Are You Fit To Fly? Well, that depends on what kind of flying you do.

by Bob Worthington
© 2021 October. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine Online October/November 2021 issue

Recently, the world has been watching the 2021 Summer Olympics. The media has shown us every aspect of what athletes must do to win the Gold. We have seen what it takes to be a champion and glimpses of the training required to win against the best. Also witnessed was the mental downfall of Olympian Simone Biles. Now what does this have to do with being fit to fly? I will explain.

Athletes train to succeed in a specific sport. Football players do not train like track stars or boxers. Each athlete must train to gain expertise in his or her activity, different from fellow athletes in other sports. The training consists of physical exercise, as well as mental (psychological) preparation. When the world’s best gymnast, Simone Biles, dropped out of most of the Olympic competition, physically she was in perfect form, but mentally she was unable to compete. Here is an example of specialized training for one sport.

In my 20s, I was a full-time professional athlete, a competitive pistol shooter. We trained during the week and competed across the country on weekends. Bullseye pistol competition required holding a 3-pound pistol, in one hand, stretched out full length to shoot at bullseye targets. The courses of fire are slow fire, timed fire, and rapid fire at distances of 50 and 25 yards. Winning scores require stamina, hand strength, accuracy, trigger control, and mental focus. Training consisted of normal cardio running and weightlifting. Additionally, specific stamina strength training for holding the pistol involves practice shooting (dry firing without bullets in the gun) with the weight of a bottle of water tied to the pistol, and handgrip strength exercises. Accuracy and trigger control comes with hours of live and dry fire practice. Trigger control also comes by placing a coin on top of the front sight and dry firing without dropping the coin. Mental preparedness derives from actual competition and learning proper sight-target focus, trigger control, and the ability to concentrate on taking each shot, while ignoring all surrounding interferences.

Obviously, much of the training to become a world-class shooter is of little use to someone desiring to be a Gold-medalist in swimming. Being fit for competition is not limited to action sports. Grandmaster chess players also participate in their own training programs to include cardio exercises, diet and nutrition, sleep control, playing chess, and other physical regimens to combat the mental and physical stress of 10-day chess tournaments. Even champs who sit, have their fitness routines.

Each different sport requires a specific training activity designed to enhance success in that sport. To be the best, training must be tailored to allow the person to become as perfect as possible, physically and mentally, to excel in that sport. The U.S. Air Force recently recognized how sport-specific training of professional athletes minimizes injuries and maximizes performance. Understanding that its pilots are human weapons systems, the Air Force considers them as sports-specific athletes, except the sport is flying fighter jets.

A major physical and mental concern flying fighters is the 9 Gs of force pilots are subjected to during aerial combat maneuvers. To counter this, the Air Force Air Combat Command has contracted with LMR Technical Group to create and manage a physical fitness program using athletic trainers, strength coaches, and massage therapists to help relieve some symptoms from flying. LMR Tec is a small business founded by service-disabled Air Force special warfare airmen to develop and deliver training and development to solve warfare requirements. In short, the Air Force is providing fitness training programs for fighter pilots, like what professional athletes receive.

How does this relate to general aviation flying? Read on.

A pair of Brazilian professors conducted a 2019 study of pilot performance and sleep deprivation on a sample of Brazilian airline pilots. What they found is that performance, flying airliners, decreased with less sleep. Less sleep could be attributed to stress in and out of the cockpit. During this study, the researchers also found that those pilots who exercised less than 2½ hours each week, suffered most from lack of sleep. Those pilots who exercised more than 2½ hours per week reported less fatigue and better sleep resulting in better pilot performance.

Is fatigue also a problem with GA pilots?

Eighty (80) percent of GA accidents are caused by the pilot. Between 15 to 20% of GA fatal accidents are caused by fatigue. Most GA aircraft are single-pilot flown, so there is no copilot to fly if the pilot succumbs to fatigue or stress. So, yes, fatigue is a hazard for GA.

The need to be in top physical and mental condition and the stress of military pilots results in their reaching their peak performance in aeronautical abilities and skills in their early 40s. Airline pilots fare better (airline flying is less stressful than military) in which they reach peak performance in their mid-50s. GA pilots (those of us who fly single-engine aircraft for our own use) have no defined peak age because there is no organization controlling how we perform as pilots (yes, there are some FAA physical exam requirements and a check-ride every 24 months). So maybe, each GA pilot should evaluate their personal aviation missions, and like the Air Force, create their own fitness program, tailored for how and what they fly.

I had an acquaintance, a former Air Force fighter pilot, in his 80s. He owned a light sport aircraft which he spent an hour each week doing touch and goes. Our airport is uncontrolled, and most times only has a single plane in the pattern. My frail friend was quite challenged getting his plane in and out of his hangar. But in the air, his radio protocol was precise and FAA perfect. His performance as a pilot resembled him and his plane flying as a single unit. His fitness requirements were much different than the pilot who flies a high-performance, complex aircraft IFR across the country, much of the time during the night. 

Another friend, holding a commercial certificate with instrument rating, flew his twin all over North America (and once to Europe). Unfortunately, he did not exercise, gained too much weight, developing well-being issues. At times he encountered difficulty focusing when flying and soon lost his medical due to poor health.

So, how do you fly? Once a week, VFR, in the pattern or thousands of miles on long and difficult inclement weather trips? Is your physical and mental fitness appropriate for the flying you do? Are you wide awake, refreshed, and relaxed, when beginning a flight? If you are tired, stressed, or psychologically unprepared, do you cancel the flight or do you depart anyway, hoping things will get better for you, enroute?

Like world-class athletes, we should strive for perfect performance, every time we step into a plane. Doing less may lead to ending in the 80% column. Examine your flying habits and construct a personal fitness program that enhances your performance as a pilot. Air Force pilots, who are being trained in their human weapons system training program, report it does make a difference, saying they are better, safer pilots. You can replicate this.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/Under-Fire-with-ARVN-Infantry/), and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” (www.borderlandsmedia.com). Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer. Website: www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com. Worthington has placed excerpts about combat flying in Vietnam (from his books) on his website. Here is a direct link to those excerpts: www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com/combat-flying-in-vietnam/. Every couple of months he will add another excerpt.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor, mechanic, attorney and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures or following any advice discussed herein.

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