Do Pilots Sleep in Flight? | Controlled Rest on the Flight Deck

The simple answer is yes, pilots do sleep and are allowed to sleep during the flight, but there are strict rules controlling this practice. Pilots normally only sleep on long-haul flights, although sleep on short-haul flights is permitted to avoid the effects of fatigue.

Pilot rest can be separated into two categories; ‘Controlled Rest’ where the pilot sleeps in the cockpit at the controls or ‘Bunk Rest’ where sleep or rest is taken either in the passenger cabin (in a seat reserved for pilots) or in the dedicated pilot berths available on long haul plane.

This is standard practice throughout the industry as it is proven to improve flight safety by ensuring the flight crew is well rested for approach and landing. Needless to say, at least one pilot must be awake and in command at all times.

Controlled or sleeper rest is more common on long-haul flights that must operate overnight.

Rest/Sleep Berth

On most long-haul aircraft, there are hidden beds where pilots and cabin crew can sleep out of sight of passengers.

Some long haul flights require 3 or 4 pilots due to the length of the flight and to allow an appropriate sleep/rest opportunity for the pilots. The same two pilots are at the controls for takeoff and landing while the other pilot(s) will take control for other segments of the flight to give other pilots a chance to sleep. Additional pilots (i.e. those not at the controls for takeoff and landing) are often referred to as “heavy” crews.

Most long-haul aircraft have bunk beds available for pilots and cabin crew. These are usually hidden out of sight of passengers. If no berth is available, commercial passenger seats in Business Class or First Class are reserved for pilots to ensure a good level of rest.

Shortly after takeoff, the first pilot(s) will head to the bunks to sleep for a set period of time, before rotating with the other pilots. The rest is usually evenly distributed among the crew, before all pilots return to the flight deck approximately 1 hour before landing.

Controlled rest

Controlled rest allows one pilot at a time to get up to 45 minutes of sleep during periods of low workload (cruising). This is to promote a higher level of alertness during periods of high workload, for example descent, approach and landing.

The principle of controlled rest is to allow pilots to gain vigilance and energy. It’s the equivalent of a “lightning nap”. Ideally, controlled rest should be between about 10 and 20 minutes, as this limits you to the lighter stages of non-rapid eye movements (NREMEsleep. Sleeping between 30 and 60 minutes can lead to sleep inertia when you wake up, which will leave you feeling drowsy and hangover-like.

Certain rules must be followed during a controlled rest, such as:

  • Controlled rest must be discussed and accepted by both pilots
  • Controlled rest should be limited to a predefined period of approximately 10 to 40 minutes.
  • Only one pilot must take a controlled rest at a time and he must be seated in his seat, but with the seat away from the controls.
  • Once the resting pilot is awake, he should avoid operating the controls for a set period of time to ensure he is fully awake and alert. They should also be awake for at least 15 minutes before any high workload situation such as the start of the descent.
  • The pilot at rest must ensure that the pilot on duty is sufficiently briefed to allow the other pilot to carry out his duties during single-pilot operation.

There is a risk that the non-resting operational pilot will also fall asleep. To mitigate this risk, the cabin crew is informed that control rest is taking place and regular contact is established between the operational pilot and the cabin crew.

Some aircraft also have a feature whereby a warning sounds if none of the controls/switches/buttons have been touched for a specific period of time.

Sleeping Pilot Example

Consider this example in terms of what is safer with resting/sleeping on board:

Two pilots are on a night flight to Tenerife from Manchester. Reporting time for work is 8.00pm on Monday evening, the flight is scheduled to leave Manchester at 9.00pm with a block time (flight time and taxi time at both ends) of 04.30am giving an estimated landing time of 01:30.

The turnaround time is one hour, which means the return flight departs at 02:30. Again, this is a 04:30 block back to Manchester, giving an expected landing time of 07:00, pilots would then be off duty at 07:30 and expected to fly home. That’s all if the flights run on time.

Naturally, the pilots slept normally Sunday night (although they might have operated that day) until Monday and they tried to lie down or go back to sleep in the early evening for a few hours before reporting to work depending on how long their commute is. They actually lose a night’s sleep.

The question is whether it would be safer to allow each pilot to take a 30 minute nap on each sector to ensure they are more alert or not to allow this procedure at all?

Now that you have the facts, what do you think?