What should a pilot of any large commercial passenger airplane do if they feel sleepy?

What is the maximum time per day during which the pilot may control the airplane ?

  • $\begingroup$ As far as the maximum time per day part of your question, what country/regulations are you asking about? $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Jan 18, 2014 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ In the Desert Shield buildup in the early 90s, though the FAA's international regulation said you could not be scheduled for more than 12 hours of flying in any 24 hour period, the rule was ignored. I was a 747 captain flying freighters and, as a low-seniority captain, I had the Brussels down to Saudi run. Nine hours down, unload, and 9 hours back, so we often went over the 12 in 24. We got very tired, but we had no access to the Air Force's go-pills.(dextroamphetmine as I remember), and even if we did, we were at risk for a drug test. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jan 18, 2014 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ In a three-man crew, it was quite common to have one person sleeping, and not all that unusual for two to fall asleep. Not legal, but practical. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jan 18, 2014 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ There was an incident in 2012 where pilots declared PAN and requested automatic landing, because they both felt tired. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jan 18, 2014 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ Many years ago ATC used an aircraft's SELCAL to awaken pilots that overflew, I think, San Francisco. That's from memory, but when I looked for it on Google, I ran across this more recent instance from India articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2008-06-26/india/… $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jan 19, 2014 at 5:53

2 Answers 2


If a pilot is not rested enough to safely operate the aircraft, they should not fly. If a pilot is flying and falling asleep, they should switch out with another pilot or land.

Current FAA regulations for domestic flights generally limit pilots to eight hours of flight time during a 24-hour period.

For the Air Force, actual flight duty periods vary depending on the aircraft type and mission but we are required to get 12 hours of crew rest with the opportunity for 8 hours of uninterrupted rest prior to flying.

You can read the FAA's Fact Sheet on Pilot Flight Time, Rest, and Fatigue here.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I believe the eight hour limit is only for commercial operations. $\endgroup$
    – bovine
    Dec 29, 2013 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ It may have changed since I retired, but when I was flying I seem to remember that the 8 hour limitation was a domestic rule. The international rule was 12 hours back then. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jan 18, 2014 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ I think the hours limits has to do with the size of the crew? Like, you have to have a 3 man crew for a 12 hour shift (So you have backup). But I really don't know, I just thought I read that somewhere... $\endgroup$
    – Jae Carr
    Mar 11, 2014 at 13:19

The first thing a pilot should do if they feel sleepy is Check the CO sensor. Drowsiness is the first sign of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. Checking for CO poisoning only takes a second, and can be easily mitigated and remedied.

NOTE: Apparently a Pulse Oximeter will not indicate a CO poisoning problem.

Hopefully, it is not CO poisoning, and they just partied to long the night before.

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    $\begingroup$ Good point. Here's the FAA's safety sheet on CO poisoning. faa.gov/pilots/safety/pilotsafetybrochures/media/… $\endgroup$
    – James
    Feb 1, 2014 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ Please be aware that the standard pulse oximeter does NOT detect CO poisoning. Evidently CO and O2 in the blood look the same to a pulse oximeter. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2014 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ @SkipMiller: I did not know that, but it seems very important! Thanks. (editing answer) $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Mar 11, 2014 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ I've never seen a large or turbine powered aircraft with a CO sensor visible to the flight crew. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    May 21, 2017 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ Generally CO poisoning is not limited to a tired feeling; it's symptoms are more feeling physically ill i.e. Nausea, headaches, dizziness, etc. $\endgroup$ May 21, 2017 at 14:25

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