Should the FAA Allow Controllers to Take Sleep Breaks?
As this somnambulant controller situation goes from the ridiculous to the utterly ridiculous, I was happy to be diverted by this video of the Navy dousing a flaming F-18 that trapped aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson last week. I'll get to why the two are related in a minute, but first let me say that I'm glad this is the centennial year of Naval Aviation. Perhaps the Navy can explain to the world at large how it is they return from a cruise with any airplanes, never mind entire wings.
The reason I say that is because I've embarked aboard a couple of carriers and watched, in detail, how the Navy does flight operations, especially recoveries. Off the coast of North Carolina, I stood on the LSO platform of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt on a black, overcast night while a couple of air wings re-qualified for deployment to the Persian Gulf. To get a better view of the trap, one of the LSOs suggested I lower my goggles and poke my head out from behind the spray shield as the airplane passed over the ramp. The sensation is shocking. The airplane whizzes by, the hook drags on the deck creating not just a few sparks, but a big geyser of them, followed by a slam onto the deck that shakes the hell out of the entire aft end of the boat. The unexpected part is that after the arrestment, when the pilot lights the burners briefly, the cool breeze momentarily turns into a hot, oily blast seasoned by bits of loose deck abrasive material and slivers of broken wire, hence the goggles. They'll do that routine all night long, one after another.
It's not so much of an amazement that any of this works well, but that it works at all. There are so many opportunities for something—or many somethings—to go wrong on a carrier and almost all of them are bad. By long experience, the Navy has evolved reliable, interlocking and overlapping safety systems in which everything is watched and monitored. They film everything. The watchers have watchers. (Ever see that video of the crewman being sucked into the engine of an A-6? That happened on TR and they've got it in the film library.)
On the LSO platform there's an enlisted sailor—the hook talker--whose only job, in daylight, is to watch the airplanes on downwind and check that their wheels, flaps and hooks are down, which he announces out loud: "Hornet, wheels down, flaps down, hook down." The need to triple check things like this is obvious. A gear-up landing on a carrier would be disastrous. But the hook talker does something else that's interesting. When the airplanes roll out on final, he says "groove," then "short" when it's close in and, finally, "ramp" when it's crossing the ship's ramp. The LSOs can obviously see the airplane so it's not obvious why the hook talker makes this call.
Later in my ship tour I found out the reason for these calls. Carriers have four cross deck pendants—wires—to catch the aircraft hooks. Each wire has its own arrestment engine just below deck, each situated in a long, narrow compartment. These are basically giant hydraulic rams that soak up the energy as the wire pays out. They require care and feeding by three our four operators in each compartment, who have to get the engine back into battery after each arrestment and set the ram's hydraulic orifice for whatever is landing next. In other words, they've got fingers, arms, legs and heads in and around machinery that within seconds will explode into violent motion. So they've got their own guy (or woman) who listens via interphone and repeats the hook talker's calls. When they hear "ramp," they reflexively back away from the machinery and wait.
They never know which wire will get the trap. The night we were aboard, three and four were getting most of the business. Yet, in the midst of all of this, with cables whizzing over sheaves, blobs of grease flying and the oven-like heat of all that energy being dissipated by hydraulic oil pushed through valves and pipes, a sailor slept. In the corner of one of the compartments, out of the way, he snoozed as soundly as if he were in his own bedroom. The senior chief conducting the tour pointed out that these kids had been on duty for 18 hours straight. Naps aren't begrudged; the Navy goes with the circadian flow. Or at least on this ship they did.
And that brings us full circle to the FAA's problem, where controller naps aren't just begrudged, but are a firing offense. This despite the fact that the swing shift routine some controllers have to work is a pace perhaps more killing than those sailors aboard the Roosevelt. And this despite the fact that none of the sleeping incidents have compromised safety and most have occurred at facilities where there are so few airplanes that separation isn't even needed, much less compromised.
Like the FAA, the Navy addresses its safety problems by throwing people at them. But if what I saw on the Roosevelt is at all a common practice, at the unit level, it also recognizes that humans have limits and you get more out of them if you don't construct unrealistic rules that force them to do what they simply cannot. And throwing more people into the mix probably doesn't help.
It looks like the FAA may be recognizing this, albeit slowly. It announced this week that schedules would allow more time between shifts for controllers headed for a string of mids. Assigning controllers to midshifts for longer periods might also help, giving them a chance to adjust to night hours. One study the FAA and NATCA did seemed suggest that sleep breaks of up to 2.5 hours would help.
It might come to that. If it works for the Navy, why not the FAA? Not that the Navy is perfect. The night after we left the TR, the U.S.S. Leyte Gulf and the TR collided, doing a total of $16 million in damages to both ships. The cause? A communication and procedures oversight that somehow slipped through the Navy's overlapping systems, showing that even well-rested people make mistakes.
TUESDAY ADDITION: A reader wrote to remind me that most of the controllers and supervisors involved in these sleeping incidents have been suspended, not fired. Good point. I was in error to say sleeping is a firing offense. The FAA did say the controller involved in the Knoxville incident will be fired.
Today, we're reporting about another incident in which a controller was watching a movie on a portable DVD player while working traffic during a slow period at Cleveland Center. Who was it who said controllers are their own worse enemies? I would suggest this to any controller considering this sort of thing: How's it going to play with the guy sitting in seat 29B? Does he have a reasonable expectation that you, as a controller, should do what you're paid to do; focus on separating airplanes?
Seems to me the answer should be yes, even though the movie-watching thing probably isn't much of a safety breach, if it is at all. But on a scale of professional best practices, it rates about a three.