Asleep at the controls

I think a lot of us want to be the person others can rely on in a pinch. That we’ll deliver when others can’t. Who hasn’t wanted to be that “go to” person with our fellow pilots? I’ll bet more of us want to be the one helping than want to be the one asking for help. That’s normal but pilots, copilots, instructors, and yes, students too, have to know when the situation demands real honesty and humility instead of, “Sure, no problem.”

Good lessons are timeless and years later, still handy to remember. My college schedule was pretty full and it was tough fitting in time to study, fly, and sleep without flunking out of any of them. Most of the time I did alright; I wasn’t naturally a good student so I had my sights realistically aimed lower than the honor roll and did the best I could. I did my sleeping on weekends.

Beech 99
Delivering the mail (literally) in a Beech 99 is hard work – and tiring.

It had already been a pretty full day for me, and I couldn’t squeeze in a nap before the night’s flight schedule. And it had been a full day for my captain too, spending all of it moving his family into their new house. He was all done in by the time we started our trip in the Beech 99. Here was our schedule: a 6:45 pm takeoff from Des Moines with passengers to Spencer, removing the 15 seats and installing cargo tiedown straps plus wall covers for the air mail portion. Back in the air at 8:30 with the mail, landing at Fort Dodge and taking on more mail for the usual total of 2,000 pounds’ worth, then airborne again for Des Moines.

Once we landed, we off-loaded the mail, refueled and checked the weather, and took off at 11:00 PM for Minneapolis with 3,000 pounds of mail and 250 pounds of cancelled checks. Landing in the Twin Cities a little after midnight, we had just 20 minutes to off-load it all, then load up the same amount of both… and… be airborne again for Des Moines by 12:30 pm. This was the hump-buster part of the night! Once the landing gear was safely tucked up and we were climbing out of Minneapolis, we could breathe easy.

We had just leveled off at 10,000 feet when the captain yelled over to me, “I gotta go back and get some shut eye, I can’t stay awake!” I said (and here’s the bad part), “Yeah, no problem!” I was beat too, but that old “can-do spirit” kicked in and overrode the little voice in the back of my head. I thought, “I’ll give him a little break; he can trust me.” I should have asked right then and there when he wanted me to wake him so I could maybe grab some sleep myself.

Hearing, “…no problem!” he was unstrapped from his seat over the mail sacks and fashioning himself a nest in no time. He was soon out like a light. As I watched him burrow in, I knew I should have said something, but I hadn’t and it was too late.

Daytime flying is pretty routine but nighttime flight is captivating – to me anyway. The millions of stars, unseen from the ground, soon drew me into a jeweled, bandshell-like realm of wonder and beauty and with the captain asleep, it was all mine! Most of you have seen it and you know exactly what I’m talking about. And I bet if you had been there that night, under that full moon, you would have been mesmerized and spellbound just like I was. You would have known you were in a place few can imagine but pilots call “home.”

Big, billowing silver towers of clouds to the left and right offered up an aerial playground in the dark valleys between them and I just couldn’t resist. I climbed, dived, banked to the right and to the left, all to my private delight! I was free. The Air Traffic Control computer was down for the night so the watchful eyes of the controller saw us only as a raw target and that gave me a lot of leeway. Onboard “Stage 73,” the once ever watchful and trusting eyes of the captain, now found comfort in slumber atop the mail sacks.

We were both free, for the moment anyway. To make sure, I occasionally peeked over my shoulder in case he was responding to my aerial antics. When I did, it was only two feet I saw, toes up-heels down, and not moving. Perfect! My eyes were so dry, but squinting a little soon gave me some relief and they would feel fine for a while. They felt so much better when I squinted, just a little… better.

Kansas beige and Cork interior… too bad about Clementine Orange… Don’t care that much… VW Beetles are cool in any color… Mercury’s a wreck, won’t make it through winter… should get a hundred bucks for it… tires are still good… only a year ‘til I graduate… Professor Thomas flew TBM Avengers… didn’t like the F8F!… Scared him… noisy cockpit…  noisy… noise?

NOISE!

I’M NOT HEARING ANY NOISE!

NO! WHAT HAVE I DONE? What, where am I?

Sleeping pilots
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to fight off sleep.

The first thing I saw was a spinning altimeter, unwinding fast!

And the clouds, “WHERE ARE THE CLOUDS? There! WHY ARE THEY ON THEIR SIDES?

