Altered States

Altered States

Altered States

Flying the redeye without reverting into a Neanderthal

Fa • tigue: / fuh-teeg / Noun
1a Extreme tiredness; typically resulting from mental or physical exertion, sleep deprivation or illness. Known to cause irritability, poor judgement and blabbering like a caveman.

The first time I flew while tired (the word fatigue wasn’t in vogue at the time) was as a teen in a Cherokee 140. We left Kalamazoo one evening and flew all night to Billings. Having survived unscathed, later that summer I flew another all-nighter to New Bedford and then several to Denver in the fall. That would be Stapleton, when it still existed.

My fatigue exposure in the military also came while flying long distances after midnight: Nellis AFB, Nevada to central Florida in a practice run for the Libya bombing, Vegas to Italy for a NATO exercise (see Passing Gas T&T January 2011) and another to deliver four, factory-new F-16’s from Texas to Greece. While young and bulletproof at the time, this Captain is no longer knobby-kneed nor Kevlar encrusted. And now, with the new and not-so-improved rest rules, a professional pilot’s schedule can be fatiguing.

Burning the Midnight Jet-A

When I first upgraded to Captain on the MD-80, my low seniority forced me to fly all-nighters. I’d flown plenty of them as an FO in LAX 17 years earlier, mostly to the East Coast and Guadalajara, Mexico. I quickly discovered the trips to be more painful than I had remembered. The young FO’s attributed it to my age. Of course, they were right, those darned knobby-kneed, bulletproof and insensitive whippersnappers. Today, with the integration of our two airlines and a transition to the B-737, I find myself junior once again; returning to ORD from SFO, PDX, SEA or LAS at 5:30 a.m. I arrive tired and grumpy, feeling like I’ve battled a woolly mammoth. Luckily for those around me and unlike the Air Force missions, the arrival is without ordnance or that sticky thing from the Passing Gas article. In the Air Force, we learned that flexibility is the key to air power. A similar respect for flexibility is needed as we attempt to squeeze more work and play into each flying day while avoiding fatigue.

Stupid is As Stupid Does

Due to my post-merger juniority, and having no choice but to be flexible and adapt when faced with an all-nighter, I’ve embraced the philosophy of a famous shrimp boat captain and long-distance runner: Professor Forrest Gump. Not the box of chocolates one; the “stupid is as stupid does” adage. To ensure proper rest, my layovers no longer include all-day leisure events like stupid golf or stupid tours of the city and countryside. And no stupid socializing and staying up to buy the crew dinner. Nor does our new/old T&T editor benefit from my elucubrating over articles all-daylong at that stupid all-inclusive resort in Cabo (as demonstrated by her need to edit my incessant use of parenthetical statements, creative as they may be, my grammatical legerdemain and the ingenious application of made-up words—like juniority for example). Strategic time management, which feels a lot like being bored, has usurped this geriatric captain’s eating/playing/writing regimen. Perhaps with fewer parenthetical statements, such as this and a power nap, I can transform from a blabbering, cryptograph chiseling caveman to Professor Gump’s humble and contrite persona in order to finish this story.

The Power Nap

Do they work? Well, the FAA, airlines, and military have considered allowing cockpit napping for some time with strict guidelines for the remaining, awake, pilot(s). It’s a fine idea, but extremely difficult to sell to the public. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation related the story of a GA pilot whose “power nap” ended when he awoke, unhurt, in a corn field. And another when a CFI’s micro-nap on final allowed his student to collide with a snow bank. Obviously, strategic napping should only be employed with another awake and alert pilot able to monitor the airplane. At one point, official guidance for power-napping was to rest to the point at which a pencil would fall from between your fingers. More recently, it was shown that 15 to 20 minutes is needed to put us at the proper place on the sleep, sine wave chart without developing “sleep inertia,” which makes you feel worse after the nap than if you hadn’t napped at all. Without the luxury of a power nap, how do we combat fatigue to avoid missing a radio call, forgetting a checklist item, or waking up in a cornfield? Here’s a list that is so easy, a cave man could do it (thank you Geico Insurance advertisement):

