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As passengers, many of us like to sleep during flights to get some rest and make the time go by. But what about pilots, when and where do they sleep?

Pilots are able to sleep in one of two ways — in-seat rest in the cockpit or bunk rest in a bed or the passenger cabin. Typically, bunk rest is only reserved for long-haul flights. Usually, pilots will catch a 10 - 20 minute power nap in the cockpit during shorter flights with in-seat rest.

The thought of your pilots catching some shut eye might seem a little scary to you, but it makes sense. Especially on longer flights. You want your pilots to be as alert as possible during times of maximum stress, such as landing. So it makes sense that they’ll get some rest during the flight when the workload is far less stressful. In this article, you’ll learn all about how pilots are able to sleep during the flight and what happens during emergencies if a pilot is sleeping.

To make sure that we can get you the most accurate information possible, I combined my personal experience as a pilot with discussions with other pilots, both current and former. The ways that pilots are allowed to sleep are also outlined in the regulations provided by the FAA that all pilots must follow. So as you read, you can be confident that you’re getting the best information possible.

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Do Pilots Sleep While Flying?

If you’ve ever flown on a passenger jet before, you’ve likely looked around and seen people all over the plane getting some sleep. Maybe you’re even one of those people that always try to catch some shut eye during a flight. After all, flights can be long, boring, and somewhat uncomfortable. So spending the time asleep makes it go by much faster.

But what about pilots?

The quick answer is that yes, pilots do actually sleep while they’re flying. They aren’t doing it to make the time pass like you and the rest of the passengers might be, but rather to make sure they’re well-rested and can operate at maximum efficiency when needed. Since pilots are controlling massive airplanes traveling through the skies and hundreds of miles per hour, there are of course strict guidelines they must follow when it comes to sleeping during flight.

Let’s dive in.

How Do Pilots Sleep During Flight?

As you just read, pilots do in fact have the ability to sleep during flights — at least some of the time. But they can’t just go to sleep at the controls no matter what is going on. So that then begs the question, how do pilots sleep during flight?

There are two main ways that a pilot can catch some shut eye during a flight: controlled rest (in their seat) and bunk rest. Let’s take a look at each.

Pilots Sleeping With Controlled Rest (in-Seat Rest)

Controlled rest is also known as in-seat rest. During which, as the name implies, the pilot actually gets some rest in their seat. That’s right, they take a nap in their seat in the cockpit, right at the controls. This type of rest is most easily compared to a power nap, where the pilot will ideally catch about 10 - 20 minutes of sleep during their rest period when the workload is low  — although they can potentially get up to 45 minutes of rest during this time.

I know what you might be thinking — if they’re allowed 45 minutes of in-seat rest, why do they only take 10 - 20 minute power naps? That’s to do with the effects of sleep inertia, which is that grogginess that you feel after you wake up when you’re in deep sleep. Periods of sleep that are at least 30 - 60 minutes can lead to this grogginess when you wake up, which is something that is not ideal for pilots who need to be alert and ready to go.

In-seat rest is something that can be beneficial to both pilots during the course of the flight but is also something that needs to follow some rules in order to be done effectively. Controlled rest typically conforms to the following rules and conditions:

  • Both pilots should discuss and agree to who will be sleeping and when
  • 10 - 20 minute power naps are ideal to prevent the negative effects of sleep inertia
  • One pilot must stay awake and at the controls at all times, both cannot sleep simultaneously
  • The pilot that is sleeping should have their seat pulled back and away from the controls
  • The sleeping pilot should take a predetermined amount of time to come back to their senses after they wake up unless there is an emergency
  • The cabin crew should be informed when controlled rest is being used, just in case both pilots end up falling asleep and need to be woken up.

Pilots Sleeping Using Bunk Rest

For pilots who are flying on long-haul flights — which are usually denoted as any flight over 7 hours — pilots are able to get some more typical sleep known as bunk rest.

As the name suggests, bunk rest enables pilots and crew to sleep in actual bunks, or beds, out of view of the passengers. This not only lets the pilots get some much needed rest, but it also keeps them out of the passenger’s cabin which can always be alarming to passengers, seeing their pilot getting some sleep. That said, if bunks or beds are not available on a flight, business or first class seats will be reserved for pilots and crew to rest, similar to above.

On many long-haul flights, there are actually more than the standard two pilots (Captain and First Officer). Some longer flights will require 3 or 4 pilots, with the extra one or two being known as “heavy crew” rather than Captain or Officer. On these flights, the standard pilots will usually take off and then head to sleep once they are cruising. The heavy crew will take over during some of the cruise, and the regular pilots will come back to the controls at a later time, but definitely before it’s time to land.

This rest is usually distributed as evenly as possible among all pilots and crew members, so it’s not just the pilots getting all the rest! But usually by about an hour before it’s time to land, everyone will stop resting and return to their normal positions to ensure as smooth a landing as possible.

What Happens During Emergencies If A Pilot Is Sleeping?

It doesn’t sound like a great situation, does it? Some sort of emergency happens during the flight but one of the pilots is catching some shut eye and is fast asleep. So what happens during an emergency that requires both pilots, but one of them is sleeping? As you might have guessed, the first thing that happens is the pilot that is sleeping gets woken up by the cabin crew or the other pilot.

But then what?

Thought about on the surface, you might see a few potential issues right away with this. First and foremost, the pilot that was sleeping could very well suffer from the adverse effects of sleep inertia for up to 15 - 20 minutes as they try to gather their bearings after being woken up. If that’s the case, how will they be able to help the pilot that is awake and flying the plane?

If the sleeping pilot is groggy, will they effectively be able to run through the necessary checklists and procedures? Or should the pilot that was awake just run through everything by themselves while the sleeping pilot gets over their sleep inertia? It sounds like a scary situation, one in which there is no good outcome.

But thankfully, sleep inertia is very quickly overcome by one thing: adrenaline.

As the pilot who was sleeping gets woken up to an emergency on their hands, adrenaline will immediately start pumping in their body. Adrenaline is the single fastest way to get over the effects of sleep inertia, and the pilot who is flying will brief the one who just woke up as the adrenaline is running. In no time at all, both pilots will be alert and ready to go. That’s just the power of the human body and brain