‘Suddenly my F-106 rolled out of its turn onto a new heading. The sudden leveling of the wings woke me up. There was a target on my radar screen!’ Bruce Gordon F-106 Delta Dart pilot.
More than half of airline and commercial pilots have fallen asleep while in charge of a plane, a 2013 survey by a pilots’ union suggested.
Of the 56% who admitted sleeping, 29% told Balpa (British Airline Pilots Association) that they had woken up to find the other pilot asleep as well.
What about military pilots?
What happens if a fighter jet pilot fell asleep while flying?
‘I don’t know about others, but I can tell my own experience,’ Bruce Gordon, former F-106 Delta Dart pilot, recalls on Quora.
‘I was flying an F-106 on a 1966 late night exercise (about 2 AM), when most civilian airliners aren’t flying. I had the autopilot switched on to the SAGE [The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment was a system of large computers and associated networking equipment that coordinated data from many radar sites and processed it to produce a single unified image of the airspace over a wide area. SAGE directed and controlled the NORAD response to a possible Soviet air attack, operating in this role from the late 1950s into the 1980s.] ground computer, which was flying my F-106 in a racetrack pattern while awaiting for a target to come into our air defense zone. The F-106 radar was sweeping back & forth, back & forth, showing nothing of interest. The plane was flying itself. It was boring. It was late and I was sleepy. I must have dozed off.
‘Suddenly my F-106 rolled out of its turn onto a new heading. The sudden leveling of the wings woke me up. There was a target on my radar screen! I selected the proper weapons, locked on to the target, took over from the autopilot and made the “kill”. I then flew the plane back to base and landed.’
‘The direct answer: Yes, pilots fall asleep while flying. It’s like dozing at the wheel of your car driving down a superhighway — and waking up when your wheels hit the rumble strips. It probably happens more often than pilots will admit to…. Autopilot makes it easier to fall asleep, like self-driving cars will have to worry about what happens when the driver falls asleep at the wheel….’
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force