Pilot Who Fell Asleep While Flying Plane After 24 Hours Awake and Missed Destination 'Was Deemed Fit to Fly'

A pilot suffering from "acute levels of fatigue" after 24 hours awake fell asleep while flying his freight-carrying plane, overshooting his destination by 48 miles, according to a transport authority in Australia.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said in a report that air traffic control and other pilots nearby had attempted to make contact with the pilot several times before he awoke to reassure them that everything was normal with his early morning flight.

He was the only person onboard the Piper PA-31-350, a small twin-engine aircraft, which was carrying freight from Devonport to King Island, both in Australia's state of Tasmania, and had switched on the autopilot.

The pilot worked for Vortex Air and the incident, which is categorized as "serious," took place on November 8, 2018. He remains an employee of the company.

"The pilot recalled not feeling unusually fatigued prior to the morning flight, and as a result did not identify fatigue as a potential hazard for the operation," the report said.

According to the bureau, the pilot had reached the top of descent into King Island when he fell asleep, with the autopilot carrying him for miles past the airport. After waking up, he turned the plane around and landed on the island.

However, despite having spent a day awake after struggling to sleep during a rest period before the flight in question, he took off once again to complete his shift by landing at Moorabbin, a journey of around 50 minutes in the air.

Investigators found that the pilot's fatigue had reached a point at which it affects performance. Moreover, the bureau said that even if he had slept successfully during the scheduled period of rest, he still would have been too tired to fly without it affecting his performance.

The bureau also said the pilot had not adjusted his own sleep pattern in advance of the night shift, worsening his fatigue. It was his first day back after five days of planned leave.

Nat Nagy, the bureau's executive director for transport safety, in a release that the investigation "highlights the need for pilots to assess their level of fatigue before and during their flight."

"Before commencing night operations pilots are encouraged to modify their usual sleep routines to ensure they are adequately rested," he said.

Nagy also urged airline operators to think about the risks involved in allowing fatigued pilots to continue flying on a shift, especially after an incident such as this.

"Just as it is the pilot's responsibility to use rest periods to get adequate sleep and to remove themselves from duty if they feel fatigued, it is also incumbent on operators to implement policies and create an organizational culture where flight crew can report fatigue and remove themselves from duty in a supportive environment," Nagy said in a statement.

Vortex Air managing director Colin Tucker told Australia's ABC that the pilot decided himself to return to Moorabbin without resting again: "We discussed the incident with the pilot at the time and he was deemed fit to fly."

Tucker added that the airline "counseled the pilot on the ground and when he returned to Moorabbin and he continues to work with us."

Vortex Air did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Australia pilot asleep plane flight flying
An overview of the flight made by the sleeping pilot, who flew past his destination in Tasmania, Australia. Google Earth/ATSB