There are a few things a commercial airline pilot simply cannot do. Falling asleep at the wheel is one of them. But that’s exactly what happened on the morning of February 13, 2008, as go! flight 1002 made its way from Honolulu to Hilo. And not only did the pilot fall asleep—his copilot did, too. For an undetermined period of time, the plane was flying on autopilot, thousands of feet in the air and full of unwitting passengers, with no one to take control.
Details of the incident are recounted in a recently released report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The report spells out what could have been a harrowing moment in Hawaii aviation history, a near-disaster that was averted seemingly as much by luck as anything else.
Flight 1002 left Honolulu International Airport at approximately 9:16am. At around 9:30am, Captain Scott Oltman communicated via radio that the flight was ascending to its cruising altitude of 21,000 feet. A controller cleared the flight to continue toward its destination and received confirmation. At 9:33am, the controller repeated the clearance and again the flight crew confirmed.
Seven minutes later, at 9:40am, the controller sent a transmission telling the flight crew to change radio frequencies. There was no reply. According to the NTSB report—obtained via the Aero-News Network—“the controller continued to try to contact the flight crew multiple times” without success.
At 9:51am, flight 1002 turned southeast toward the Hilo airport but didn’t descend, which the NTSB report says is “consistent with the airplane being on autopilot.” Multiple controllers tried to make contact with the crew, but the plane continued past the airport, still heading southeast.
At 9:58am, 18 minutes had elapsed since the crew last made radio contact and flight 1002 had overshot its destination by 26 nautical miles. Then, finally, Captain Oltman sent a call sign. A controller asked if there was an emergency, to which the captain responded, according to the NTSB report, “No, we must have missed a hand off or missed a call or something.”
Seventeen minutes later, the plane landed safely in Hilo. Captain Oltman and First Officer Dillon Shepley admitted to falling asleep en route. Both were subsequently fired by the airline and had their licenses suspended by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA didn’t take action against go! or its parent company, Arizona-based Mesa Air Group, according to a September 2008 Honolulu Advertiser report.
The NTSB report attributes the incident to fatigue—both pilots had started work at 5:40am for three straight days. It goes on to state that the “captain had undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea, which was diagnosed during a medical evaluation shortly after this incident and for which symptoms (such as snoring) and risk factors (such as obesity) were present before the incident.”
It’s unclear whether go! and Mesa have taken steps to ensure pilots are tested for sleep apnea and not placed on schedules that could lead to fatigue. (Calls to Mesa were not returned at press time.)
What is clear is that avoidable, negligent incidents like this should never occur. Maui Time Weekly, Jacob Shafer