Pilots who fall asleep in flight, the precedent in the history of aviation. “Passed the landing airports”

ROMA – A pilot (the first officer) legitimately asleep because his rest time was planned. The other pilot, the captain, was the victim of a sleep stroke. It is one of the hypotheses that Ita Airways goes to explain the case of his flight 609 from New York on April 30: that night the two pilots on board did not answer calls from the Marseille radar center for a few minutes as they flew over Southern France. The commander denies any wrongdoing and also denies having dozed off.

While waiting for the facts to be definitively clarified, it is useful to remember that both pilots falling asleep of a plane is a situation that has taken place at other times in the history of civil aviation, sometimes thanks to stressful shifts. Here are some precedents.

HAWAII (2008)

In 2008, sleep affects the two pilots of one so deeply airline of Hawaii, in the United States, that the plane goes further. The aircraft passes the Hilo airport, where it should have landed, and does so by a good fifteen miles. When the pilots awaken, they must reverse to bring the aircraft to the ground (with the 40 passengers).

The two pilots are both fired by the carrier, although one of the two will be affected by a serious pathology – sleep apnea – which obstructs the airways when falling asleep.

The Ita plane does not respond to the radar center, alarm in the skies of France. The hypothesis of a fall asleep. “But no danger for the passengers”

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In 2009, the case of a flight by a US carrier is even more sensational. Meanwhile, the arrival airport (Minneapolis-St Paul) is missed by over 150 miles. Above all, the absence of radio contact with the two pilots creates a red alert situation because we are just a few years after the attacks of 11 September.

To unravel the situation in 2009, it is decisive the intervention of two other aircraft that cross the one now off course. The pilots of these two other aircraft are able to contact their sleeping colleagues on a particular frequency that allows direct dialogue between civilian vehicles in the skies, if close together.

To justify their conduct, the two pilots accused will claim to have been distracted because they are engaged in a very animated discussion.

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LONDON (2013)

In 2013, both pilots of an English company – whose name is unknown – fell asleep after entering the autopilot. The British newspaper The Sun obtains proof of the facts from the British Civil Aviation Authority, to which he makes a request for access to the documents through the Freedom of information Acta law to protect transparency and free information.

The Sun, popular newspaper known for its irreverent style, writes: “Dear passengers, we are pleased to inform you that your captain is sleeping”. After the article, the debate in the country ignites precisely on the shifts to which the pilots are subjected.

CRETA (2013)

Also in 2013, an unusual problem – thanks to the need to go to the bathroom – occurs on board a company low cost which is bringing dozens of tourists from Holland to Crete, aboard a Boeing 737. One of the two pilots exits the cabin heading towards the toilet. He obviously closes the cockpit door behind him, as per security protocols.

When he tries to reenter, he finds the other pilot asleep who therefore cannot open the door for him. The first pilot manages to return to the cabin – writes the Dutch Aviation Safety Authority (OVV) – thanks to a extraordinary security maneuver that unlocks access.


In 2016, the charter flight of a US carrier – traveling from Frankfurt (Germany) to Kuwait – unexpectedly enters the airspace of Greece, where his transit was not foreseen. The Greek authorities raise two F-16 fighters that intercept the charter on the island of Santorini.

Military pilots observe the cockpit. They make sure that no hijackers are inside and communicate that, in their opinion, the charter pilots are simply sleeping. Thanks to a series of light signals, the military pilots attract the attention of the attendants and flight attendants, who wake up the captain and chief officer of the charter.

Greece will ask the charter company for bear the costs – not trivial – of the mission of its F-16s.



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