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NTSB: Sleep aids should be OK in fighting pilot fatigue
By Alan Levin, USA TODAYUpdated 10h 6m ago |
WASHINGTON — Airline pilots should be allowed to take carefully monitored sleep medication to help them get a good night's rest before a flight, federal accident investigators said for the first time Tuesday.

By Jim Gehrz, AP
Pilot fatigue, poor coordination between those in the cockpit and a wet runway caused the 2008 crash in Minnesota that killed eight people, the NTSB said.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), acting in the case of a fatal charter jet crash in Minnesota, called for broad improvements in rules governing how airline pilots combat fatigue.

Many of the issues identified in the crash — failure of pilots to get a good night's sleep, undiagnosed sleep disorders and unauthorized use of sleep medications — apply equally to airline pilots, NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman says.

"We need to embrace this issue," she says.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates airlines, has proposed restricting pilot schedules to reduce fatigue, a move applauded by the NTSB. The proposal, however, would have had no effect on the pilots in the July 31, 2008, crash, says NTSB board member Mark Rosekind, a fatigue researcher before joining the board.

The NTSB concluded that both pilots on an East Coast Jets charter flight from Atlantic City to Owatonna, Minn., were lacking sleep. Their jet roared off the runway after a botched landing, killing all eight aboard.

Investigators found small amounts of Ambien, a sleep medication, in co-pilot Daniel D'Ambrosio's system. His fiancée told investigators he often had difficulty sleeping before flying.

Ambien use within 24 hours of a flight is prohibited by the FAA, but investigators concluded it did not contribute to the accident. The drug leaves the system relatively quickly and could help pilots get the sleep they need while working odd hours, says Malcolm Brenner, the NTSB's senior human performance investigator.

The safety board said pilots diagnosed with insomnia should be able to use sleep medication under careful supervision from a doctor. It also endorsed better education on sleep issues, which the FAA also supports.

D'Ambrosio had never sought medical attention for his sleeping difficulties, and the Ambien was prescribed to his fiancée.

Capt. Clark Keefer had only about five hours' sleep before the flight after attending a card game with other employees of the charter firm. Because he slept as much as 15 hours a day, investigators believe he also may have suffered from an unspecified sleep disorder.

The Aerospace Medical Association and the military endorse the use of sleep medication by pilots.

Spokesman Les Dorr says the FAA will study the NTSB's recommendations on sleep medication. It hasn't allowed such drugs for fear that they could cause lingering drowsiness or other side effects, Dorr says.
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