‘This one pilot had made the Yuma run in a TA-4J on Friday, and was returning to Jacksonville on Sunday. Due to the time zone shift it’s likely that he was tired,’ David Tussey, former US Navy A-7E Corsair II 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?
‘One weekend, an A-4 pilot (who’s name I can’t definitively recall) was scheduled to make a “parts run” to MCAS Yuma where the A-7 RAG squadron had a detachment. Ready-to-replace parts were often loaded in an external store and ferried out to the Yuma detachment over the weekend, returning with a load of the replacement items. Fun stuff and good cross-country flying.
‘When you returned from MCAS Yuma to NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville, FL, you almost always arrived at night due to the three zone time difference. Often quite late at night depending on when you depart the west. It’s nearly a full “across the US flight” from Arizona to Florida.
‘This one pilot had made the Yuma run in a TA-4J on Friday, and was returning to Jacksonville on Sunday. There’s no evidence he was intoxicated, in fact he was pretty straight laced, but due to the time zone shift it’s likely that he was at least tired.
‘The flight from Yuma to Jacksonville in a TA-4J requires two legs, with a refueling stop mid-way at say Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City, or a similarly military base located in the mid-west.
‘On the second leg of the flight that Sunday evening, with the autopilot flying the airplane due east and night falling, the pilot apparently fell asleep. ATC could not raise radio contact and started treating the aircraft as a lost radio incident as the aircraft crossed Louisiana and into norther Florida.
‘However, as the aircraft approached Jacksonville, it did NOT descent to land (weather was VFR). Instead the aircraft continued to fly straight-and-level right over Jacksonville and out over the Atlantic Ocean.
‘Well, now ATC is in a panic — has the pilot become incapacitated? What’s gone wrong here?
‘FINALLY, about 50 miles out over the Atlantic, ATC awakened the pilot, who finally woke up, and astonishingly acted like nothing had happened!! He turned the airplane around, and despite being way, way too low on fuel DID NOT declare an emergency!
‘He overflew two military airports on his way back to NAS Cecil, …and low and behold finally made it back to NAS Cecil Field, landed safely, taxied into the flight line. Shut down the aircraft. Filled out the paper work and went home…just another day at the office.
‘From when the pilot awakened until he landed at NAS Cecil Field was well over 150 miles all with the low fuel light illuminated, and well over 30 minutes.
‘Scared the living bejeezus out of everyone.
‘When the details of this emerged, as you can imagine the Squadron CO, Jax Approach, CO of NAS Cecil Field, were absolutely livid. The Squadron CO even went so far to dip the fuel tank (used a stick to measure fuel remaining) and found there was 4 gallons left. FOUR GALLONS! What really fried the CO’s ass was that this pilot never declared an emergency despite the extreme low fuel state, and overflew two perfectly good military divert bases instead of landing immediately.
‘Not sure what happened after that. There was no damage done, to Navy property, just some very poor judgement and headwork, followed by a major, major ass chewing.
‘But man, that was quite the story around Naval Aviation and particularly at NAS Cecil Field, always ending with a “he did what?”.’
Photo credit: U.S. Navy