A plane flying on autopilot, with the lone pilot slumped unconscious in the cockpit, flew through Adelaide’s controlled airspace as air traffic controllers desperately and unsuccessfully tried to contact the pilot.

The incident has been outlined in a report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB).

As a result, an Adelaide flight school will require its students to log the times they last ate and slept before taking off.

The incident happened two months ago. It involved the same South Australian airfield that hit the news earlier this year when a pilot on a long test flight dramatically demonstrated the tedium of the task by flying his aircraft in a series of turns to write “I’M BORED” in the sky – and in another cheeky twist, adding a couple of penis shapes for good measure. See: Bored pilot writes message and draws penis in sky

In the latest incident, a student pilot in a Diamond DA 40 plane, conducting a solo navigation flight from Port Augusta to Parafield in South Australia “began to feel a headache in his forehead and engaged the autopilot”, the ATSB recorded.

“Shortly after, the pilot became unconscious.”

When the plane entered “Class C airspace” (the controlled airspace surrounding major airports) “Air Traffic Control (ATC) attempted to contact the pilot numerous times unsuccessfully”.

The crew of another Diamond DA plane (an Austrian four-seat, single-engine, light aircraft used frequently as a trainer), which was flying nearby, offered its assistance to ATC in identifying and establishing contact with the aircraft.

Autopilot in control

The crew of the second aircraft eventually sighted the other plane and reported that the pilot had by that time regained consciousness.

At this point, the other aircraft was over the sea, 46 kilometres south-south-west of Adelaide.

“Radio contact was subsequently established and ATC assisted the pilot in returning the aircraft to Parafield whilst under escort by the DA 42,” the ATSB noted.

“It is estimated that the pilot was unconscious for approximately 40 minutes.

“The pilot advised that the night prior to the flight he had suffered from a restless night of sleep and was recovering from a mild cold. On the day of the flight, the pilot did not consume any breakfast prior to departing from Parafield to Port Augusta. During the flight from Parafield to Port Augusta, the pilot only consumed a bottle of Gatorade, some water and a chocolate bar during the stopover in Port Augusta.”

As a result of this occurrence, the operator has advised the ATSB that they are taking the following safety actions:

  • Provide guidance that is more specific to students regarding sleep patterns and practical methods to ensure students are well rested.
  • Students will be required to include in their flight authorisation form their hours of sleep in the previous 24 and 48 hours, the time of when their last meal was consumed and the type of meal.
  • Conduct a safety briefing to re-emphasise the importance of observing company guidelines and responsibilities of the pilot in command, with more emphasis on fatigue management.

Written by Peter Needham