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Fighting Fatigue and Staying Alert


Did you get enough sleep last night? If you’re going to fly an airplane, it’s best to make sure that you did. Fatigue is often a reason pilots crash airplanes. It’s also just as often overlooked as a warning sign that it’s best to stay out of the cockpit, at least until you’ve had a very good nap.


Fatigue is a common physiological problem that can affect everybody, no matter what state of health you are in. Performance suffers when you’re tired. In the cockpit, sharpness dwindles, decision-making slows, and accuracy tumbles. Irritability can set in. Your thinking can become as cloudy as the sky through which you’re flying.


Fatigue can develop from many sources. But it’s important to recognize that you can feel just as tired after a day of prolonged mental stimulation as you can after a day of steady manual labour. The former might result in a headache; the latter might result in a very sore body. But the end result is the same: your ability to function is compromised.


Fatigue dilutes your ability to carry out tasks. Manual dexterity becomes impaired, attentiveness wanes, higher-order cognitive functioning starts to dawdle. Fatigue’s on-set can take place over the course of a few hours, or gradually accumulate over several days and weeks.


With every passing hour in flight, fatigue can increase. (Even after one hour of introductory aerial manoeuvring practice, a student pilot can report himself or herself as being mentally tired to the point of exhaustion.) Somewhat paradoxically, it’s at the end of a flight, when reflexes and judgment should be at their sharpest, that a pilot might be at their most fatigued.


Fatigue has many symptoms of which sleepiness is one of the most obvious. Other symptoms include: slower reaction time, reduced patience, decreased vigilance, forgetfulness, task fixation, and increase in errors. Some pilots experiencing fatigue may start over-controlling their aircraft, and/or start staring at one instrument instead of properly scanning the entire panel.


Fatigue has many causes, and lack of sleep is the biggest of them all. Other causes include poor nutrition, stress, prolonged flights, aircraft noise, eyestrain, turbulent air, and aircraft vibration. Temperature and humidity can have a negative impact on your level of alertness, as can a lengthy heavy workload. But as much as the latter can render you weary, boredom can just as easily do the same.


Treating fatigue is not that difficult: get yourself a good sleep. Sleep allows the body to rest and recuperate. Generally, most adults do best with eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, but variations are common amongst individuals. Keep in mind, though, that if you miss two hours of your regular sleep in one night, your alertness during the next day can be significantly degraded.


Be aware that, as we age, sleep difficulties can increase. The older we get, the shorter we tend to sleep. A variety of medical conditions can affect your sleep too: sleep apnea, depression, stress, and chronic pain can run you afoul of obtaining enough sleep. Various medications can do the same. Caffeine, alcohol, late-night partying, travel, and shift-work won’t do your sleep cycles much good either.


Physical fitness can help stave off fatigue. (Moderate exercise before a flight may delay the onset of drowsiness.) A proper diet can play a role in alertness as well. Studies suggest that high protein, low carbohydrate, meals promote awareness, alertness and attention. At the very least, healthy snacks in the cockpit, (such as yogurt, fruits, nuts), make much more sense than chocolate bars and chips.


If you’ve got someone with you in the cockpit with whom to chat, then keep a conversation going. Conversation can help keep you alert while flying. Keep busy, too, plotting your flight’s progress and routinely scanning and monitoring other flight-related activities.


Coffee can keep you alert when you feel drowsy. But it’s also a diuretic. You don’t want to get too dehydrated when you’re flying: that can accelerate the onset of drowsiness. And if combined with a low-humidity cockpit, your susceptibility to dehydration can become even higher.


Staying alert while piloting your airplane is common sense. However, busy lifestyles can wear down even the most cautious and prepared of pilots. Quite simply, the key to combatting fatigue is sleep. It’s the best measure to counter cockpit drowsiness. Without the proper rest, you’ll never be at your best.