Captain, Can You Fly Another Three Hours?

Approaching Las Vegas from London, on the way to Beijing. Photo credit: Glen Reghenzani

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a four-part series on the automatic response “We can do that!” The better thought might be, “Should we do that?” Here is part onepart two and part three.

I’ve flown for a few outfits that schedule trips to the duty limits of the crew, bargaining that the winds will be favorable, the passengers show up on time, and that every airport turn goes like clockwork. Because it is scheduled legally, the “unforeseen” complications are allowed and the crew goes to bed a few hours late. In good organizations, we are usually able to push back and get things changed for the better. In bad organizations, more often than not, we are shown the door when we push back too much. The stories are sadly too common. Here is one of many.

In 2017, a Hong Kong-based operator scheduled a Bombardier Global Express 5000 to fly from Las Vegas to Jeju, South Korea, with a fuel stop in Anchorage, Alaska. The duty day came in at 18.3 hr., which was 20 min. beyond their three-pilot duty day limit of 18 hr. The three pilots included two captains and a first officer. One of the captains refused the trip and was replaced with another captain who was willing to violate the limit. A Nevada sandstorm delayed their departure and they made it to Jeju Island after logging more than 20 hr. of duty time. The lead passenger asked to continue on to Beijing. Of course, the pilots agreed, extending their day another 3 hr.

The captain who refused the trip was summarily fired from the company. He sued the company, which settled out of court. In the end he received three months of back pay but little else. It took him two years to find another job. The Hong Kong aviation authorities said there was nothing to be done about it because it was a non-commercial operation.

I’ve seen this a few times during my 20-year Air Force career. We ended the trip exhausted, but no metal was bent, nobody was hurt. And that enabled the system to continue as before. I hear these long duty-day stories often from the Air Force.

The worst incident I can recall was the 2013 wrong airport landing of a C-17 cargo plane. It should have landed at MacDill AFB but ended up on the 3,405-ft. runway at the nearby Peter O’Knight Airport on Davis Island, Florida (KTPF). The pilots had been pushed to their limits in the days leading up to the 12-hr. flight from Italy back to the U.S. The Air Force accident report says the crew “flew into complex airfields, dealt with multiple mission changes and flew long mission legs with several stops each day.” The flight was originally bound for Kabul, Afghanistan, but then changed to Andrews AFB, and then to MacDill about an hour before takeoff. While the crew had the opportunity to sleep 8 hr. the night before the long flight, time zone changes prevented them from “getting a good night’s rest.” Air Force regulations not only enable aircraft commanders to terminate missions due to fatigue factors, but they require them to do so. This rarely happens, however, because Air Force pilots, like most pilots, “Can do!” 

I am told that the general officer passenger stressed that getting back to MacDill was a matter of national security. Everyone on board was fortunate to have walked away unscathed.

These stories do not always end this way. About 20 years ago, TAG Aviation USA routinely lost business by refusing to violate its own duty day rules, even when pushed by wealthy clients. In one such episode, a crew was returning to California from the Middle East via a fuel stop and crew change in Narsarsuaq, Greenland (BGBW). The weather was below minimums and the inbound crew diverted to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (BGSF), more than 400 mi. to the north. The passenger insisted the original crew press on to California and the crew agreed. TAG Aviation USA forbade the takeoff and made it clear to the pilots that they could not violate their duty limits. The client had to spend the night in Greenland; he fired TAG Aviation USA the next day. To its credit, TAG found the pilots new (and better) jobs. Of course, TAG Aviation USA is no more, and management companies with this kind of backbone are rare. It is up to us, as pilots, to have the spines our companies may lack.

Change "We" to "I" and "Can" to "Cannot"

Sometimes the “We can do that!” syndrome is easily defeated. As the aircraft commander flying a White House trip, I was once ordered by the senior diplomat to divert from Mogadishu, Somalia, to a nearby grass strip. Flying a Gulfstream III, it was an easy order to refuse.

Sometimes, the order cannot be refused. I flew my Air Force Gulfstreams into Sarajevo, Bosnia, many times in 1996 when the airport was bordered by surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. We often saw muzzle flashes from the ground and twice the aircraft following us were hit. But I carried out my orders. Military aviators operate under a different set of rules than their civilian counterparts. As civilians, we are empowered with the word “no.”

And yet the temptation to say, “We can do that!” is often too great to use the “no” word. Like the 29-year-old me flying with one less generator, we want to develop “can do” reputations. Like my squadron mate flying a piece of paper with an iced-up tail, we want to avoid being associated with mission delay. I believe that in these two examples we can find the problem: We pilots take all of this personally. We need to stop doing that.

The first problem with “We can do that!” is the word “we.” That removes responsibility from us as individuals and enables us to push our limits in furtherance of the greater good. The collective “we” wants us to take off with less than an airworthy airplane, so who are “we” to refuse that? If “we” are willing to fly 23 hr. to China, that means others have made the decision to do that, why can’t you?

Before responding to unusual requests, try replacing “We can do that!” with “I can do that!” and see if it changes your confidence in the agreed-upon course of action. Envision your name printed in an NTSB report, along with your personal information, interviews with your colleagues, your work history and training records, and immediate history just prior to “your” accident. Think of your family reading news reports about a fatigue-impacted decision you made late at night that resulted in something much worse than a wrong-airport landing. 

Then consider if “I can do that!” should really be “I cannot do that.”

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…


1 Comment
James Albright is so right. Unfortunately this wisdom often only comes in the last few years of an aviation career, like in my case. Fortunately there was no metal bent or people hurt by some of my „can do decisions“. And I still thank my first officer who asked how long we would stay above Lagos airport after this missed approach with the approaching t-storm. This was the trigger which led us to the alternate in time. This totally mixed up the following flight including finishing the duty time at an off-base airport for a crew change, but both the passengers and the company could be convinced that this was the right decision. Werner Huss, Cpt rtd A320, A330, A340 FO B737, A310, B 747-400