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Asleep At the Controls

Shafts of Light Near Las Vegas, originally uploaded by Shirley Buxton.

My favorite part of flying is the takeoff, and it goes from that to the leveling out segment, and then the landing. I love to fly and am not nervous about it at all. But when I read this report of commercial pilots being sound asleep as they approached Denver in an Airbus jet, inwardly I yelped. What? How could this be?

A pair of commercial pilots fell asleep in the cockpit on their way to Denver in 2004 and sped toward the airport at twice the speed allowed, according to an anonymous report by the captain on a federal safety Web site.The unnamed pilot of the “red eye” flight said he woke up to frantic calls from air traffic controllers and landed without a problem.

(I snapped this picture recently on my return trip from Portland. I believe we were ready to land at Sacramento here.)

The ASRS self-reporting site reveals details of the harrowing near disaster.

A commercial pilot had recently switched schedules to flying three “red eyes” in a row between Denver and Baltimore with only one hour in between flights. On March 4, 2004, during the third late-night flight, the pilot and his first officer were approaching Denver in an A319 Airbus jet — about the size of a Boeing 737 — and they were fast asleep.

“LAST 45 MINS OF FLT I FELL ASLEEP AND SO DID THE FO,” or first officer, a one-paragraph report in a NASA-run public reporting system says.

“MISSED ALL CALLS FROM ATC (air-traffic controller),” the report continues, saying that the plane was supposed to be traveling at less than 290 mph, but they were moving at a clip of about 590 mph.

“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 UP,” the report says, adding that he then followed all the controller’s instructions, “AND LANDED WITH NO FURTHER INCIDENTS.”

Unbelievable, I say. Makes me slightly less confidence about boarding those beautiful birds and plunging into the sky.

(Approaching Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines plane.)

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My devotional blog is here.

By Shirley Buxton

Still full of life and ready to be on the move, Shirley at 81 years old feels blessed to have lots of energy and to be full of optimism. She was married to Jerry for 64 years, and grieves yet at his death in August of 2019. They have 4 children, 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren...all beautiful and highly intelligent--of course. :)

10 replies on “Asleep At the Controls”

I am like Jana. I had not flown since before 9/11 until October 2006. I wanted to be there for my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday in Illinois. So I swallowed my fear, did a lot of praying, and away I went. It was a beautiful flight, and I found that listening to the cockpit conversations on the headphones helped alot. That is scary, though about those pilots who fell asleep. Amazing that that could happen. Awesome pictures you took from the air. I recognized Sacramento right away as we flew in and out of that airport last year.

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No one felt the flat tire because the storm was so fierce that all we cared about was getting in the terminal. The plane rocked but we thought it was just the storm. We weren’t told about the lightening and flat tire until later.

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Esther, YOU ARE ONE BRAVE WOMAN to have been through all that and still love to fly.

I’ve flown a fair amount–not nearly so much as you, probably–and have had a few scary experiences. Once when we were in South America on a very old plane, they used duct tape to tape up the doors inside the plane! Not too comforting.

That flat tire? Did it make the plane wobble when you landed?

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Well, you started something Sis. Buxton. Here we go with the airplane stories. I have flown so many times that I should have kept a journal. While in Africa some of our sales group were put on a little 14 passenger plane to go from one village to another. A box had to be found to put in front of the door so we could climb in. The plane was very, very old. Our suitcases were cramed in with us, stacked to the ceiling. It rained and the plane leaked. A lot. I thought it was an adventure and started telling airplane jokes. What a ride? Also, in Israel, we had another experience similar. I could go on and on but won’t bore you. Except just one more. We were in a jet over PA somewhere, a terrible storm came, we had to put down at a different airport than planed. When we landed we discovered that the plane had been struck by lightening AND we had a flat tire. Ha! What a trip!. Am I afraid to fly? No way! I love it !

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YIKES! for sure.

Jana, are you saying you haven’t flown since 2001? What about conferences? Do you drive all the way? You know that automobile travel statistically is much more dangerous than air travel…?I’m sure you’ve heard all that.

Well, anyway, sorry to shake you up. This is really unbelievable and shakes me up myself, even though I have no fear of flying. But a sound asleep pilot? Downright scary.

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YIKES! I haven’t flown since 9/11 and finally broke down and agreed to fly with the family to Nashville in December. Bryn was born just a few weeks after 9/11 and, at 41 years old, I just wanted to stay home and never board another plane. Life just seemed too precious. I have traveled all over the world and it seemed as though each flight rattled more than the one before. We have had several close calls, including landing on ice and sliding sideways down the runway and nearly running off a cliff into the ocean in Africa. I could tell more but won’t take the time. Now this timely post has me asking why in the world did I agree to fly again?!?!? 🙂

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Hello, Catherine-

I agree about trusting in God. He never even gets drowsy! I don’t recall the song you have mentioned, but it sounds as though it would be a good one.

These pilots were flying 3 “red-eyes” in a row. They were just fatigued.

Surgeons make mistakes for at least a couple of reasons I can think of:

1. They’re human, thus imperfect and prone to error.

2. Some of them are careless.

3. I’ve heard that some doctors take drugs and are not capable as they operate.

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The first thing that came to mind when I started reading this post; I’m so glad that God never slumbers at the controls of my plane. I can relax and enjoy the ride in total confidence that He will land me safely as long as I let Him be the pilot. (Sometimes it’s not so easy to do, but it’s what we need to do – I try my best).
Remember the old song “He’s the pilot of my ship”?
Why is this happening, are they overworked, too stressed, not devoted enough, too fresh out of training? Why do surgeons make horrible mistakes?

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