Troop Charters Flying ‘Unbelievable’ Hours Fight Pilot Rest Rule
Capt. Craig Gatch’s 11-day schedule, traversing 36 time zones, caught up with him as he touched down in Baltimore on May 6, 2009, ferrying 168 U.S. soldiers home from Iraq.
His World Airways Boeing (BA) DC-10 bounced then slammed onto the runway, damaging the jet beyond repair, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. One person was severely injured.
Gatch told investigators he hadn’t slept well in four days while flying more than halfway around the world -- fatigue that contributed to the accident, the safety board ruled.
Eighty-seven percent of U.S. troops flown around the globe are carried by charter airlines, led by World, under military contracts. U.S. rules allow these carriers to set pilot schedules that wouldn’t be permitted for commercial airlines or the military’s own pilots, putting troops at risk, said Bill Voss, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.
The charter companies’ practices put “machismo” ahead of “science and risk management,” Voss said in an interview. “Our soldiers may be expected to be heroes on the battlefield, but we shouldn’t be relying on heroism flying them back home again.”
The charter carriers’ trade group opposes a Federal Aviation Administration proposal to limit pilots’ flying time, saying it is too expensive. The proposal would cost the 13 member carriers $3.7 billion over 10 years and require them to hire 42 percent more pilots, according to the National Air Carrier Association. The Arlington, Virginia-based group represents firms including World, a unit of Global Aviation Holdings Inc. (GLAH), and closely held Omni Air International.
As many as 81 percent of current charter flights would be “infeasible” under the proposed rules, according to an Air Force study the trade group submitted to the FAA arguing against the changes.
Charter operators should be exempt from the new rules as they’d be too disruptive to the military, Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an Armed Services Committee hearing April 7. Air Force General Duncan McNabb, then head of the U.S. Transportation Command, testified that he agreed.
Limiting pilot hours “may not be the best course of action,” Cynthia Bauer, spokeswoman for the Transportation Command, which oversees the charter contracts, said in an e- mail.
A New Rule
The same study showed 88 percent of flights would be allowed if airlines added bunks to allow pilots to sleep during lengthy flights while backup pilots fly, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing more than 53,000 pilots in the U.S. and Canada, and the Teamsters, which represents pilots at World and Omni.
The final rule was supposed to be completed by Aug. 1. The FAA missed that deadline while the proposal was under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget. The White House hasn’t said when it will release the new rule or what its final form will be.
Airline trade groups, unions and others have continued to lobby the OMB to alter the FAA proposal, according to the FAA’s public docket.
“We should have one level of safety for all air carriers that transport passengers and military personnel,” Capt. Lee Moak, president of the pilots association, said in an e-mail.
Pattern of Fatigue
Congress ordered the FAA to rewrite pilot work rules after 50 people died in a Continental Connection crash near Buffalo, New York, on Feb. 12, 2009.
The NTSB, while ruling there wasn’t enough evidence to blame fatigue for the crash, found both pilots hadn’t slept well before the flight and raised concerns about the effect of pilots’ commutes to work.
The agency blamed fatigue at least in part in three out of the five formal aviation-accident reports it’s issued this year. The crashes killed 10 people and seriously injured two.
“Flying more hours and getting less rest may increase efficiency and profits, but in the long run it will cost you as errors increase, safety margins are eroded and accidents are more likely,” NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in an e-mailed statement.
Responding to the mandate from Congress, the FAA last year unveiled its proposal, which would change a system that lets military-charter companies operate under less-strict rules than those for commercial airlines.
For example, these charter carriers, which often ask pilots to commute long distances to position them around the world, can send them on commercial flights in coach without providing for rest time once they arrive. Scheduled airlines must count the time on those flights as work time.
Federal law also allows charters to pick the sections of the regulation that require the least amount of pilot rest.
There’s no scientific basis for this “hodgepodge” of rules, the FAA said in its proposal. The causes of fatigue -- lack of sleep, working during the night and lengthy shifts --are “universal,” the FAA said.
Existing rules “are exposing flight crew members to undue risk,” the proposal said. Pilots should get at least nine hours of rest instead of the current eight-hour minimum, the agency said.
Work days for crews without backup pilots or access to on- board rest facilities shouldn’t exceed 13 hours, compared with today’s 16-hour limit, the agency proposed. The work day would be cut back to as little as nine hours if a pilot was working at night or making multiple landings and takeoffs.
Troop-transport crews for charter airlines “are worked much, much harder” than U.S. military pilots operating the same types of flights, said John Herron, a former Naval Reserve commander who’s now business agent for Teamsters Local 1224, representing pilots at Omni and other contractors.
“The kind of schedules these guys operate under are unbelievable,” Herron said.
Military charter flights are safe, A. Oakley Brooks, president of the National Air Carrier Association, said. “It’s a non-problem looking for a solution,” Brooks said of the proposed rules in an interview.
