-ending blazing noon. The North Star I’d started out on so many moons ago was a far, far cry from our present mount, a Boeing 747-400.

I know, I know… wah! wah! wah! That’s why they pay us the big bucks.

Pilot sleeping
On a 9-hour flight, it can happen.

On previous trips, both of us had tried all the gimmicks that wise guy frequent flyer nerds and aeromedical quacks had recommended for staying awake to no avail. It’s quite funny to watch someone fall asleep sitting up, a condition described by researchers as head bobbing. The victims’ heads loll onto their chests then some wicked synaptic brain fart wakes them, their heads snap up like the cracking of a whip only to repeat the sequence moments later. The sleep experts and their theories notwithstanding, when you are tired no matter what you do, your brain will eventually just shut you down into a virtual coma.

Anyway, as we were wondering how we were going to stay wake for the remaining nine hours of flight my trusty sidekick asked if I remembered the Boeing Pilot Response warnings from ground school. I was ashamed to admit I’d forgotten all about it because I’d never experienced such a warning nor knew of anyone who would knowingly admit to having one.

Ask any pilot or flight attendant, and they will tell you the best way to fall asleep in your hotel room when your body is out of whack with your current time zone is to read your company manuals. You’ll be in dreamland in mere seconds. So we threw caution to the wind, risked dozing off, and began to read our onboard manuals. Here’s what we found in the Engine-Indicating and Crew-Alerting System (EICAS) section, misleadingly sub-titled in a typical grammar-challenged form of English language gibberish that only someone with an engineering degree could write: Pilot Response.

Translating from convoluted manual-ese into normal English, it means that if everything goes quiet in the cockpit and nobody activates any of the Flight Management functions, nobody talks, nobody makes a radio call, nobody initiates a data link message or nobody activates a switch for a specified time a sequence of visual and aural alerts are triggered. It starts with a small font, amber-coloured advisory text message, “PILOT RESPONSE,” visually displayed on the EICAS, accompanied by an aural low volume beeper which wouldn’t wake an average deep sleeper and it means: wake up, sleepy head.

Then, if there is no cockpit response to that message, a large font, flashing red visual text alert, “PILOT RESPONSE” is displayed except this time it is accompanied by a loud siren meaning: do something, stupid. If there is still no response, the stall warning stick shaker along with aforementioned signals are activated and that machine gun-like rattling should almost awaken the dead.

What our manuals didn’t clearly define was what is meant by “specified time.” A quick call on the Sat Phone to maintenance central revealed the specified time to be 30 minutes. Picture yourself sitting doing nothing for 30 minutes: without moving a switch or checking some function or answering a radio or crew-call from the back. And the worst challenge of all: not speaking a word to the person you’ve been sitting beside for the last few hours… unless, of course, it was your wife.

So we decided to field-test the system. We promised each other to sit silent, do nothing and touch nothing for 30 minutes to activate the warnings… or so we thought.

Less than ten minutes in and without thinking, I said something totally innocuous to my accomplice.

EICAS message
If that red message comes up on the EICAS, you weren’t paying attention.

Start the timing again.

Now 20 minutes in and a radio message from ARINC in San Francisco had to be answered.

Start again.

Twenty-five minutes in and from the back: turn up the heat on the top deck, please.

Start again.

Time was dragging on incrementally, but, by golly, we were staying awake trying to beat the computer. Twenty-nine and half minutes in, almost there, and “thwack” the flight deck door bangs opens and; “Hey, you guys want a coffee?”

“ARGCH…#**&!%$^!!?”

We could see the lights of Dutch Harbour, Alaska, ahead so we knew the radio would get busy as we came under radar control and we gave up. Yet for the whole crossing, our little game had kept us awake. I had to wonder if this is what Boeing had intended or did they think the pilot response computer warning would make up for a two-pilot operation on an airplane that could stay aloft for 16 hours or more?

Given the recent media clamour, especially in the UK, about crews falling asleep in flight, it appears EU legislators are considering tightening up on duty time limitations. At least they seem to be cognizant of the need of pilots, especially junior ones, to commute in order to earn a decent living. This, coupled with long duty days and lax or non-existent enforcement of current regulations, has created conditions that seriously threaten the safety of airline passengers.

How about mandating that operators provide at-airport satisfactory crew rest areas for commuting pilots? At the very least, make such rest areas to be available at reasonable prices. Or in a wild flight of fantasy perhaps even an operator-union cooperative venture. Not to let aircraft manufacturers and regulators off the hook, how about developing more realistic Pilot Response software for airliner cockpits that are not purchase options but are mandatory?

At our airline where it was common practice on Pacific long-hauls, F/A’s, perhaps fearing for their own necks, made regular coffee visits to the cockpit just to make sure the pilots weren’t asleep or worse, dead. It was even urban-mythed that one front-end crew reinforced the pilot response system by having the captain’s wife, who happened to be travelling with him, check on the cockpit every half hour. Nevertheless it took two pilots to risk their careers with not even the tacit support of their union by threatening to walk off an important inaugural flight of a long haul expansion route to finally add relief pilots.

Typically and sadly we sort of shot ourselves in the foot, public relations-wise, by self-deprecatingly calling our new best friends, the cruise pilots… Dozers. They earned their pay while not on duty napping in the bunk or a first class seat euphemistically, Dozing For Dollars. At least it’s better than what second officers on the 727 were called… voice activated data links!

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