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Tired Takeoffs: Drawing the Line on Fatigue

By Paul Engstrom, IFA Member and Aviation Writer

Jessica Dubroff had high hopes when she, a flight instructor and her father lifted off in a small plane from Cheyenne, Wyoming., on April 11, 1996, for another leg of their transcontinental journey.

Dubroff, age 7, aimed to become the youngest pilot ever to fly coast to coast. But the dream ended tragically that day when the overloaded Cessna 177B stalled and crashed on takeoff, killing all three aboard.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board cited stormy weather as the chief probable cause, it also noted that the pilot in command'52-year-old Joe Reid, Dubroff's instructor'suffered from fatigue.

Indeed, the trio had set an ambitious cross-country schedule for themselves, partly because of media commitments to publicize the flight. They were pushing the envelope not only on fatigue, but also on bad weather and improper weight and balance, all of which added up to disaster.

That's the thing about fatigue. It's one of those easily ignored, hard-to-quantify factors that investigators lump into the 'pilot error' category when they try to explain a crash.

Often, the pilot doesn't even realize he's pooped, but rather considers himself to be fully alert and capable, says Stanley R. Mohler, MD, Director of Aerospace Medicine at Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio.

No one will ever know the exact role that fatigue played in the Dubroffs' case. But the accident does make clear that the level of energy you bring to the cockpit deserves serious consideration.

Flying itself can be exhausting. Throw in a grueling day or week at the office, one or two nights of poor sleep, or a strenuous workout at the gym'along with fatigue caused by lack of food, a lousy diet, anxiety or poor health'and trouble may be brewing.

In a nutshell, fatigue impairs concentration, judgment, decision-making and problem solving.

As it increases, a pilot unconsciously lowers his standards of performance, according to John A. Caldwell, director of Sustained Operations Research in the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory at Fort Rucker, Alabama. For example, the pilot gets sloppy when it comes to the accuracy and timing of flight maneuvers.

He's also less able to absorb the overall meaning of information from his flight instruments, and is more prone to forget important cockpit tasks. In some cases, he may even doze off at the controls.

Other telltale signs of fatigue are:

  • Difficulty waking up without an alarm clock.
  • A temptation to nap during the day or trouble staying awake.
  • Irritability or depression.
  • Frequent yawning.
  • Lethargy or a feeling of indifference.
  • Reduced visual perception.
  • Short-term memory loss.

Remember, no one is immune to fatigue. And only one thing will be damaged when you choose not to fly because of it: your pride.

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, Calif. 

The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Paul Engstrom assume any responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or others on your behalf take based on the information given in this article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may have.