The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said yesterday that it will attempt to find out how airline pilots are affected by flight schedules that force them to work erratic hours and sleep when they can in between.
Previous studies in animals and humans have provided increasingly strong evidence that disruption of body sleep cycles can cause poor performance on the the job, poor alertness, and even physical or mental illness.
Some biologists have said that there is strong circumstantial evidence to indicate that many pilot errors and a number of commercial airline disasters have been caused at least partly by pilots in a condition of "desynchronosis" -- they were suffering from a condition in which several of the body's cycles, particularly the sleep-wake cycle, had been knocked out of their regular rhythm.
The Federal Aviation Administration, however, has so far refused to adjust airline regulations on pilot's flight and duty time.
"NASA is the ideal agency to study pilot fatigue and desynchronosis," said Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. (R-Calif.) a pilot himself, who has urged NASA to carry out a study like this one for more than a year.
"NASA has the competence and the facilities, and they don't have regulatory authority," he said. "The regulatory agency, FAA, lacks competence in this area, plus they are subject to the pressures of so many competing interest groups that it is hard for them to find scientific facts.
"Instead, they gravitate toward what is economically feasible or politically acceptable. But if NASA can first determine the real safety factors, and FAA can write rules based on fact, that would be an improvement."
NASA is carrying out its study for the House Committee on Science and Technology, of which Goldwater is a member.
THE NASA study, scheduled to take at least two years and cost something over $2 million, will be in three parts. First, the scientific literature on the hazards of desynchronosis will be reviewed and distilled into reports that can be read by laymen, particularly pilots.
Second, NASA hopes to follow some 50 pilots through their regular working schedules, recording diet, sleep, and perhaps several physiological functions such as temperature and heart rate. "We want to know exactly what their environment is really like," said Al Chambers, one of the leaders of the research group at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.
"We want to know when the pilot is supposed to sleep, and how much sleep he actually gets. We want to know to what extent his sleep rhythms are shifted back and forth by flying," Chambers said.
Third, NASA expects to use specially built, simulators to put airline crews through different sorts of schedules and stresses on a systematic basis. "Once we know something about the real world situation," Chambers said, "we can test special situations. We will push some situations as hard as we can to see what kind of errors are made."
Mel Montemerlo, manager of NASA's human factors group, said, "We can take what we learn from the field, and then set up reproducible circumstances . . . We may be able to tell some conditions to avoid, at least."