How to beat fatigue in the cockpit
BY GREG LASLO
FATIGUE IN AVIATION IS all over the news these days. Whether it’s
sleepy air traffic controllers or drowsy airline crews, the 24-hour-a-
day nature of aviation wears a lot of people out.
And that includes a lot of GA pilots, too, even though many of us
aren’t aware that it’s happening. But fatigue—and the poor decision-making, performance, and situational awareness that comes with
it—significantly ups the risk factors we assume whenever we fly. In
fact, at its worst, it may mislead us to believe that there’s nothing
wrong and everything will turn out just fine.
But the odds aren’t good. So to beat them, we asked three
experts—Glenn Harmon, Dr. Gregory Pinnell, and Dr. Sean Kevin
Roden—about how fatigue works, how to recognize it, and how to
react when we find ourselves tired in the cockpit. Not surprisingly,
the solution is giving your body what it wants: good, restful sleep.
The secret is to do that long before you ever go near the cockpit.
Fatigue adversely affects the balance of neurotransmitters in your
brain that tinker with your emotions. Researchers at Duke
University found recently that sleep deprivation leads not only to
increased activity in brain regions that assess positive outcomes, but
also to decreased activation in ones that process negative outcomes. The net result is
you’re more optimistic about your decisions,
and you’re more likely to make bad ones
when sleep deprived. Along the same lines,
the Centre for Sleep Research at the
University of South Australia determined
that 17 hours of wakefulness results in
degraded performance similar to having a
0.05 percent blood alcohol content.
While yawning is the first clue that it’s
past your bedtime, that’s hardly the biggest
problem. Instead, Harmon refers to the
“ABCs” of sleep deprivation. Your alertness
diminishes, you exhibit bad judgment, and
you lose concentration and situational
awareness. In practical terms, you flub your
instrument scan, miss radio calls, or incorrectly enter airport identifiers or frequencies
into your GPS and radio.
Eventually, you become sloppier at flying;
you’re reactive instead of proactive. “When
I’m tired, I’m probably going to be chasing
the needles more,” he said. And that may
seem okay; you’re more tolerant of lower
standards—in fact, you may put yourself into
a position where you can’t even make the
proper decision to land.
“The bottom line is fatigue, even in general aviation, is still often a factor in
mishaps,” Dr. Pinnell said. “If not being
causal, at least being significantly contributory, and we’ve got to take an approach to it
[avoiding fatigue] that’s as disciplined as we
take to checklists and maintenance to our
ON THE GROUND
While regulations prohibit commercial
pilots from flying while tired, no such limit
exists among personal pilots, so we have to
self-govern. “Sometimes our excitement and
enthusiasm covers up our being tired,”
Harmon said. “We, as humans, tend to overrate how well we feel.”