I’d like to think we were cutting edge about fatigue. Most controllers I know have napped at work. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—well pretty much my whole career, there were supervisors who took the passage in the Conduct & Discipline manual which provided progressive discipline for sleeping on duty quite literally, even to the extent of doing walking tours on the midnight shift to wake up any dozing miscreants. It never occured to them that a controller who had been relieved from his position by another and had no immediate assignment was, by definition, not on duty. He may be on the clock, but so are firemen, and I have yet to hear of a taxpayer up in arms because he’s paying for a bunch of folks to sleep. But I digress.
As it happened, not all managers were so myopic, and depending on who was on, it was possible to get a couple of hours or more sleep on certain shifts. It might not be contiguous (days and swings) but it was restful. Sometimes we had break rooms or TV rooms with comfortable chairs to use (all shifts), sometimes we had to resort to hidey holes (where theoretically no manager had ever been), and on midnight shifts, it was often possible to stretch out right in the control room by butting a couple of chairs together.
My good friend Roddy reminded me of an incident once, wherein he was on a midnight shift and around 0500, when relieved by his work mate, was able to stretch out on a couple of chairs and “check his eyelids for holes” as we used to describe it. When the day shifters started coming in someone suggested just leaving him alone—not out of sympathy—are you nuts? No, it was with malice aforethought. And with deep thinking, too. They went to the extent of wheeling more chairs around him, sort of fencing him in, and unplugging the nearby printer so it wouldn’t wake him. It worked, too. All the chair backs provided sufficient sound mitigation at his ear level to provide essentially a cradle, and it was probably 0900 when he awoke—fully two hours after his shift was over.
This is one of those stories whose ending wasn’t experienced the same way then as it is now. Now it’s a hoot—a fond memory of youthful pranks, bonhommie and camaraderie amongst a tight knit bunch of folks. Then? He was supposed to be at a motorcycle race in Tampa that morning and he was at least two hours late getting started. He was a little peeved.
Oh, the cutting edge thing? There have been several studies in recent years pointing to the great advantage of short naps during one’s workday. Even the FAA has been studying it and coming to the same conclusion, although, as I would expect, they’re applying the findings to recommendations to the airline industry for their pilots. None of their own employees will benefit, of course.
Last updated: 21 December 2009