Stayin’ Awake

Norfolk, Va. (Oct. 19, 2004) - Air Traffic Con...

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News of seven air controllers falling asleep on the job recently causes me to reflect on my sleep-deprived Navy career.  Going with too little sleep is par for the course in the Navy, part necessity and part tradition.  Running a warship, whether on the surface or submerged, is a labor-intensive job and although I’ve been retired from that occupation for almost 30 years now, I remember its nature vividly.

Warships are normally operated with about a third of the crew “on watch” at any given time, meaning at their operational duty posts.  A typical watch rotation is 4 hours on, 8 off, with one 2-hour watch a day (called a dog-watch) designed to ratchet the rotation back one notch.  (Why the dog watch?  Because nobody wants all night watches.)  You can see, then, that any meaningful day/night routine is pretty-much lost.  I guess it proves that people can endure that as a way of life, odd as it is.

My blue-collar father who worked in the oil fields would seek out 12-hour night-shift work for the overtime pay and I remember how he struggled to sleep during the day.  I don’t like to think about what that meant for the quality of his life.

One of the things about surface-ships that I never liked was the tradition that even if you were up half the night on watch you were never allowed to turn in to your bunk during the work day.  That made no sense to me.  Thinking back, this may have been one of the reasons I was attracted to submarines.  The boats were less formal.  You always did your best, you gave your all as required, but you weren’t asked to do things that made no sense.  (And, the chow was better.)

Royal Navy Submarine HMS Triumph Enters HMNB Clyde

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Even as a young man I sensed that sleep-deprivation made you less effective on the job, less sharp mentally.  But, it was a macho thing, a test of toughness and, occasionally, a necessity because combat doesn’t care how sleepy you are.  When you are the Officer of the Deck on a ship, alert and controlling the ship’s course and operations through the night, the lives of every man on the ship depend on you doing your duty.

One time, on my first submarine and while deployed in the Western Pacific, I was required to be awake for more than 40 hours.  How much more I’m not sure.  When the period started I was already somewhat sleep-deprived and I had no idea what was coming.  I did reach the point of having hallucinations and it’s not something I ever want to repeat.

My first reaction to the spate of air controllers’ lapses was one of contempt, given my own history.  I can’t excuse their behavior – after all, lives depend on them.  But, on reflection I have some sympathy too.  The ones who lapsed were on night duty alone at small airports, likely with little traffic after midnight.  It was never like that in the

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Navy while underway – there was always activity and others with whom interaction was required.  However, there is a similarity to being the duty officer on the ship while in port.  There was always the obligation to awaken and inspect the ship for problems such as leaking bilges or hydrogen gas build-up every four hours.  It was an obligation that demanded no exceptions.

The FAA move to make sure all the towers are doubled up is likely to solve the problem, or so it seems to me.  It should have been made so long before.  Cue John Travolta and from Saturday Night Fever, “Stayin’ Alive”.  Only this time, make it “Stayin’ Awake!”  (Can you hear it?)

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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2 Responses to Stayin’ Awake

  1. Jim Wheeler says:

    Just for additional information, an AP follow-up article has more details on sleeping air controllers, including this:

    FAA rules prohibit sleeping on the job, even during breaks. Employees who violate them can be fired. But controllers told The Associated Press that napping at night where one controller works two jobs while the other sleeps, and then they swap, is an open secret within the agency.

    The full article is at this link:


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    I served “at sea” for 20 of my 23 years in the Navy. The thing I remember most when I finally stopped “going to sea” was the ability to SLEEP, normally. At no time in those years at sea in whatever position I served was it possible to sleep for a straight and uninterrupted 8 hours. Sleep was a thing that sailors simply did without as a matter of routine but it was never easy to do.

    Most civilians ask, once they find out that I served on submarines was how long at a given time were you underwater. When I say 60 or 70 DAYS they are shocked. Well staying “underwater” for the period of time is easy. It is the lack of sleep while doing so that is hard.

    By military tradition a sentry falling asleep at his post during wartime could be SHOT. Long ago I am sure that happened from time to time. Traditionally the military does not forgive such a transgression. But you know as well as I do that sailors, even officers occassionally fell asleep while on watch. It might just be a short nod of the head for a minute or so, but asleep or for sure not “paying attention” happened from time to time.

    If an outside inspector (someone not a member of the ships crew but onboard the ship either in port or at sea) ever saw a sailor, particularly in the “nuclear end” of the ship, nodding off AND he wrote it down and reported that fact, heads up to and including the skipper’s could roll. Put a report like that “in the system” and a four star fleet commander could get a phone call from Rickover screaming “what the hell kind of fleet are you running out there?”. And that would be promted by one “reactor operator” nodding off.

    Recall if you well the traditional “hell week” for SEAL trainees. Those guys are forced to stay up and doing unbelievable physical tasks for a whole week. It CAN be done but…. The secret is lots of FOOD and on a submarine a ton of hot coffee all the time.

    And at some point it becomes mind over matter when bad things are going on all around you. Ultimately it is not how young, or strong one might be it is how mentally tough one can become.

    But for sure “easy” nights and afternoon naps remain a real joy to me in my retirement.



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