Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lack of sleep prompted pilot’s breakdown. System error?

You may recall the incident back in March during which a JetBlue pilot raved about Jesus, al-Qaida, sins in Las Vegas and other things causing the co-pilot to lock him out of the cockpit.

According to the Associated Press story, the pilot, who had to be subdued by passengers, “had a brief psychotic disorder due to lack of sleep.” At a recent trial, he was declared not guilty by reason of insanity of the crime of interfering with a flight crew. The diagnosis of psychosis from sleep deprivation was made by a forensic neuropyschologist who testified that the psychosis lasted a week.

The article goes on to say that the FAA is still investigating and has not decided if any official policy changes will be made. A previous rule change requiring pilots to have 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep opportunity will go into effect next year. The current rule says a pilot must get 8 or 9 hours of rest but does not specify “sleep opportunity.”

This episode is making me nervous because it sounds like a “system error” may be invoked when the cause may simply have been human error.

I say this because it seems more likely to me [disclaimer: I’m not a forensic neuropsychologist] that the pilot might just have gone nuts for no good reason. That does happen occasionally. The problem with the sleep deprivation argument is that JetBlue said the pilot “did not fly March 24 or March 25, and worked a round-trip flight March 26 that gave him 17 hours of off time leading into the flight March 27.” Also if sleep deprivation can make one psychotic, just about every doctor I know must be crazy.

He had 17 hours of time off, which seems like more than enough time to rest. In fact, a “sleep opportunity” of 8 hours would have comfortably fit into that window of time with a little dinner and a TV movie thrown in. If he didn’t take advantage of the allotted time to rest, it was his choice. He already may have been unstable.

This reminds me of a recent blog I wrote about a paper on supposed medical errors caused by sleep deprivation. Orthopedic residents in that study, whether working day or night shifts, averaged only about 6 hours of sleep per 24 hour period despite having ample “sleep opportunity.”

Stay tuned. Let's see if the FAA falls for the old "system error" fallacy.

See more of my posts on system error here.

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