Pilot fell asleep at controls for 40 minutes and overshot airport, investigation finds

Pilot flew 111km southeast of the intended destination

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A tired pilot fell asleep at the controls for 40 minutes and overshot the airport, an investigation has found.

The incident occurred on 2 July 2020 in Queensland, Australia.

A pilot of a Cessna 208B aircraft was flying from Cairns to Redcliffe airport in the Australian state on a “ferry”, or repositioning, flight, which meant there were no passengers onboard.

According to a report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the incident started when air traffic control (ATC) attempted to contact the pilot about his imminent landing into Redcliffe airport, but they received no response for the next 40 minutes as he was asleep.

ATC operators then tried to contact the pilot using nearby aircraft, including a pilot operating a Royal Flying Doctor service.

The pilot of the Beechcraft B200 King Air aircraft, which had left Brisbane airport, dipped their wings and approached the Cessna in an attempt to trigger its traffic alert and collision system. This was unsuccessful, and the pilot remained asleep.

When the plane had flown 111km southeast of Redcliffe airport, into the Pacific Ocean, the pilot woke up and alerted ATC. The aircraft then landed safely at Gold Coast Airport, more than 80 miles from Redcliffe.

According to the ATSB report, the pilot had flown through a patch of bad weather on departure, climbing from 10,000ft to 11,000ft.

“The ATSB found that the pilot was likely experiencing a level of fatigue due to inadequate sleep the night before and leading up to the incident,” ATSB acting transport safety director, Kerri Hughes, said.

“Further, operating at 11,000 feet with intermittent use of supplemental oxygen likely resulted in the pilot experiencing mild hypoxia. This likely exacerbated the pilot’s existing fatigue and contributed to the pilot falling asleep.”

Hypoxia is a condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply, which can lead to tiredness and confusion.

Ms Hughes said most people generally underestimate their level of fatigue and tend to overestimate their abilities.

“This incident emphasises the importance of pilots monitoring their own health and wellbeing, to ensure that they are well-rested and adequately nourished, especially when conducting single pilot operations,” she said.

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