A commercial pilot flying a twin engine Piper PA-31 Navajo Chieftain was lucky to avoid disaster when he fell asleep during an early morning flight over Australia. The flight—a short hop from Devonport, Tasmania, to King Island in the Bass Strait—went a bit over course, soaring aimlessly past its destination for 29 miles before air traffic controllers roused the pilot from his slumber.
Vortex Air, the carrier employing the pilot, issued a statement about the incident:
“[The pilot] unintentionally fell asleep while in command of the aircraft…The issue became apparent when air traffic control was unable to the pilot in flight, and the aircraft traveled past the intended destination point while operating on autopilot."
The pilot eventually reached his intended destination of King Island, in the Bass Straight, on the southeastern edge of Australia, after his accidental drift through the ether. Now, several Australian authorities are investigating the incident, probing whether or not the pilot was overly fatigued, and whether the airline sufficiently gauged his capability to fly.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau noted the pilot flew 29 miles past King Island. Several attempts to reach him via air traffic control went unanswered, the Australian newspaper reported.
Authorities will seek to interview the pilot and review Vortex Air's procedure en route to releasing a public report. “This is an extremely rare occurrence, as demonstrated by the company’s excellent safety track record,” the airline said in its statement.
The flight in question departed at 6:20 a.m. on November 8, and reportedly marked the pilot's first flight after taking a leave of absence. The airline said he had been up the previous night dealing with personal issues.
While it's certainly good news that no one was hurt, events like this should make us thankful for air traffic controllers, who can literally drag a sleeping pilot out of sleep and avert potential disaster.