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Fighting Fatigue

Frederick E.Tilton, M.D.
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Taking care of your aircraft is a key focus of this issue, but it is also important to take care of the pilot. A vital part of caring for the pilot is dealing with fatigue, which is an inescapable aspect of life. For the average individual, it is a minor inconvenience. For a pilot, though, its consequences can be disastrous.

Fatigue and Aviation

Fatigue is characterized by increased discomfort with lessened capacity for work, reduced efficiency of accomplishment, and loss of capacity to respond to stimulation. It is usually accompanied by a feeling of weariness. The cause of fatigue is not as important as its negative impact on a person’s ability to perform tasks. Several studies have demonstrated that fatigue can significantly impair the ability to carry out tasks that require manual dexterity, concentration, and higher-order intellectual processing—all of which are required to safely pilot an airplane.

Although general aviation pilots are not typically exposed to the circadian disruptions common to many airline pilots, fatigue from other causes, in combination with the relatively higher workload of single pilot operation, can create a safety hazard. These dangers can be exacerbated if, as is often the case, the pilot does not recognize the existence or degree of fatigue. Studies show that fatigued individuals consistently underestimate how tired they really are, as measured by physiologic parameters such as sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, apathy, annoyance, increased reaction time, decreased vigilance, memory problems, task fixation, and increased errors while performing tasks. Individuals may also fail to realize that fatigue cannot be overcome by experience, motivation, medication, coffee, or willpower.

Antidotes and Prevention

Adequate sleep is the best way to prevent or resolve fatigue. Sleep gives the body a period of rest and recuperation. On average, a healthy adult does best with eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Medical conditions (e.g., sleep apnea, insomnia) can influence the quality and duration of sleep. Social and behavioral issues play a role, too. Late-night activities, excessive alcohol or caffeine use, travel, interpersonal strife, uncomfortable surroundings, and shift work can all have an adverse impact on sleep quality and duration. Lifestyle changes are not easy for individuals; nevertheless, GA pilots should make every effort to modify factors that cause fatigue. Here are a few tips:


  • Be mindful that some medications can cause drowsiness or impaired alertness.
  • Consult a physician to diagnose and treat any medical conditions causing sleep problems.
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment at home and, when traveling, select hotels that provide a comfortable environment.
  • Turn in at the same time each night, and get into the habit of sleeping eight hours per night.
  • Limit daytime naps to 30 minutes, since longer naps produce sleep inertia.
  • Get plenty of rest and minimize stress before a flight. If problems preclude a good nights sleep, rethink the flight and postpone it accordingly.


  • Consume alcohol or caffeine within three to four hours of going to bed.
  • Eat a heavy meal just before bedtime.
  • Take work to bed.
  • Exercise within two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Use sleeping pills (prescription or otherwise).

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Good health and safe flying!

Dr. Tilton received both an M.S. and a M.D. degree from the University of New Mexico and an M.P.H. from the University of Texas. During a 26-year career with the U.S. Air Force, Dr. Tilton logged more than 4,000 hours as a command pilot and senior flight surgeon flying a variety of aircraft. He currently flies the Cessna Citation 560 XL.

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