The industry doesn’t oppose work-rule changes, Brooks said. It objects to the FAA proposal because the agency didn’t do enough research on the charter industry or consider its requirements to fly long distances, sometimes into dangerous countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
The $3.7 billion cost estimate cited by the 13 airlines in the charter carriers association is almost three times the FAA’s projected price tag for the entire airline industry.
The military spent $4.5 billion in fiscal 2010 hiring charter companies, according to Bloomberg Government data.
Global Aviation Holdings Inc., which owns World and North American Airlines, is the largest such contractor, it said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
It reported $812.9 million in revenue from passenger flights in 2010, or 50 percent of expenditures by the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. Global, based in Peachtree City, Georgia, operates under one-year contracts that require it to have an on-time performance rate of 95 percent.
Sick and Tired
Gatch’s schedule on the trip that ended in Baltimore would have violated the FAA’s proposed rules at several points, a Bloomberg analysis found.
On May 3, after flying from the U.S. to Hong Kong and then to the Philippines, he began a four-day swing across three continents during which he became ill and had limited opportunities for rest, according to NTSB records.
On a flight from Guam to Honolulu, Gatch and his co-pilot, Kirby Lottridge, got sick from what they suspected was bad food, they told the NTSB.
They were on duty for 16 hours, 41 minutes that day, according to NTSB records. The FAA’s proposal would limit crews without on-board rest facilities and backup pilots to 13 hours of duty.
Gatch wasn’t feeling well during his 9-hour, 34-minute rest period in Honolulu. He napped at a Waikiki hotel during that time. “The overall rest was less than satisfactory,” an NTSB report said, paraphrasing Gatch.
He and Lottridge took a commercial flight to San Francisco that night, arriving before dawn. After being on the road for more than a week, the pilots needed to wash their clothes, which cut into their rest period, they told investigators. Afterward, they had about six hours to rest before heading back to the airport to catch a flight to Germany, the report said.
After more than 16 hours of flying in coach and a layover, they arrived in Leipzig on May 5.
The pilots had 12 hours, 35 minutes off duty, according to NTSB records. Under the FAA proposal, they’d be required to have a rest period equal to the duration of flights to get to work -- or more than 16 hours in Gatch’s case.
That night in Germany, Gatch “was affected by flip- flopping the time zones and awoke during the night but fell back asleep,” the report said.
On the flight back to Baltimore on May 6, Gatch told investigators, he didn’t feel rested “but his feelings were not unlike those he experienced on similar flight schedules so that it just felt normal,” the report said.
Gatch, whose address is not listed in his FAA pilot’s license, could not be reached.
Steven Forsyth, a World Airways spokesman, declined to discuss its schedules or the accident. He referred questions to the carrier association’s Brooks, who said he wasn’t familiar with the accident and couldn’t comment on the pilots’ work hours.
The Air Force directed questions about the accident to the NTSB.
At least three other U.S. military-charter crashes have been linked to fatigue, including the Dec. 12, 1985, crash of an Arrow Air jet in Gander, Newfoundland, that killed all 256 people aboard a troop-transport flight.
The pilots’ schedules in the days leading up to the accident probably caused “chronic fatigue,” the Canadian Aviation Safety Board said in a report.“These factors included short layovers, night departures, multiple time-zone travel, and a flight-hour accumulation of almost 57 hours in the previous 10 days.”
Investigators also cited fatigue in the crash of a military-charter flight at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Aug. 18, 1993. The Connie Kalitta Services DC-8 jet was destroyed and the three crew members were seriously injured. The crew had been on duty for 18 hours and awake for more than 24 hours, the NTSB said.
The rules governing troop-transport pilots’ hours haven’t changed since those two accidents, nor have their schedules, said Herron, the Teamsters official and former military pilot.
Herron declined to provide the days and locations of the flights, saying pilots at the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based carrier fear they’d be fired for revealing their schedules.
Omni declined to comment, Ladonna Brauchle, a spokeswoman, said.
Against Military Rules
A schedule such as Gatch’s, while legal, pushes the bounds of human performance and threatens safety, according to Greg Belenky, director of Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center in Spokane.
“It would be a difficult trip for anybody and it would almost certainly impair performance,” Belenky said in an interview.
It also wouldn’t be permissible under the military’s rules for its own pilots.
Air Force and Navy pilots must receive at least 12 hours off before reporting for duty in most cases. Gatch got less than 12 hours rest three times during his trip, including on two of the three days before the accident, NTSB records show.
Air Force rules also prohibit work-related interruptions to rest periods. Gatch woke early in Germany the morning before his flight to review the weather and to check on other crew members, he told investigators.
“The military is totally complicit in this,” Voss of the Flight Safety Association said. “They knowingly contract for these flights that they could not legally fly themselves.”
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