Think about what you do on a plane as a passenger. You might read, or watch a film. You might even get some work done, depending on your reason for flying. But it’s also pretty likely you’ll take a nap.
Flights are long, and largely uninteresting. Even on a shorter flight, the lack of stimulation can lead to many of us dropping off, even during the middle of the day. On a long haul flight, falling asleep is unavoidable.
Pilots also sleep in flight, although they don’t just nap when the film gets boring. Pilots will either pre-plan bunk rest, or take a brief controlled rest. Don’t worry, when the first pilot is resting, there are other pilots to take over.
Sleep is essential for a pilot to perform correctly. Learn more here.
Do Pilots Sleep In Flight?
Yes, pilots do sleep on planes. However, a pilot can only nap at certain times, and will need to have discussed this with their colleagues beforehand.
Sleeping on a flight is necessary to reduce fatigue, so the pilot can do their job correctly.
Sleeping is expected on a long haul flight, and not uncommon on many short haul flights. There are two categories of rest a pilot is allowed to take: Bunk Rest, or Controlled Rest.
For passengers, the idea of the pilot falling asleep is a little bit terrifying. But they aren’t operating the plane alone.
On any commercial flight, there are always two pilots working. On long haul flights, there might be three or four. While one pilot sleeps, the other is in charge.
The extra crew are known as the heavy crew, and will take the controls while the plane is in the air. The first pilot is in charge of taking off and landing.
The pilot crew can rotate between sleeping and operating, to ensure there’s always someone alert in charge.
What Is Bunk Rest?
On a long haul flight, pilots will be able to bunk rest. Bunk Rest is when the pilot can sleep either in the passenger cabin, or in bunks reserved for the crew.
These bunks will be out of sight of the passengers, but available for either the pilot or flight crew that needs them.
Bunk rest is often planned before the flight takes off. By using the rotating system, everyone is aware of what they need to do, and where they need to be. As long haul flights take upwards of 8 hours, it’s easy to pre-plan for rest.
Bunk rest will provide pilots with a longer opportunity to refresh, so they can come back to work feeling alert and rested. Then, the rest of the crew can go for their own bunk rest, and fatigue won’t set in.
What Is Controlled Rest?
Controlled rest is quite different to bunk rest, and allows pilots to sleep for a shorter period of time. Controlled rest can be up to 45 minutes of sleep, but most pilots try to keep it at 10 to 20 minutes.
A pilot will take controlled rest when everything is going well, the co-pilot is able to take over, and they want a quick break to refresh.
A controlled rest is discussed between both pilots before it happens, and a time period will be agreed upon.
10 to 20 minutes is ideal because it ensures you only reach the non-rapid eye movement stage of sleep. Waking from this doesn’t have the same groggy and slow moving effects of a longer rest.
Controlled rest is essentially a pilot power nap, and it’s intended to energize. A pilot will typically take controlled rest in their seat, with their hands and feet kept away from the controls.
The Rules Of Controlled Rest
Unsurprisingly, a pilot can’t just take a nap whenever they feel like it.
Controlled rest is designed to give pilots some flexibility with their breaks, compared to scheduled bunk rest, but there are certain rules that have to be followed.
Before taking controlled rest, the pilot must discuss it with their co-pilot. A time period should be agreed upon, and the pilot must acknowledge handing over control.
The pilot will also brief the co-pilot about emergency procedures, and anything else they might need to know to fly safe.
The plane crew are also informed when controlled rest is being taken, so they keep in contact with the operating pilot.
This reduces the risk of both pilots falling asleep at the same time. Controlled rest can only be taken by one pilot at a time.
During controlled rest, the pilot will remain in their seat. For safety reasons, the seat must be pulled away from the controls.
After waking from controlled rest, there’s a wait period before the pilot gets back to work. This will give them time to shake off any remaining sleepiness, and become fully alert.
Controlled rest should be taken at least 15 minutes before a high workload situation. For example, they can’t wake up just in time for the descent. This will ensure the pilot has the mental alertness to handle the task.
Why Sleeping Is Essential For Pilots
We all understand the importance of sleep, but the idea of a pilot sleeping in flight can make us uncomfortable.
However, it’s actually safer to have a rest period. Otherwise, they’ll end up over tired, and unable to perform their duties.
One of the most important parts of a pilot’s job is the landing. This requires skill and control, and a sharp mind. It also comes right at the end of the working day.
By taking either bunk rest or controlled rest throughout the flight, the pilot is prepared for this essential task.
Although there are long periods of a flight where little is happening, pilots have to stay alert. Assuming the controls of a plane is taking on a great responsibility.
The level of alertness required can cause fatigue. Sleep will ensure they’re focused in case of any emergencies.
Pilots are also required to have a certain amount of time off work, typically 10 hours for every 8 hours worked. On a long haul flight of over 8 hours, this obviously isn’t possible.
Although the working hours will be compensated with more time off, bunk rest is essential to avoid over exerting a pilot.
Where Do Pilots Sleep?
If you’ve ever slept on an airplane, you’ll agree that those seats aren’t always ideal for a proper rest. On many long haul flights, the plane is equipped with a crew rest area.
Sometimes, this will include bunk beds for the pilot and cabin crew to sleep on. However, in other instances, the crew rest area will be passenger seats cordoned off for crew use.
Sometimes, a plane doesn’t have a crew rest area. This is more common on short haul flights, where bunk rest isn’t allowed. In this case, the pilot will sleep in their chair, or in a spare seat in the cockpit.
Although it may seem strange to think about a pilot sleeping, it’s actually essential for their health and well-being.
On a long haul flight, a pilot will often take bunk rest, a set period in which they can sleep. At other times, pilots will take a brief period of controlled rest.