An Insidious Threat

by Dan McDowell
Published in Midwest Flyer – Dec 2016/Jan 2017

Ask any aviator what he/she likes to do most, and 9 out of 10 times they will say, with little or no hesitation “FLYING!” For many, it is pure recreation. For others, it is a serious hobby, and for still others, it is a career. But the common thread between them all is a deep-seated, unshakable love of flight. Another common thread among aviators is the to frequent problem of “pilot fatigue.”

In the words of Dr. Stanley R. Mohler, M.D., “Fatigue is defined as a subjective feeling of tiredness that makes concentration on a task, difficult.” John A. Caldwell, PhD, wrote in a May 1999 Flying Safety magazine succinctly stating, “As the pilot’s fatigue levels increase, accuracy and timing degrade, lower standards of performance are unconsciously accepted, the ability to integrate information from the individual’s flight instruments into a meaningful overall pattern is degraded, and a narrowing of attention occurs that leads to forgetting or ignoring important aspects of flight tasks.” Caldwell adds, “In addition, the fatigued pilot…loses the ability to effectively divide their mental resources among different tasks.”

Fatigue, like complacency, is an insidious threat. Clearly it can be seen in the previous paragraph how a pilot’s fatigued condition can and will affect one’s abilities in the cockpit. It is possible for the fatigued pilot to involuntarily fall asleep especially during periods of lower cockpit workloads. The constant hum of the engine and buzz of the electronics can easily lull a fatigued pilot into sleep. That pilot will not remember falling asleep, and will likely have no idea how long he/she was asleep.

Fatigue frequently causes a noticeable change of a person’s mood. The individual can become uncharacteristically argumentative and irritable. As might be expected, the fatigued individual most likely will not recognize their own impairments and may in fact think they are fully capable, alert, and functional. These feelings can be falsely enhanced if the individual has used stimulants like caffeine or over-the-counter medicines that may contain amphetamines.

To help avoid falling into this condition, every pilot should do everything possible to maintain a very healthy and active lifestyle. This includes developing and maintaining a proper and adequate diet; proper and regular sleep; planned and regular exercise; no smoking; and very limited use of alcoholic beverages. The choice is yours.

When you go for your flight physical, for instance, take time to talk to your doctor about effects of fatigue on the mind and body. Let your medical professionals design a diet and exercise program that is right for you. That will help ensure that you will be healthy, enjoying and sharing flying for a long time, while avoiding an insidious threat.

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