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US Military Charter Flights Susceptible to Pilot Fatigue

Less stringent flight and duty time limits for charter pilots could explain prevalence of fatigue in military-charter accidents.

As a result of a shortage of military aircraft and pilots, 87% of US military personnel flown around the globe are carried by civilian charter airlines. These flights operate under US rules that permit extended hours with less time between flights than commercial airlines or military guidelines permit. Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation believes this puts both pilots and troops at risk:

“Our soldiers may be expected to be heroes on the battlefield, but we shouldn’t be relying on heroism flying them back home again. The military is totally complicit in this, they knowingly contract for these flights that they could not legally fly themselves.”

Fatigue is one of the most-cited factors in crashes. Three of the five formal aviation-accident reports issued by the NTSB this year listed fatigue as a contributory factor. Four military-charter accidents have been linked to fatigue including the May 2009 hard landing of a World Airways Boeing DC-10 in Baltimore and the December 1985 crash of an Arrow Air jet in Gander, Newfoundland, that killed all 256 people aboard. The NTSB also blamed fatigue in part for a 1993 crash in Kansas City that killed three crew members, and a 1995 crash in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has issued a proposed rule that would increase the amount of rest required between long trips and reduce the number of hours pilots can fly. Workdays for crews without backup pilots or access to onboard rest facilities would reduce from the current 16 hour limit to 13 hours. The workday could be restricted to 9 hours if a pilot flies at night or makes multiple landings and takeoffs.

The proposed rule is opposed by the US National Air Carrier Association (NACA), a trade group representing the charter airlines. NACA says implementing the rule would cost its 13 member companies $3.7 billion over 10 years and require them to hire 42% more pilots.

Whilst there are obviously significant differences between military, commercial and charter flying, they share a common factor: the pilot at the helm is susceptible to fatigue. Fatigue’s recurrence as a contributory factor in accident investigations clearly shows that this is an issue that needs a solution and it is hoped that the FAA’s final rules will go some way towards addressing this issue.

Source: Businessweek