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An Australian Pilot Fell Asleep Mid-Flight and Overshot his Destination by 78km

A safety report later found the pilot hadn't slept for 24 hours before the flight.

by Gavin Butler
26 June 2019, 6:24am

A Piper PA-31-350 aircraft. Image via Pixabay (L) and Flickr user Bill Word, CC licence 2.0 (R)

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

Last year, on November 8th, an Australian freight pilot was flying alone over the Bass Strait when he fell asleep at the helm. Upon awaking, the man discovered that he’d overshot his intended destination of King Island, just northwest of Tasmania, by 78 kilometres—and that his autopilot was singlehandedly commandeering the aircraft at an "altitude of 6,000 feet".

A safety report would later find that the pilot had not slept for 24 hours before the incident, the ABC reports. He eventually landed at King Island airport without injury or damage to the aircraft.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) report found that the flight departed Devonport Airport at 6:20am on November 8th, and that "the autopilot maintained the aircraft's track and altitude, while the pilot listened to music through the radio and continued to monitor the flight.” Upon its approach to King Island, the pilot—flying a lightweight Piper PA-31-350 aircraft—reportedly "started to feel tired and rapidly fell asleep". He could not be woken by Air Traffic Control or other nearby pilots who tried to make contact with him.

After waking up and eventually landing at King Island, the pilot "contacted his supervisor and [Air Traffic Control] Melbourne Centre via telephone to discuss what had happened… the pilot then completed the shift, flying from King Island back to Moorabbin", in Melbourne—a distance of more than 200 kilometres.

An investigation into the incident found that the pilot had been awake for such an extended period of time because he’d been unable to sleep during a scheduled three-hour rest period before the flight. That three hours probably wouldn't have done much anyway, though, as the safety report ultimately found that the man's level of fatigue was so severe it would have still affected his performance. In any case, no action was taken by the ATSB—a decision that’s been slammed by aviation expert Neil Hansford.

Neil is the chair of airline consultancy Strategic Aviation Solutions, and he believes that "if nothing else, the pilot should have either had his licence suspended for a period [or] the carrier should have had their licence suspended for a period," according to the ABC.

"The way this report is written, not managing fatigue rules is now being seen as an acceptable practice with no punitive damages," he said. "Although [the pilot] had had a fatigue incident, and overslept and had to go back, he still proceeded to not take any rest and proceeded on to Moorabbin, right into Melbourne's congested suburbs. I just find this totally almost macabre."

"It sets a very poor example to the rest of the industry,” he added, “because in the case of a Tasmanian overflight, [the ATSB] chose to do nothing about it."

Colin Tucker, managing director at Vortex Air, said the pilot had made his own decision to fly back to Moorabbin without additional rest, and that after discussing the incident “he was deemed fit to fly."

"[The airline] counselled the pilot on the ground and when he returned to Moorabbin and he continues to work with us," Colin said.

This isn’t the first time Vortex Air has gotten itself into strife. In March 2017, a pilot flying the same model of aircraft clipped a truck as it was landing at Barwon Heads, in Victoria. In that case, the ATSB found that the pilot had come in too low and the landing gear hit the truck.

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