Air Safety

Fighting Pilot Fatigue on Military Charter Flights


Captain Craig Gatch’s marathon flight schedule, which took him through 36 time zones in 11 days, finally caught up with him as he touched down in Baltimore on May 6, 2009. He was piloting 168 U.S. soldiers home from Iraq when his World Airways Boeing (BA) DC-10 bounced off the runway, then slammed down again, damaging the jet beyond repair, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. One person was severely injured. Gatch told investigators he hadn’t slept well in four days while flying more than halfway around the world—fatigue that contributed to the accident, the safety board ruled.

Not enough military planes and pilots to transport U.S. troops means that 87 percent of personnel flown around the globe are carried by civilian charter airlines, a $4.5 billion-a-year business critical to the nation’s war efforts. The pilots who fly for World and other smaller military-charter companies work under U.S. rules that permit extended hours with less time between flights than commercial airlines or the military’s own guidelines allow. This puts the pilots and the troops at risk, says Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va. “Our soldiers may be expected to be heroes on the battlefield,” Voss says, “but we shouldn’t be relying on heroism flying them back home again.”

For years, pilot unions and safety advocates have sought to reform what they call outdated work rules, particularly for charter airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a proposed rule that would reduce the number of hours pilots can fly and increase the amount of rest they get between long trips, an idea opposed by the National Air Carrier Assn., a trade group representing the charter airlines. NACA says doing so would cost its 13 member companies $3.7 billion over 10 years and require them to hire 42 percent more pilots. Military charter flights are safe, says the group’s president, A. Oakley Brooks. “It’s a non-problem looking for a solution.” World Airways declined to discuss its schedules or the 2009 accident.

Fatigue is one of the most-cited factors in crashes. Three of the five formal aviation-accident reports the NTSB has issued this year concluded that tired pilots were partly to blame. In addition to the World accident two years ago, at least three other U.S. military-charter crashes have been linked to fatigue, including the December 1985 crash of an Arrow Air jet in Gander, Nfld., that killed all 256 people aboard. The NTSB also blamed fatigue in part for a 1993 crash in Kansas City, Mo., that killed three crew members, and a 1995 crash in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Under the proposed new rule, workdays for crews without backup pilots or access to onboard rest facilities shouldn’t exceed 13 hours, vs. today’s 16-hour limit. The workday would be cut back to as little as nine hours if a pilot flies at night or makes multiple landings and takeoffs.

That kind of rest might have helped Gatch to stay sharp. On May 3, 2009, after flying from the U.S. to Hong Kong and then to the Philippines, he began a four-day swing across three continents, a period during which he became ill and had limited opportunities for rest, according to NTSB records.

The Administration hasn’t said when it will release the new rule or what precisely it will say. Airline trade groups and unions continue to lobby for changes to the FAA proposal. Voss believes the Pentagon, too, should step up and side with the pilots, who will soon be flying thousands of troops home from Iraq. “The military is totally complicit in this,” Voss says. “They knowingly contract for these flights that they could not legally fly themselves.”

The bottom line: Pilot fatigue, linked to four accidents on chartered flights carrying troops, is one of the most cited reasons for mishaps.

Levin is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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