Since humans first built a boat and decided to cross the sea at night they’ve been falling asleep at the oars of their coracles. We’re hardwired to sleep at night, preferably after conjugal delights. Driving boats, aeroplanes, trucks and trains after midnight is just not natural. At 3am every part of your body is telling you that your eyelids should remain closed and the only thing likely to open them is fear of crashing. The soporific throb of a diesel or whine of turbines, instruments which remain static at cruise, a warm temperature and nature insists that the slide into unconsciousness is obligatory.
Daylight sleeping is also inevitable with the technology of modern transport. A late afternoon flight from Melbourne to Bangkok has all the factors for falling asleep. Once at cruising level the only action is monitoring instruments which with boring monotony do nothing to stimulate a flagging consciousness. DC10 pilot seats are sheepskin covered armchairs with electric adjustment for perfect comfort. Flying over the Australian continent is a visual soporific with nothing but red desert for hundreds of miles and at 35,000 ft there’s not even a few fluffy clouds to maintain interest. The westerly sun bores through the thin air at eye level requiring screens to effectively block any forward view and the sun heats the flight deck to the temperature of a hot bath. On this particular flight the only thing keeping us awake was telling funny stories. One of those was of a crew on that route whose giro toppled over Alice Springs. The sun traversed their window three times before they realised they were orbiting. No radar in that part of the world so ATC couldn’t wake them up either.
Our modern society demands that some of us have to perform unnatural acts to provide the goods and services which we all demand, unfortunately the managers of transport companies have little concept of the demands that they make on their operatives. Oh how sorry we should be for the long hours of our day working managers. The stress they feel from working 8 til 5 or should I say 9 til 4 with an hour in the pub at lunch time. Having never been seen at the sharp end of their companies at 3 am, they have yet to discover the superhuman effort required to just remain awake, let alone perform a complex task at the same time. They’ve not seen pilots at 6 am who’ve just flown the Atlantic and landed at Heathrow in most likely adverse weather. They’ve not seen that these guys are so shagged out that they can’t complete a simple piece of paperwork. The Heathrow based crews who drive home after an Atlantic crossing and are too tired to notice red traffic lights. Is there an option for them to sleep in a hotel straight after? There was no such option for London Air Traffic Controllers because the effing bean counters converted sleeping rooms to office space, having never worked a night shift themselves.
Long haul fatigue is a fact of life, especially at night. The Redeye is a term familiar to passengers who’ve snoozed their way through a flight without realizing that crossing time zones in the stratosphere has the same effect on the crews as it has on them and that only training and discipline have been responsible for their safe arrival. The discipline is derived from the work ethic of the individuals, not from rosters imposed by people who spend their nights fast asleep and expect fresh Alaskan salmon on their breakfast tables.
Sensible rostering and proper rest arrangements are essential for people expected to perform exacting tasks while the rest of us sleep. It’s also important to remember that the hotel door you’ve just slammed while loudly talking to your equally ignorant friends, could have disturbed the rest of the pilot about to fly you to your chosen holiday shithole. Yes night workers actually sleep during the day, there’s a revelation.
Having worked a few nights, I know how impossible it is to sleep beforehand. A long pattern of nights is the only solution. A mixed pattern only makes sleep possible after the first night and that’s not so much sleep but a type of coma.
Society makes impossible demands by expecting that transport operatives stay awake without drugs and imposes heavy penalties on those caught. During WWII, Bomber Command offered “bennies” to aircrew on long missions. If you can’t naturally stay alert when people are trying to shoot your freezing, noisy old bomber, then what chance in a comfy 747 droning along?
I used caffeine and nicotine to keep me stimulated during a long night and after 20 years of night shifts have an unbreakable habit. There is an overwhelming urge to blow smoke in the faces of those who demand I give up but have never known the need to force themselves awake at 3 am.
I recently had the misfortune to listen to a doctor who thought that pilot fatigue was past history and that modern rosters and legislation prevented it. Clearly a complete prat incapable of understanding how his own body works and probably fast asleep while patients were dying in whatever hospital he did minimal time.
Fatigue will always be an issue for as long as humans are awake when they should be sleeping and only that awareness will prevent accidents.