Asleep at the Yoke: Commercial Pilots Accused of Catnaps at 38K Feet

Naps are great, except when it’s both you and your copilot taking one together at 38,000 feet.

byVictoria Scott| Luc Verkuringen (used under CC BY-ND 2.0, via F


New York to Rome is a long flight, clocking in at about eight and a half hours in the air; it would be tempting to nap during the workday-long journey. Both the captain and the first officer at the helm of Rome-bound Ita Airways Flight AZ609 are accused of doing just that at the same time, leaving ground crews on high alert for a possible hijacking.

As the Airbus A330 flew over French airspace, ground controllers for Bordeaux airspace were unable to make contact with the crew. The jet continued onward into Marseilles territory, where air traffic control still could not make contact with the plane. Shortly after, fighter jets were scrambled to make visual contact with the airliner and confirm that the pilots (and not hijackers) were still in control of the plane but were called off as the crew answered controllers within 10 minutes of initially losing contact with the ground. After the dustup, the plane landed without incident in Rome as planned, 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

The first officer was actually approved to sleep, as he was authorized for a controlled rest period due to the length of the flight. The captain, however, was supposed to be at the controls of the airplane and definitely not asleep. While the captain claimed that the loss of contact was due to faulty radio equipment, an inspection of the plane by Ita Airways mechanics yielded absolutely no faults with the Airbus's comms systems. The captain has since reportedly been fired, as taking a nap on the job at 38,000 feet and 550 miles an hour is generally frowned upon.

Luckily, passengers aboard the flight were safe, as the autopilot was engaged at cruising altitude, and the plane did not encounter any unforeseen difficulties during the 10-minute-long naptime. Airbus jets have a reputation for requiring less pilot finesse because of their computerized flight control systems, but I still would not recommend falling asleep at the sidestick in one; possibly the worst alarm clock sound to wake up to would be the extremely unsettling computerized voice of GPWS.