THEY’RE NOT, WE’RE ON OUR SIDE!“

AIRSPEED, Airspeed, got to get slowed up – power off, not too much. Can’t wake Dave, HE’LL KNOW I’M KILLING US! Sleep through it, Dave! Maybe it won’t hurt as much when we hit, maybe not at all. DON’T LOOK AT AIRSPEED!

I knew it was already way into the range that shouldn’t even be painted on the dial.

GOT TO GET US BACK TO 10,000 FEET!

I gently eased back on the wheel and at the same time, eased the Beech 99 slowly up so I wouldn’t wake Dave. And I was good, real good. I wasn’t pulling too much over one g. A glance over my shoulder told me how good I was, his toes were still up and his heels were still down. “Good, he’s still out of it!”

WE’RE HEADING EAST – WHAT IF THERE IS SOMEONE ELSE OUT HERE!

THEN WHAT? I CAN’T BELIEVE I DID THIS!

I slowly returned to a southerly heading back for Des Moines and eased us up to 10,000 feet. The show was over.

I don’t remember what the temperature outside was that night; it’s always cold at 10,000 feet. I know my heart was pounding and my forehead moist 100 miles later when, from over my shoulder, the toes and heels swapped direction and then were replaced with two half-opened eyes and a wrinkled brow.

“Boy, I sure needed that,” he said.

Boy, I sure didn’t. Should I have been honest and told him what almost happened? Maybe, but I didn’t. The time to be honest had long since passed.

14 Comments

  • It’s great to hear these bigger mistakes we make from time to time, they’re excellent learning opportunities. Hopefully I’ll be comfortable enough to share my own in a few years.

    Excellent story, thanks. Glad you woke up in time.

  • Gotta put that genie back in its bottle. This story brings back too many memories. A blast when you’re in your twenties, but ghastly to think about now in my sixties… Thanks for writing.

    • David, I Took my first discovery flight at 70. I so load at 90 hours and got my private certificate a year and nine months later. I enjoyed every minute of it, and still love to fly twice a week. Never say never .

  • David, try an intro flight at a school or ask one of the pilots whose plane you work on to let you take the controls at a safe point. Every flight is still magic for me. Even if you decide against after trying, you won’t kick yourself later. Fun is easy, making it pay is harder. Good luck!

  • …and if you offer to buy lunch at their favorite airport diner a flight away and pick up some or all of the gas, you’ll get plenty of offers… as an A&P you know first hand how cheap us pilots are!

  • oh yeah! The famous quote, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” has all sorts of applications. A normally-sane pilot recalls a flight in his Mooney (no autopilot, not even a wing-leveler) from Southern Arkansas to Omaha. Had been up all night, and knew better, but work called, so he got a lift to the airport, fueled, preflighted, fired up, and off he went. Before he ever got to KC, he was slapping his face, singing, vent open, and seriously regretting having made the “go” decision. By luck, or God’s grace, he managed to stay lucid enough (barely) to complete the flight and safely land at his home base just north of Omaha. He taxied up to the pumps in front of the FBO, shut down, and got out. Perhaps it was his glazed-over eyes, but it must have been overly obvious that he was in no condition to have been flying, because the wife-half of the airport ownership went storming out to the pumps, and chewed him out without even knowing his circumstances and willful carelessness. Maybe she had thought he was drunk, doesn’t matter. She was more than right. Stupid is as stupid does. For that pilot, it was a lesson gratefully survived and well-learned… know and honor your circumstances and limitations for the sake of others, if not your own.

  • In the olden days, approx. 1980, the FAA decreed all positions were required to be occupied at all times. Therefore there could not be anyone asleep at any position.
    On a Tokyo-Seattle flight somewhere over the north pacific and with an Inspector aboard, as Flight Engineer I woke up to find the Inspector, Captain and FO all asleep!

    The requirement didn’t last very long as it rapidly became apparent it might be dangerous.

    Complimentary e-copy of my book “How to Fly Airplanes” is available. send request to bob@safe-flight.net

  • I will never forget my almost near death experience due to exhaustion, not in a plane, but in a car.
    Worked at six flags on the midnight maintenance crew. I was 17 and going to summer school. Driving home one morning (I was piloting a 73 pinto lol), I found myself face to face with a dump truck blowing his air horn on a 2 lane highway. I woke up and found myself in the left lane. I swerved and missed a fatal head-on collision with 10 feet to spare. I thank God for the alert truck driver that blew his horn, as I’m alive to talk about it.
    Sleep can be sneaky and dangerous, unless you’re at home.
    This one single event from 40 years ago has saved my life many times.
    Great article.

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