Fitness to Fly: IMSAFE
KBKL – 29 Dec 16 – 2250L – 26023G32KT 6SM -SN BR SCT012 BKN021 OVC026 01/M02A. The Aircraft: 2012 Citation 525C CJ4, 6 SOB. Crew: Owner-pilot. The passengers: his wife, two sons, a neighbor girl and her dad. The trip: a one day out-and-back for a basketball game. Last radar contact: 2,100 MSL (1,600 AGL) over Lake Erie, descent rate 3,750 fpm. Speed: 245 kts, accelerating. TRACON: 12.5 rpm, 4.8 seconds/sweep.
Since the aircraft did not appear on the next radar sweep five seconds later, you could postulate that radar coverage was to about 1,800 MSL or 1,200 AGL. As the aircraft accelerated to perhaps 270 to 280 kts, the final 1,200 feet of the descent below radar coverage consumed something less than one additional radar sweep, or three to four seconds.
The airplane was capable, the pilot experienced. His family was onboard; he would not knowingly push his luck. The flight home was at the end of a long day. It was a cold, windy and bumpy departure. They were most likely on top at about 3,500 for less than a minute. And something happened: to the airframe or motor(s), the avionics, the autopilot, the flight instruments, to him physically or to his situational awareness. Maybe it was something a little bit bad. Maybe it was something terribly bad. Either way, the jet got away from him.
A Critical Decision
Would you be ready for “it”? And what is “ready?” Has anyone ever officially asked you before a flight? When the answer is obvious, you know. But how do you determine where the fuzzy, judgement edge of the envelope lies?
In the Part 121 world, we’re required to electronically sign our names before every flight verifying that we are healthy, rested and up to the task. It’s part of the new crew rest FAR’s intended to address our state of restfulness, to ensure adequate sleep and to mitigate the effects of short- and long-term fatigue. While primarily focused toward flight scheduling practices and daily changes to those schedules, it also provides a no-fault method to remove yourself from flying. In Part 91, our self-regulated, fit-to-fly determination is unmonitored, yet as critical as fuel and weather minimums.
Fit to fly is not only about sickness and fatigue. It means mentally up to speed as well. How much mental energy did you already spend before this flight? Once-in-a-lifetime events like the loss of a friend, family member or even a pet, a jam-packed holiday season or an issue with children or grandchildren, a foreclosure, an ongoing IRS audit or a lawsuit can make it easy to recognize if we are unfit to fly because we feel bad. But it’s not just during a period of unhappy, bad mental issues that causes problems. A long day of excitement, laughter and good times are tiring. In fact, a good-times exhaustion is more difficult to recognize as a threat because you feel “up” and your mental cup feels full when it’s actually empty.
Once the adrenaline subsides, it will affect our ability to focus. The aerospace vehicles and the airspace system in which we operate are intricate and complicated. Mental and physical fatigue can cause us to skip a checklist item, deviate from an instrument procedure or miss radio calls. And perhaps forget to adjust an aircraft system or navigation component from one phase of flight to another. We could forget something potentially dangerous like a landing clearance, extending the flaps or even the landing gear. Flying when we are not at full strength can cause confusion, disorientation and slow reactions, especially if we are surprised by something bad, or something terribly bad. We must accurately assess our readiness to face both non-normal and emergency situations.
Do you remember the mental exercises (typically writing, math and simple puzzles) used in the reduced oxygen trainer or altitude chamber to demonstrate the onset and effects of hypoxia? Alcohol, hypoxia, mental tiredness and sleep deprivation all have similar symptoms and create similar barriers to decision making. When tired or sick, checklist items, system limitations and instrument procedures can seem as difficult to perform as the seven steps in factoring a quadratic polynomial. If we are not fit to fly, could the unfitness itself cause us to misjudge the fuzzy edges of our fit-to-fly decision? Probably, yes. So here is a good old-fashioned memory mnemonic to help us methodically measure our fitness to act as PIC:
I = Illness
The FAA regulates this topic by stating that if a pilot has or develops a known medical condition that would prevent him from obtaining a medical certificate, he is prohibited from flying as a required crewmember. The pilot alone is responsible for ensuring that his own health is up to par before taking the controls. From sinus pressure to a fever, a cold or flu, a persistent cough to general malaise, pilots can become more of a risk to the flight than an asset.
M = Medication
Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can be dangerous for a pilot to take before flying. We need to be aware of residual effects of both short-term and long-term use of medications. Even after the medication has been stopped, the effects may remain in the body for some time. You can Google the half-life for medications to give yourself a clue, but not an excuse.
S = Stress
A small level of stress can be good; it keeps us sharp. But stress can accumulate and affect performance. There are at least three kinds of stress that pilots should be aware of: physiological, environmental and psychological. Physiological stress is stress in the physical sense. It comes from fatigue, strenuous exercise, being out of shape or changing time zones, to name a few. Unhealthy eating habits, illness, and other physical ailments are also included in this category. Environmental stress comes from our immediate surroundings and includes things such as being too hot or too cold, inadequate oxygen levels or loud noises. Psychological stress can be more difficult to identify. This category of stress includes anxiety, social and emotional factors and mental fatigue. Psychological stress can occur for many reasons such as divorce, family problems, financial troubles or just a change in schedule.
A = Alcohol
The rules surrounding the use of alcohol while flying are clear: FAR 91.17 prohibits the use of alcohol within the eight hours before flying, while under the influence of alcohol, or with a blood alcohol content of 0.04 percent or greater. Remember, we can follow the “Eight hours from bottle-to- throttle” rule and still not be fit to fly. Hangovers are dangerous in the cockpit with effects similar to being drunk or ill: Nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue, dehydration, difficulty focusing, dizziness, etc. The FAA recommends that pilots wait at least 24 hours after drinking before flying.
F = Fatigue
The effects of fatigue are cumulative, meaning that small sleep deprivations over time can add up. Pilots should also consider time changes, jet lag and day/night scheduling options when managing fatigue. Both mental and physical fatigue should be assessed.
E = Eating
Should you eat just before going on a flight? How about that bowl of chili and a plate of nachos with jalapenos? You need to plan this aspect of your schedule. Eat close enough to the flight that your body is fueled but not so close that you are digesting a lot of food just before and during the flight. And think about which foods do not agree with your tummy. Especially the ones that your digestive system likes to “process” quickly, if you know what I mean.
A man’s got to know his limitations.
– Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood)
After a day of meetings, decision-making or fun and excitement, before you hop into your airplane to go home or to the next scheduled event, find somewhere that you can be alone. Where you don’t have anyone to convince you of how great a pilot you are and how important, routine, easy or short the next flight will be. Have a talk with yourself that goes something like this: In the first 10 minutes of this flight, I am going to lose an engine, the autopilot and part of the NAV system. Someone in the back of the plane will be asking what the loud noise was. Am I ready for it? Can I handle a hand-flown, single-engine approach in this weather with a degraded NAV system? When the answer is no, tell your boss, the pax or your spouse that you can’t fly when the weather is like this, at this time of day or when tired, burned out, headache, hungry, diarrhea, you lost a sock, broke a shoestring — whatever. Lie to them if you need to; tell them you can’t factor a quadratic polynomial. But don’t lie to yourself. Because something a little bit bad, or something atrocious, can happen. Maybe something you can handle. Maybe something no one could handle. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time.”
Give yourself the time.