The pilot at the controls of an Indian jet that crashed earlier this year, killing 158 passengers, had slept for more than half the flight and only drowsily rallied himself when it was time to land the plane, investigators have found. At times his snoring was so heavy it was picked up by the in-flight recorders.
Zlatko Glusica, a Serbian pilot, had more than 10,200 hours of flying experience and his Indian co-pilot, HS Ahluwalia, had 3,650. But as the Air India Express flight came into land at Mangalore International Airport's notoriously short runway, the senior pilot was disoriented and his movements were slow as a result of "sleep inertia".
On the recorder, the co-pilot can be heard repeatedly warning him to abort the landing. The final words captured before the plane crashed were from one of the pilots: "Oh my God."
The six-member investigation team looking into May's crash has now submitted its report to the country's civil aviation ministry, which will share the findings with the Indian parliament. But if reports by local media citing the findings of the investigation are correct, then the panel's conclusions will add to growing concern worldwide about the dangers posed by exhausted pilots working long schedules. Pilot unions are currently fighting efforts by cash-strapped airlines, such as the Air India subsidiary, to get them to work longer hours.
In the past 15 years, up to 12 fatal crashes and numerous close calls have been blamed on pilot fatigue. Studies show exhaustion can impair a pilot's judgement in much the same way alcohol does and that it is not uncommon for fatigued pilots to focus on a conversation or a single chore and miss things around them. In June 2008, an Air India aircraft flying to Mumbai missed its destination because the pilots were sleeping. When Mumbai air traffic controllers finally woke them, the plane and its 100 passengers were about 200 miles past the airport.
Last night, there was no official comment about the report from either the investigators or the pilots' union, the Indian Commercial Pilots Association. India's Civil Aviation Minister, Praful Patel, told reporters that his department had received the report and would study it before taking action.
Many of the passengers on the fight between Dubai and Mangalore were migrant workers returning from the Gulf, where hundreds of thousands of labourers from across South Asia are employed in often wretched, low-paid conditions.
Elsewhere around the world, pilot fatigue has been pinpointed as the cause of several fatal crashes, including an incident in 1997 when a Korean Air Boeing 747 that was headed to Guam ploughed into a hillside and killed 228 people. In 2008, two pilots with the American airline, Go!, were asleep for at least 18 minutes during a morning flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii, as their plane continued to cruise past its destination and out to sea.