Human fatigue and the crash of the airship Italia

  • Gregg A. Bendrick NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center
  • Scott A. Beckett Brigham and Women's Hospital
  • Elizabeth B. Klerman Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School
Keywords: Sleep, Nobile, polar exploration, aviation history, human error, mishap

Abstract

The airship Italia, commanded by General Umberto Nobile, crashed during its return flight from the North Pole in 1928. The cause of the accident was never satisfactorily explained. We present evidence that the crash may have been fatigue-related. Nobile’s memoirs indicate that at the time of the crash he had been awake for at least 72 h. Sleep deprivation impairs multiple aspects of cognitive functioning necessary for exploration missions. Just prior to the crash, Nobile made three command errors, all of which are of types associated with inadequate sleep. First, he ordered a release of lift gas when he should have restarted engines (an example of incorrect data synthesis, with deterioration of divergent thinking); second, he inappropriately ordered the ship above the cloud layer (a deficiency in the assessment of relative risks); and third, he remained above the cloud layer for a prolonged period of time (examples of attention to secondary problems, and calculation problems). We argue that as a result of these three errors, which would not be expected from such an experienced commander, there was no longer enough static lift to maintain level flight when the ship went below the cloud layer. Applying Circadian Performance Simulation Software to the sleep–wake patterns described by Nobile in his memoirs, we found that the predicted performance for someone awake as long as he had been is extremely low. This supports the historical evidence that human fatigue contributed to the crash of the Italia.

Keywords: Sleep; Nobile; polar exploration; aviation history; human error; mishap.

(Published: 29 July 2016)

To access the supplementary material for this article, please see the supplementary files in the column to the right (under Article Tools).

Citation: Polar Research 2016, 35, 27105, http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/polar.v35.27105

Citation: Polar Research 2016, 35, 27105, http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/polar.v35.27105

Copyright: © 2016 G.A. Bendrick et al. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, permitting all non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Published: 29 July 2016

*Correspondence to: Gregg A. Bendrick, Armstrong Flight Research Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, PO Box 273, Mailstop 4822, Edwards Air Force Base, CA 93523, USA. E-mail: gregg.a.bendrick@nasa.gov

To access the supplementary material for this article, please see the supplementary files under Article Tools, online.

 

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Author Biographies

Gregg A. Bendrick, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center

Chief Medical Officer & Senior Flight Surgeon

NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center

Edwards Air Force Base, CA 93523-0273

Scott A. Beckett, Brigham and Women's Hospital

Research Assistant, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders

Analytical Modeling Unit

Brigham and Women's Hospital

221 Longwood Avenue

Boston, Massachusetts 02115

United States of America

Elizabeth B. Klerman, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School

Associate Professor, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders

Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School

221 Longwood Avenue

Boston, Massachusetts 02115

United States of America

Published
2016-07-29
How to Cite
Bendrick, G., Beckett, S., & Klerman, E. (2016). Human fatigue and the crash of the airship <em>Italia</em&gt;. Polar Research, 35. https://doi.org/10.3402/polar.v35.27105
Section
Research/review articles