Sleepy Pilot Fired


An ITA Airways captain was fired after the airline says he fell asleep at the sidestick and almost triggered a military response. Controllers were unable to raise the crew of the A330 as it flew over France near the end of the flight from New York to Rome. Before scrambling fighters, authorities got hold of the airline and it managed to contact the crew on their satellite phones. Normal communications were restored and the plane landed safely in Rome a little while later.

The captain claimed he had radio problems but the airline didn’t buy it and fired him. The FO was spared because he was allowed to be napping under “controlled rest” protocols for long-haul flights. ITA said safety was never compromised during the incident.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. A couple questions: was the FO napping on the flight deck, or in a rest area? If the latter, shouldn’t there have been someone else in his seat?
    Also, cars with adaptive cruise control or lane-keeping have systems to ensure the driver is alert. Why don’t airliners?

  2. As if no one else has ever fallen asleep at the controls of any other machine. Not that I am advocating this, but let’s be honest here. Perhaps some other form of discipline. Was it the first offense, etc.

  3. The copilot was almost certainly napping in his flight deck seat under “controlled rest” procedures which are authorised by EASA (and should be by FAA who adamantly deny that flight safety is better served by a short nap under controlled/regulated conditions than someone falling asleep involuntarily). The FSF published a very detailed paper to this effect a couple of years ago.

  4. If the pilot who fell asleep lied about the circumstances his firing is probably justified. If he just fell asleep, it should not result in sanctions in a just culture environment.

  5. When the time comes you will fall asleep whether you like it or not. Let them, without sin, cast the first stone. Firing the pilot does not say much for the company or the human resources department of that airline.

  6. I think night crossings across the Atlantic should always have an additional relief pilot whether required by regulations or not.

  7. What corporate/airline pilot hasn’t dozed off on the flight deck? True confession, I shook myself awake after dozing off in the C/P seat of the corporate Citation I was flying. Looked over at the Captain, he was snoozing too. Deadhead flight, by the way. The truth of the matter is a lot of pilots fly tired. Flying (corporate or airline) messes with pilots’ circadian rhythms, and results in less than restful sleep patterns. One reason I was ready to hang up my corporate wings was to get my sleep back to normal patterns.

  8. Stories abound about “sleeping while flying”. The 707 transcend flight that barely made it back to LAX after being awakened by multiple selcal chimes over 50 years ago was the first one I heard about. Fatigue is an insidious creature. We all have bouts with it. Have you ever missed your turn off the highway realizing you wanted to turn after you’d passed it? (especially after a long trip or very late at night.) After flying the “red eye” from Honolulu to LAX I would go to the crew rest room & sleep for a few hours before heading out on my 3+ hour drive home. Everybody does “micro sleeps”. Few recognize it. Some die while operating cars, trucks or airplanes because of it. Don’t ever kid yourself into believing “I would never let that happen.” It will, unless you recognize it can & take measures when it does.