Public Service

Catching Some ZZZZs

By Ernie Stephens | May 1, 2008


If you thumb back through your old issues of Rotor & Wing, you’ll find a column I wrote about overnight tours ("Surviving the Late Shift," September 2004, page 57). In it, I talked about the various ways pilots and tactical flight officers alike try to stay wake when our eyelids feel like lead weights. I talked about the caffeine in coffee and the energy drinks that were gaining popularity at the time, but finished up by reporting that doctors all agree the fastest, most efficient way to ward off sleep is to, well, sleep.

The subject of working when you’re sleepy came up again during a conversation I had with a pilot pal of mine. I told him about the night I was on my way home from the hangar and saw an emergency medical services helicopter sitting in a school playground waiting for an ambulance to arrive with a patient. I thought I knew who was driving, so I parked and approached the aircraft from the front, stopping about 30 ft off the nose until I could get the pilot’s permission to approach. After a couple of minutes passed without being acknowledged, I realized the pilot had dozed off.


Now, I’m not about to throw stones, because I’m the first person to admit that my eyes have closed up at altitude a few times. The last time was during an endless number of orbits above a school, in the middle of nowhere, at o’dark-thirty, while waiting for K-9 to finish a lengthy building search. I wasn’t out for more than a couple of seconds, but no amount of time is a good amount of time when you’re at the controls of an aircraft.

Anyway, the pilot I was talking with recently said things are pretty tough around his place, because they work long shifts and sleeping while on duty is a punishable violation. Of course, if you’re working the late shift, the chances of your commander popping in for a visit is slim. But the fact still remains: There are still some general orders, manuals, and standard operating procedures out there that prohibit flight crews from sleeping on duty.

Now, this next comment is going to sound strange, coming from a guy who was a patrol sergeant once. I have always been an advocate of taking a nap on duty when needed. Yes, I said "an advocate of taking a nap on duty"!

When I worked the road, I had a standing order that if one of my patrol officers was so sleepy he or she didn’t feel like they could drive safely anymore, they had my expressed permission to pull over to a secluded parking lot and take a 60-min nap, provided they were with a second officer who was wide awake to watch over them. If they couldn’t find an available car to sit with them, I’d do it. If I was tied up and things were fairly slow, I would have the dispatcher hold them out of service at the station, and they could steal a little sleep there. After all, it was a much lesser evil than having an officer doze off behind the wheel and kill someone, including him- or herself.

Carrying that idea out of a $25,000 police car and into a $2 million helicopter is a logical leap, which was why the guys who worked for me at the hangar could sack out on the sofa anytime they felt the need. The only thing I ever asked was that they keep their naps short, their partner stayed awake to monitor the radio, and they made sure they could get out the door and into the air quickly.

Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to assume that every person who has to work throughout the night will always be wide awake, hour after hour, night after night, year after year. The human body just isn’t wired that way. For every law enforcement officer — aviator, patrolman, or detective — who has ever gotten dangerous from needing sleep, there’s an administrator who did the exact same thing way back on the night shift.

Well, let’s do a quick review of our notes from Staying Awake 101, class. First, coffee, tea, and the energy-boosting drinks sold in convenience stores work great. They’re loaded with sugar, caffeine, and a number of natural herbs tailored to hot-start your biological turbine. The problem is once those chemicals wear off, they drop you on your rear end, leaving you feeling just this side of dead. Second, cranking up the radio volume in your helmet or opening a cockpit vent to get some cold air doesn’t work over the long haul.

So, with all due respect to some of the commanders out there, I humbly suggest that a sleepy aviator is better off stretched out on a sofa with a teddy bear than on a slab with a toe tag. For me, 30 min was all I needed to get over the mid-midnight hump. And on those rare occasions when that wasn’t enough, I exercised my authority as pilot-in-command and grounded us until I was safe again. Controversial? Yup. But I did what I had to do as master and commander of my aircraft to safeguard my crew and the people who may have found themselves under my crashing aircraft.

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