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Pilots admit to falling asleep in the cockpit

Two go! Airlines pilots who overshot their destination and remained out of contact for 18 minutes admitted they had both fallen asleep. This comes despite the captain’s initial claim that their failure to respond to air traffic control had been due to selection of the incorrect radio frequency.

The incident took place during a scheduled 40 minute flight between Honolulu and Hilo on the morning of February 13, 2008 with 40 passengers on board. The crew flew 26 nautical miles past their destination, which they had passed at cruising altitude, before the first officer awoke and alerted the captain.

Immediately after landing safely at Hilo, the captain told air traffic control that the problem had been caused by selection of the wrong radio frequency but later issued a written statement declaring that both he and the first officer had fallen asleep.

Investigation of the incident has been detailed in a report recently released by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

According to the report, the 23 year old first officer had been at the controls at the time of the incident, was in good health with no obvious conditions or factors likely to have promoted daytime fatigue.

However, while the 53 year old captain claimed he had never inadvertently fallen asleep in the cockpit before, he admitted to intentionally napping during duties approximately once a week.

In a post-incident physical, the captain complained of feeling “burned out” and reported loud snoring during sleep. A subsequent sleep evaluation resulted in the diagnosis of severe obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a condition long known to be associated with daytime fatigue.

OSA sufferers undergo recurring episodes of upper airway collapse followed by airway re-opening which is often coupled with arousal from sleep. For this reason, OSA typically exerts a profound effect on sleep quality, leading to an increase in daytime fatigue. Indeed, according to the NTSB report, the examining physician concluded that the condition provides “an etiology for significant fatigue”.

sources: Flight International/NTSB