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Asleep at the Wheel

Asleep at the Wheel

Being stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala., means you’ll usually have to drive no less than an hour to find certain recreational activities. Whether you’re heading to the sugar-white sands of Panama City Beach, trekking to Lake Eufaula to fish or going to see an SEC college football game, you’ll have to drive, sometimes for multiple hours. I’m sure a lot of flight school students — or, for that matter, anyone who’s ever been stationed at Fort Rucker — can relate to following story.

As a flight student living on a second lieutenant’s paycheck, spending way too much cash on extracurricular activities, I searched endlessly for ways to save money. One way I tried to save was by booking the cheapest flights I could find for trips back home for special occasions. During a time when I was “in a bubble” in flight school, meaning I was waiting for the next phase to start, I put in for a four-day pass to fly home and surprise my mom for Mother’s Day. After a quick search, I found the cheapest flight was a 6:30 a.m. Friday departure out of Atlanta.

Any safety-conscious Soldier with such an early flight knows the smart move is to drive to Atlanta the night before and stay in a hotel. But that would involve spending more money, so I opted for a different course of action. My plan was to go to bed as early as possible Thursday night and wake up super early Friday morning and head for Atlanta. With my mind set, I then did a little backward planning to determine what time I’d need to leave Fort Rucker to make my flight. Here’s what I figured: For a 6:30 a.m. flight, I’d need to arrive at the airport no later than an hour prior. It would be a 3½-hour drive to the airport, but I also needed to factor in the hour I’d lose due to the change in time zones. In the end, I figured I need to leave Fort Rucker no later than 1:30 a.m. to make the flight. No problem, I thought.

As a man who loves sleep and puts a lot of value in the Army fighter management system, I wanted to ensure I got a minimum of seven to eight hours of sleep prior to driving. This meant I needed to be in bed about 6 p.m. Thursday night. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to go to sleep at 6 p.m. when your circadian rhythm is set for 10 p.m., but I can tell you it’s hard. On top of that, I was excited about going home for the first time in several months. So, while I was in bed at 6 p.m., I certainly wasn’t sleeping. In fact, I was wide awake.

For the next few hours, I tossed and turned and stared at the clock. Before I knew it, it was midnight. Realizing sleep was not going to come, I made a decision. I’d just get out of bed and start preparing to leave. Once the car was packed, I hoped in and left for Atlanta a half-hour earlier than planned — on no sleep.

The drive from Fort Rucker to Atlanta isn’t the most entertaining of rides, especially in the middle of the night on back country roads. The first hour of the trip actually went swimmingly. I was still excited to see my family and didn’t feel that tired. The second hour, however, started getting dicey when I felt a wave of exhaustion taking over my body. Being a bit of a health nut, energy drinks were not an option for me. Instead, I had packed some snacks I thought would help combat fatigue. I ate my almonds, which helped, but not much. I figured I would be OK if I could just keep myself from thinking about being tired.

About 30 minutes later, while driving through Phenix City, Ala., my drowsiness was replaced with fear and anxiety when I noticed police sirens and lights behind me. I didn’t realize I was driving 10 miles over the speed limit. One $200 ticket later, I continued my journey. Paranoid about getting pulled over again, I flipped on the cruise control.

A half-hour from the airport, I realized I was finally in the home stretch. By now, total exhaustion had kicked in, and the cruise control was making the trip even more boring. I caught myself starting to doze off. I thought, “OK, I’ll drive five more minutes before I eat the PB&J sandwich I packed.” Then my eyes closed.

I felt the rumble strips under the right-side tires, followed immediately by the left-side tires. My eyes popped open and I realized I was completely off the road, in the grass and heading directly for a speed limit sign. With no time to correct, I slammed into the sign and then swerved to the left. Doing so caused me to temporarily lose control of the vehicle. Before I knew it, I was heading across I-85 North aimed straight at the median. Again, I swerved, this time to the right. Now I was fishtailing in the middle of the interstate.

I am not sure how, but I managed to regain control of the vehicle and continue driving north. With my heart pounding and sweat pouring off my forehead, I quickly glanced in the rearview mirror and saw three lanes of traffic slowly following to ensure I wasn’t going to continue my highway antics. I then pulled off onto the side of the road to regain my composure and check the vehicle for damage.

  • 1 January 2014
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 13181
  • Comments: 0
Categories: Off-DutyPMV-4