Meg Godlewski is GAN’s staff reporter and a Master CFI.
Americans are sleep deprived. We work too much. We watch too much television. We spend too much time playing computer games and engaging in social media. It cuts into the time we allot for sleep. And we pay for it.
Lately, control tower operators who fell asleep on the job have been in the news. Not so long ago we were hearing about pilots who allegedly fell asleep and overshot their intended airports.
Sleep deprivation leads to fatigue. The FAA has divided fatigue into chronic and short term. Short term is what most of us experience at the end of the day. Chronic is what happens when we keep cutting into our sleep time to do one of the above activities. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast line to determine when chronic fatigue begins.
Most of us attempt to mask the symptoms of fatigue with caffeine or sugar or other stimulants, but it does catch up with you. For pilots, it can be demonstrated by having a hard time understanding instructions issued by ATC or getting behind the airplane. Sometimes you even botch your own tail number. You’d be amazed at how quickly a call from five-four Lima to Oakbrook Unicom turns into five four Lemur calling Oakbrook Unicorn when one is sleep deprived.
April 11 marked the 15th anniversary of one of the most notorious general aviation crashes attributed in part to fatigue — the crash of Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old California girl who was killed along with her father Lloyd and flight instructor Joe Reid during an attempt to set a record of being the youngest person to fly from coast to coast.
The flight, dubbed “From Sea to Shining Sea,” started with the launch of the blue-and-white Cessna 177B from Half Moon Bay, Calif., on April 10, 1996.
Reid was described by his friends as a by-the-book pilot. He learned to fly in the 1970s and at the time of the accident was a part-time instructor. He had been giving flight instruction to Jessica for about a year. She had approximately 66 hours at the time of the accident.
Lloyd Dubroff acted as the press agent for the flight, booking an extremely aggressive schedule of interviews with TV, radio and newspaper outlets along the route. The elder Dubroff created caps and T-shirts with the “From Sea to Shining Sea” logo on them, which were to be handed out along the way. In addition, ABC supplied Lloyd Dubroff with a case of videotapes to document the trip, the intent being to creating a feature story for Good Morning America. He tried to sell the story saying Jessica was the PIC for the flight. This elicited eye rolls from savvy aviators who realized that at the age of 7, Jessica was several years too young to qualify for even a student pilot certificate and she did not possess a medical certificate.
Most pilots, including Reid, saw the flight as a non-event. The CFI allegedly noted he was being paid to fly across country with a 7-year-old girl sitting next to him.
To the seasoned media people, there wasn’t a story there. It was publicity stunt for…well…no one was really sure. There was no place to set a record like this one. However, the “happy talk fluff news” set lapped the story up.
The story ended a mere 24 hours later. The trio got as far as Cheyenne, Wyo. The weather was deteriorating as thunderstorms moved in. Lloyd Dubroff wanted to “beat the storm” and urged Reid to hasten the takeoff because he was concerned about appointments he’d made with media outlets. Reid asked for a Special VFR clearance to launch. The over-loaded Cardinal took off into a thunderstorm, stalled, and crashed. Based on the autopsy, investigators determined that Reid was the manipulator of the controls at the time of the crash.
The NTSB concluded the crash was caused by the flight instructor’s improper decision to take off in poor weather conditions, his overloading the aircraft, and his failure to maintain airspeed, which resulted in a stall. The NTSB also determined that “contributing to the instructor’s decision to take off was a desire to adhere to an overly ambitious itinerary, in part, because of media commitments.”
In hindsight, the poor decisions made by Reid are as obvious as the rivets on the cowling of the airplane he flew.
In the NTSB report, it is noted that Reid told his wife how tired he was prior to the ill-fated departure. In the last conversation recorded with the tower controller, he appears confused about the instructions he is given. Fatigue has a detrimental effect on decision making skills — in short, when you’re tired, they wane. Fatigue likely made him susceptible to pressure from Lloyd Dubroff to push on.
If Lloyd Dubroff had been a little more media savvy, he probably wouldn’t have pressured Reid. The interviews that had been done up to that point contained the same questions and answers: Why are you doing this? Do you want to be a pilot when you grow up? Do you ever get scared? The only thing that was different were the station call letters and the anchors.
Had Dubroff stayed on the ground in Cheyenne, at least the story would have changed. What does a 7-year-old wanna-be pilot do when she gets weathered-out? Play with Barbies? Play video games? Pour over a sectional to find a better route?
There’s sort of morbid fascination about the Dubroff flight, like watching a traffic accident. It was a ridiculous publicity stunt. Seriously, did anyone really believe the little girl was the PIC? Most 7 year olds lack the physical strength to fly an airplane. On the tape that did make it on the air, you hear Reid intoning “more right rudder, more right rudder.”
Yet he was the one who made the decision to take off that day. Was that last leg of the flight worth the risk? Reid’s wife and two children probably would say no.
The next time you ponder the risks of pushing on the last leg of that cross-country, ask yourself: Is it worth it? Am I too tired to make a good decision?
The question — not the answer — may save your life.