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Tonight I watched Nova's "The Impossible Flight", a documentary film about the around the world Solar Impulse project where a solo pilot set the world's record for a 5 day non-stop flight from Japan to Hawaii with a ~35mph TAS! The documentary showed the pilot practicing 20min naps and said "this is a technique military fighter pilots are taught...". (It is supposed to keep them from going into a deep sleep)

Many commercial sleep questions have been answered on stack such as;

Is a pilot allowed to sleep during a flight?

How are emergencies handled during In-Seat Rest?

So this question pertains to military pilots.

  • Is this practice common among most nations?
  • How is a fighter pilot woke up?
  • Is there a alarm in the radio system?
  • Does an air or ground controller wake them?
  • Or perhaps the documentary was misleading and only sleep is allowed with two or more crews?
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Generally, the only time fighter pilots are asked to remain airborne long enough where this is a factor are when ferrying aircraft across the ocean, (or for long distances over territory where there are no intermediate refueling bases.) Generally this is always done in multi-aircraft flights or formations or two or more aircraft, so even in a single seat fighter, you are not completely alone.
Obviously, the average fighter cannot carry fuel sufficient to last that long, so (again, generally), when this happens they accompany a refueling aircraft (or have pre-planned rendezvous with refueling aircraft every few hours). So there is no need to "wake up" - they remain awake the entire flight. They are flying manually in formation off the wing of the refueling aircraft, or one of the other aircraft in the flight. If the flight is long enough where alertness is an issue, or if the flight occurred during periods where the aircrew would normally have been asleep, we were sometimes issued Dexedrine tablets to take to help remain awake and alert.

In peacetime, we would never deliberately plan a flight where from start of pre--flight planning, until engine shutdown would exceed 12 hours. This rule of course could be violated in the case of wartime or national emergency, etc. etc.

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The awakening mechanisms of the brain are very capable. For instance, in this experiment, there was a requirement to wake up 15 minutes after the light has been turned off, and it worked for many students. Hence it is possible to wake up periodically, in response to something happening, or any combination of these. Also, the brain is capable of surprises response that alerts about anything unusual happening (engine sounds wrong, new acceleration, bring warning light in the dark cockpit), and this works also while asleep.

Hence the brain is capable of basic checks (accelerations feel as usual, engine runs OK, no bright warning lights, wake up me in 10 minutes) also while sleeping. As long as the plane does not require constant input just to stay in the air, this may be sufficient for the short duration of the nap.

It is obviously risky to rely on this, the brain must be set somehow to respond in a wanted way, but I believe that first aviators long time ago used this capability to cover long distances alone.

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    $\begingroup$ this may be interesting but it doesn't answer the question. $\endgroup$ – GdD Feb 1 '18 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ I think it does - they can have a short nap because the brain is capable of basic checks (accelerations feel as usual, engine runs OK, no bright warning lights, wake up me in 10 minutes) also while sleeping. As long as the plane does not require constant input just to stay in the air, this may be sufficient. $\endgroup$ – h22 Feb 1 '18 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ The question asks whether fighter pilots sleep on long flights and if they do what mechanisms are there to wake them up. I cannot see how this applies, perhaps some refinement would help make it more applicable. $\endgroup$ – GdD Feb 1 '18 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ This answer says that a brief sleep is theoretically possible, but not that it actually occurs (at least deliberately). I'm skeptical myself, and would like to see references that indicates pilots doing this deliberately. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Dec 10 '18 at 17:38
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Ferrying aircraft from North America to Europe is similar, and with legs of 18 hours, flying lower, in the weather, it was at times a physical challenge. Add to that the discomfort of wearing an immersion suit, and it created a situation where I at times wondered if flying should be so little fun.

I can't speak of round the world flights, but a ferry flight might have a "duty day" of 24 hours, which is quite manageable. A steady diet of that might not be, but once a week or so it is tolerated.

The excitement of performing the navigation (pre-GPS days), managing the weather with few resources, and worry about either splashing in the drink or having a leak in the waterbed like bladder inside the plane tended to counter any drowsiness. If higher, hitting the O2 can also be helpful. It certainly brings out the stars over the ocean.

It is noteworthy that, more so in the past than recently, many medical residents would work similar duty days. Rather than just managing a flight, they might be doing procedures where a caffeine twitch could have adverse effects, and need manual dexterity and cognitive alertness.

Also, in the case of U-2 pilots, recent typical flights, providing combat support average in the 12 hour range. It used to be that typical mission times were about 8 hours. That is a long time to be confined in a moon suit.

So from the standpoint of most deployments, in the context of single pilot fighter oceanic flights, I would say that the demands of the occasional pond crossing is manageable.

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