It was a surprising and frightening statistic. Several years ago, I attended the Bombardier Safety Stand-Down in Wichita, Kansas. The Stand-Down is a two-day series of Pilot Safety seminars and workshops, aimed primarily at pilots and operators of business jets. During one presentation, the speaker asked the roughly 300 people in attendance to answer a question: “Have you ever fallen asleep in the cockpit in flight?” Responses were anonymous through a “clicker”-type remote system. The result: over 60% of the professional pilots in attendance admitted to having fallen asleep at the controls at least once. In follow-up questions, at least half of the remainder reported at least one instance when they found it very hard to stay awake in flight.
More recently, I attended an NBAA’s Single-Pilot Safety Stand-Down. One of the speakers asked the same question of this group of pilots, most of who fly alone in piston twins and turbine airplanes. Once again, there was an anonymous response system; nearly two-thirds of the pilots reported instances of having great difficulty staying awake in flight. Several admitted to actually falling asleep while in solo command of an aircraft in flight.
The National Transportation Safety Board reports that pilot fatigue issues were contributors to 23% of aircraft crashes in 2012. NTSB investigators are now researching an accident pilot’s sleep patterns in the 72 hours preceding a crash, when such information is available.
Fatigue is real
Non-aviation, but nevertheless important, research by the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety reveals that after rising from an uninterrupted eight-hours of sleep:
- Being awake for 17 hours has the same deleterious performance effect as a 0.05 blood alcohol content.
- Being awake for 21 hours has the same performance effect as a 0.08 blood alcohol content – the legal limit for driving in Canada and most of the United States.
- Being awake for 24 hours has the same performance effect as
a blood alcohol content of 0.10.
- Numerous studies list common behaviors in fatigue-study subjects. As you read the list, think about how often we read the same words in discussions
of aviation crash factors.
- Reduced decision-making ability.
- Reduced ability to do complex planning.
- Reduced communication skills.
- Reduced productivity and performance.
- Reduced attention and vigilance.
- Reduced ability to handle stress.
- Reduced reaction time – both in speed and thought.
- Loss of memory or the ability to recall details.
- Failure to respond to changes in surroundings or information provided – loss of situational awareness.
- Inability to stay awake, involuntary microsleeps – short sleep periods the subjects are not even aware are taking place.
- Increased tendency for risk-taking.
- Increased forgetfulness.
- Increased errors in judgment.
It’s almost as if we made sure pilots get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, and limited their duty day to avoid noticeable reductions in performance due to fatigue, we could virtually eliminate all aircraft crashes. That’s hyperbole, of course. But if the NTSB is right, we could eliminate nearly a quarter of all accidents if we could just deal with pilot fatigue.
Everybody talks about it…
To paraphrase Mark Twain, everybody talks about fatigue, but nobody does anything about it. Most Twin and Turbine pilots use the airplane for business. Limiting the duty day, that is, establishing a maximum number of hours from alarm clock to engine shutdown (NBAA recommends 14 hours maximum), runs counter to the realities of business and the flexibility we get from the use of a business or personal airplane. Reducing that 14-hour recommendation, when you haven’t had eight hours of uninterrupted sleep the night before, seems even more anti-business.
How do we reconcile succeed-or-fail business reality to the life-and-death reality of flying while fatigued? Like any good business decision, it requires strategy and flexibility. Your strategy may be as simple as planning your meetings and site visits so you fly at the times that best fit your lifestyle.
For example, I’ve always been a morning person (hate me if you wish). When I was flying a Beech Baron over 300 hours a year, I found that I was far fresher getting wheels up at 5 am than I was if I took off at 7 pm. It also helped that an early morning departure meant I was flying toward daylight conditions – everything gets better when it’s easier to see. Like most people, I also tend to slow down in the middle of the afternoon, during “siesta time.” From a flying standpoint, that tells me to avoid flights over the roughly 2 o’clock to 3:30 period. Take a good look at your personal sleep and drowsiness patterns, and see if you can arrange your schedule to avoid flying during your awareness downtimes.
Any good strategy requires flexibility, and flying is no different. You have to be flexible because of weather and equipment failures. Allow yourself to be as flexible about your fatigue state as well. That may mean that you finish your last meeting at 4 pm but stay overnight to fly home early the next morning, if that matches your personal rest patterns. The good news is that most airport hotels have low aircrew rates (just ask), and modern interconnectivity means you can work from just about anywhere. In fact, I’m about to email this article to Twin and Turbine’s editor from an airport. With cell phones and wireless access, most people will never know you’re in Allentown instead of Albany or Atlanta.
In flying, as well as business, there is a strong culture of rewarding those who push on for long hours and denigrating those who get tired and give up. Another word for fatigue is “weakness,” and no pilot or business-person wants to appear to be weak. Instead, we should think about fatigue (or lack of fatigue) as a resource. We need to plan about the fatigue reserve in our bodies the same way we strategize about fuel in the airplane’s tanks – establish a maximum duty day limit and an even healthier personal – minimum “awareness reserve” that you’ll want to have at the end of every flight.
Being tired in the cockpit makes it far more likely you’ll make the kinds of mistakes found in most NTSB reports. To reduce your risk by as much as 25%, according to the NTSB, it’s time to get real about fatigue.
Thomas P. Turner is an ATP CFII/MEI, holds a Masters Degree in Aviation Safety, and was the 2010 National FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year. Subscribe to Tom’s free FLYING LESSONS Weekly e-newsletter at www.mastery-flight-training.com.