Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Sleeping on the Job

May 4, 2010  By Ken Armstrong

Pilots and unions in the big bird industry are pushing for aircrews to take turns napping in multi-crew cockpits as a method to minimize the impact of fatigue.

Pilots and unions in the big bird industry are pushing for aircrews to take turns napping in multi-crew cockpits as a method to minimize the impact of fatigue. The logic behind this procedure is that each pilot will have approximately 45 minutes to refresh and overcome circadian rhythm interruptions and sleep deprivations due to scheduling, long hours and, to a degree, boredom. This rest period would be approved during high-altitude cruise while workload is low and the autopilot is directing the flight. Could some form of a crew rest concept apply to helicopter pilots? Perhaps it could in specific instances and, in fact, the practice already occurs in our industry. This specific napping technique might also be pertinent to two crew operations in helicopters accomplishing long-range offshore operations or similar applications.

Fatigue and the associated loss in judgment typically hampers pilot skills when they fly across time zone changes, experience long duty hours or encounter repeated late-night and early-morning duty cycles. Does this sound familiar to many segments of our industry? Other aircrews are further affected with long commutes to work – often an issue with roaming AMEs who are servicing a fleet of helicopters. How many times have you worked 14-hour duty shifts in a bush camp with multiple crew members in the bunkhouse and the power generator 100 feet away? Few aviators experience satisfying, recuperative nights of rest in these conditions.

So, how does one catch up on sleep and overcome the cumulative deprivation? Other than the napping mode for multi-crew cockpits, there are few alternatives for pilots and engineers in most helicopter operations. However, if we convince our clients who are operating with long duty cycles of the safety benefits inherent in crew rest and quiet sleeping quarters, then there is potential for pilots and engineers to have a quiet room where they can have an uninterrupted nap during the workday. (Obviously, an emergency arising during the rest period would end the break.)

Washington State University sleep scientist Gregory Belenky points out that napping “is an excellent fatigue mitigation measure” and “there’s no question that it produces better pilot performance at the critical phases of flight.” Why wouldn’t pilots, their companies and customers want this improvement in safety margins?


Well, some would see a 45-minute break as a potential loss in revenue or loss of production on customer tasks. Also, many of us are unable to “cat nap” and wake up alert. For that matter, a simple break from flying and standby duty would be somewhat restorative – even without deep sleep.  With a Canadian accident rate that draws critical comment around the world, isn’t it worthwhile to utilize a technique with the potential to reduce accidents/incidents by 20 per cent or more?

Since few Canadian rotary-wing ops utilize multi-crew cockpits, many argue the optimum method to overcome the fatigue factor would be to reduce duty and maximum daily flight time. This is seen as the obvious solution to overcome fatigue and reduce accidents in many countries. For instance, pilots representing 36 countries recently demonstrated near the European Parliament in Brussels for these changes since they argue that current regulations are risking passengers’ lives – not to mention their own. In the Canadian helicopter charter business, almost none of the participants want these changes, as our industry typically pays for and is paid with hourly utilization.

Another technique is to multi-crew a helicopter. However, the additional costs for all concerned and reduction in profits for helicopter companies and pilots makes this unattractive to many.  With so much resistance to the other fatigue solutions, it appears a devoted daily crew rest period, perhaps in the approximate middle of the duty cycle, might be the optimum solution.

So, what do you think? Should we pursue cockpit naps, multiple crews on a helicopter, reduced duty and/or daily flight hour limits, or a scheduled rest period in the midst of the daily operations as a solution to crew fatigue? Perhaps another question is, “would we prefer more Transport Canada regulations in this area – or would we like to solve it ourselves?” If you think the cost of double crewing a helicopter or loss of revenue due to a rest period is expensive, consider the myriad costs of having an accident . . .

Ken Armstrong is an accident reconstructionist who has taken courses in fatigue, sleep deprivation, pilot performance and human factors, and continues to search for solutions leading to accident reduction.


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