  • Get 7-8 hours of sleep every day;
  • Limit alcohol;
  • Avoid a large meal;
  • Stay hydrated;
  • Use a noise-canceling headset;
  • Bring along a pax, or better
    still, another pilot;
  • Turn on the overhead lights;
  • Park the plane by 10 p.m.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

Even if we do all the right things, physical and mental demons may lurk in the sleep-inducing realm of fatigue. Apnea and hypopnea can be defined as total and partial obstructions of the airway. When you stop breathing while asleep, your brain sends a wake-up call after about 10 seconds. Time zone changes and alcohol can delay that call by as much as 30 seconds or longer. This can result in significant fatigue as well as serious long-term health issues. Why did the Feds get all wound up over sleep apnea a few years ago? Because OSA can result in strokes, depression, arrhythmia, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, obesity and impotence. That last one shouldn’t affect our flying much, but it’s nice to know that the Feds are looking out for our, ahem, performance.

OSA can be diagnosed through a sleep study and corrective actions include: losing weight, adjusting sleeping posture or environment, use of dental appliances or a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine as well as surgical remedies. Notice that neither alcohol nor sleep-inducing pharmaceuticals are on the list of remedies. I recently started using an app on my phone called Sleep Cycle to quantitatively monitor my rest. The phone app tracks not only total sleep hours, but sleep cycles (the deep and light sleep sine wave). It also monitors and records snoring, which can be indicative of OSA.

Body Clock

Summer means pancake breakfasts, poker runs, golf fly-ins, camping with the plane, and the airshow season, along with the accompanying carnival-like food. It brings longer days and we may start flying at sun-up and not put the airplane to bed for another 10-15 hours. A disruption to our normal sleep cycle is inevitable. This means a tired, sunburned and dehydrated pilot, with a tummy full of marginal food, at the controls making the decisions.

Circadian rhythm is a physiological cycle. It’s the involuntary result of our need to regenerate for about one-third of each 24 hours. It recurs naturally, even in the absence of light fluctuations. There is no way to immediately adjust that rhythm to the needs of our schedule. Current thinking is that it takes one full day to move the cycle by one time zone.

Continuing activity into the sleep portion of the cycle increases risk of fatigue. Also, darkness changes the rules and the risks. Our visual inputs are less; at a time when we have been awake longer. Let’s admit it: night flying is more like instrument flying than not, even with a full moon or visible horizon. Add to the darkness a disruption of our circadian rhythm, and fatigue with the resulting degradation to our performance can turn the night into a nightmare.

Get A Room

Sometimes we try to squeeze as much recreational time or business efficiencies into the trip as possible before we head home, and it’s easy to let our judgement become distorted. Fatigue is similar to hypoxia: we simply don’t notice or care as much as we should. We can convince ourselves that fatigue has value that is worth the risk. One of our readers mailed me about his fatigue experiences. While driving home one night from the airport, he found himself following the centerline of a road as we would in our airplanes while taxiing. On another flight, he stopped short after recognizing his fatigue. We’ve all been that tired, usually finding a rest stop for a few hours while driving or landing short of our destination when flying. Like practicing a go-around or a divert, once you have landed short a couple of times to sleep, the consternation of adding a day to your trip becomes less of a conundrum and more like a normal procedural decision.


The airplane doesn’t know that the weather is crap, it’s dark or that it’s 2 a.m., and you’re falling asleep. It also doesn’t know that you overflew the destination during your power nap. If you become fatigued, rest. If you don’t, the risks increase exponentially and bad things can happen. To survive, the early hominids learned that stupid is as stupid does. Fatigue can put you into an altered state of consciousness and revert you to a blabbering Neanderthal. Don’t be the stupid one that gets eaten.

Authors note:

An acknowledging head-nod to Ken Russell’s 1980 sensory deprivation film, Altered States, starring William Hurt. The Sleep Cycle app is free at the app store.

About the Author

Leave a Reply