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.)
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
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?)