PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 July, 1998, 12:00am

While passengers struggle to nap in cramped airline seats, pilots could be sleeping like babies in the cockpit, research indicates.

A study by NASA and American aviation experts recently found one in seven pilots dozed off at the controls on overnight flights. It also learned of 25 dangerous situations caused by pilot sleepiness in the last five years.

About 70 per cent of airline crashes involve human error, and half of those could be linked to pilot fatigue, experts say.

In one incident, a Boeing 747 captain flying from South Korea to Alaska anonymously reported that he and his two co-pilots had all fallen asleep at the controls.

They were exhausted, he said. 'Each time I awoke, the other two crew members were also asleep.' In another case, a pilot told of dozing off while landing at Milwaukee airport in a snowstorm.

'I wish I could say this was isolated, but it wasn't,' he said.

In August 1993, a DC-8 cargo plane crashed and burned on landing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in broad daylight. Three of the crew were seriously injured.

The captain, who had slept just 15 hours in four days, said he had no memory of looking for the airport or adjusting power to land.

In the 1980s, the pilots of a transcontinental cargo flight nodded off as they approached their destination of Los Angeles.

On autopilot, they flew on for almost an hour before air traffic controllers could rouse them.

Pilot fatigue was also believed to be a factor in the crash of a Pan Am 707 in Tahiti in 1973 and the collision of two jumbo jets in the Canary Islands.