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Cargo Pilots Say Fatigue Leading To Big Danger Below

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Dozens of huge cargo jets fly over Bay Area neighborhoods daily, and the pilots flying them say lack of rest is creating a big danger below.

On August 14, 2013, at 4:47 a.m., a UPS cargo plane flying from Louisville, Ky. to Birmingham, Ala. crashed and burst into flames short of the runway. The two pilots on board didn't survive.

Cockpit discussions recovered from the black box in the crash revealed a conversation between the two that was centered on sleep.

"When my alarm went off, I mean, I'm thinking... I'm so tired," said the first officer.

"I know," replied the captain.

Federal regulations don't require cargo pilots to get as much rest as passenger pilots.

"Fatigue is an integral part of the job," UPS Pilot Bob Matchette told KPIX 5.  "It's managing that fatigue, that is where the challenge lies."

Like the grueling route that goes from Anchorage, Alaska to Oakland, then to Ontario, then back to Oakland, then to Ontario again, and finally back to Anchorage. It's been dubbed the "Oakland death march" by Matchette and his fellow pilots.

"You're always concerned about not just yourself, but obviously the people that are underneath your approach and landing path," said Matchette.

Matchette said the Alabama crash is proof that federal regulations need to change.

Yet, a time-lapsed video from the Independent Pilots Association shows that cargo pilots fly mostly at night.

"They face special challenges that someone flying during the day doesn't have," said Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, famous for piloting the US Airways jet that made a miraculous landing in New York's Hudson River. He said it's a risk to the public and the pilots.

"The cargo industry managed to get htem carved out and excluded from having to comply with better rest, so that's something that definitely has to be changed," he said.

The FAA failed to include cargo pilots when it tightened rest rules for passenger pilots last year.  Passenger pilots are limited to nine hours of duty during the night.  Cargo pilots can be scheduled for 16 hours.

"With all due respect, Captain Sullenberger is wrong. The fact is this is not a lobbying effort, this was a legal proceeding conducted at the FAA," said Steve Alterman with the Cargo Industry Association. He says the pilots don't need the extra rest.

"Our pilots already fly only about half the time than the passenger pilots do, so it's a completely different model," he said.

But, Matchette disagrees. "We fly the same equipment, landing on the same runways, in and out of the same airports as all passenger jets flying over the same neighborhoods," he said.  "I think it's absolutely safe to say that it could be a lot safer."

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