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Fighting Fatigue

By Tom Hoffmann
Source: FAA Safety Briefing, July/August 2017

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word fatigue as “physical or mental exhaustion; weariness.” Some further digging reveals that it has Latin origins in the mid-17th century with the term ad fatim, meaning to be at satiety or at a bursting point. I have to chuckle and wonder if those word originators were new parents; “bursting point” seems like an all-too-fitting description of my exhaustion level soon after my second daughter’s arrival. I have always heard people talk about sleeping while standing up, but I can now say I have personally confirmed this phenomenon! To fight off fatigue, you just learn to rest wherever and whenever you can. I think many new parents can relate to this, but it almost gets to the point where you can vividly remember the time and place of any good rest periods — and you talk about them with the same fervor a fisherman would use to describe his prize catch.

My personal favorite was a snooze I snuck in after a drive to the pediatrician. Both the newborn and my 18-month-old were snug in their car seats, and mommy had passed out between them. With the car still parked in the driveway, I contorted myself over and around two bucket seats and the gear shift, closed my eyes, and was dreaming before my head hit the perforated leather. I can only imagine what the neighbors were thinking! All I know is that the whole family got an hour power nap, and we were all better for it.

When it comes to aviation however, managing fatigue is a far more serious subject with often deadly repercussions. Search for the term pilot fatigue in the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) probable cause reports and you’ll see exactly what I mean. As further evidence of its importance, the NTSB also elevated the topic of reducing fatigue-related accidents to its 2017 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements (ntsb.gov/safety/mwl). The bottom line is that airplanes are complex machines that demand our complete attention; there’s simply no room for the performance-robbing attributes of fatigue when flying.

For most general aviation pilots, managing fatigue often boils down to one basic concept: individual responsibility. You might hear that term echoed elsewhere in this issue, as it is one of the key tenets of the FAA’s new BasicMed regulation that enables pilots to fly without holding a medical certificate, providing they meet certain requirements. Medical self-certification is a big part of that responsibility, and it entails an honest assessment of your fitness to fly before each and every flight — including a check of your fatigue-meter.

As I wrote in the article “Say Ahh: A Pilot’s Guide to Self-Assessing Risk,” in the January/February 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing, managing fatigue requires you to listen to what your body is telling you. If you’re feeling sluggish and find yourself uncontrollably yawning, take heed. Keep in mind also that fatigue isn’t limited to just these more obvious signs. It’s often a more insidious problem fueled by a creeping accumulation of inadequate rest (e.g., long nights at the office, a new baby in the house, etc.). The effects of fatigue on a task like flying can be equally subtle — a pilot may not recognize loss of attention, slowed reaction times, or poor judgment until it’s too late.

The simple solution to addressing fatigue is to get more rest. I know, you’ve heard it a thousand times, but strive for eight hours of uninterrupted rest per night. A wristwatch activity tracker might be helpful in monitoring your daily rest cycles. I get a daily reminder from mine of how woefully sleep-deprived I am these days. Thankfully, flying is not on my immediate radar.

Although fatigue is certainly a prevalent factor in many aviation accidents, it is also one of the most preventable. Improving your self-discipline along with having a greater awareness of your personal limitations (both physical and mental) can often make all the difference in having an enjoyable, productive, and most importantly, safe flight.

Now get some rest and feel free to brag about it. I won’t mind!

Learn More

FAA Brochure — Fatigue in Aviation, go.usa.gov/xkMwc

NTSB Most Wanted List — Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents, go.usa.gov/x5zdT

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.