Cold War Era

F-106 pilot tells the story of when he fell asleep while SAGE ground computer was flying his Six during a late-night exercise

‘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.’

Gordon concludes;

‘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

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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