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"This is your pilot ... ZZZZZZZZZZZZ"

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DENVER (AP 11/2/07) — Two commercial pilots allegedly fell asleep on a flight between Baltimore and Denver, with one pilot waking up to "frantic" calls from air traffic controllers warning them they were approaching the airport at twice the speed allowed.


The March 2004 event, which was discussed during a Congressional hearing Wednesday, was reported by the captain on the flight on NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System, which allows crew members to anonymously document incidents.


Details of the "red eye," or late night/early morning flight, including the airline, flight number, or number of passengers aboard are not included in the reporting system. It did note the type of airplane, an Airbus A319, which are flown by Frontier Airlines and United Airlines.


United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy told the Rocky Mountain News, which first reported the incident, that United did not fly a "red eye" between the two cities at the time and it had no reports of that incident.


Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas told the newspaper the airline had a "red eye" flight on the schedule at the time but could not find a report of the incident.


Federal Aviation Administration officials did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press after business hours.


"Last 45 mins of flt (flight) I fell asleep and so did the FO (first officer)," according to the narrative in the report.


The captain noted they were approaching a point where they were to begin their descent into Denver International Airport about 60 miles southeast of there at 35,000 feet, much higher than required, and at Mach .82, or 608 mph, instead of a required slower speed.


"I woke up, why I don't know, and heard frantic calls from ATC ... I answered ATC and abided by all instructions to get down. Woke FO (first officer) up."


He spiraled the jet down to a lower altitude as ordered, then landed "with no further incidents."


The pilot had been switched to three nights in a row of flying the overnight, eight-hour round trip.


While unable to find a report on the incident, Hodas said the airline has received similar reports in the past and have addressed them, noting that pilot fatigue is a bigger issue in the industry than the public realizes.


"We take safety very seriously and watch crew fatigue very closely," he said.


The company has a number of programs in place to prevent crew fatigue, including no-fault fatigue reporting in which a pilot who feels fatigued and is scheduled to fly can call and be relieved from flying.

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I'm no fan of airline travel. Getting to the airport, the virtual strip search at the security station, and the unpleasantness of waiting to be herded on and off the plane all drag me down. (I'm glad I now live on the eastern seaboard where Amtrak can get me to DC, Boston or Philly in shorter time door-to-door than flying.)


That being said, I do not believe that flying is as dangerous as we all seem to fear. The industry is so laden with redundant safety features that, statistically speaking, plane crashes simply do not happen. I wonder at the very moment this incident was happening how many people were killed while falling asleep behind the wheels of their cars. Note that, while scary, this episode ended fine, due I assume to the plane's ability to fly itself and the fact that a control tower was actively engaged in monitoring the flight, and they were able to wake the pilots. Road travel has none of that.


As one of my profs pointed out, you could look through hundreds of thousands of instances of airline travel and not find a single fatality. It's only when you start from the other end: "take the example of a plane crash" that you actually find any.


Isn't there some stat that you're N times more likely to be killed in the cab to the airport than on the plane? I think it's the prospect of falling 30,000 feet that gets most of us. And the lack of being in control. There's some theory I read once that when we encounter relatively dangerous events on a daily basis (the danger of driving relative to flying) we become immune to the danger; it'd be too grueling to process those dangers each time. But a far less risky event (eg flying) that we engage in less frequently gives us the right opportunity to fixate on the perceived dangers. We fly a lot less often and thus think about the risk every time, driving or jumping in a cab is simply routine.


All that said, I'm eager to stay out of the airports, but safety doesn't weigh on my decision.


Kevin Slater

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