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Finding and Fighting Fatigue

By William B. Johnson and Katrina E. Avers

Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Pilot and controller fatigue has been making aviation headlines in recent years, punctuated by the February 2008 incident in which the crew of a regional jet fell asleep at the controls on the way to Hilo, Hawaii. Although it’s usually airliner mishaps that make front page news, general aviation pilots are subject to the same fatigue-related risks and potential for disaster.

Consider this example and ask yourself (honestly) if it seems familiar: After a full workday in a distant office, a pilot flies his/her aircraft home and shoots an instrument approach to minimums at night. Or, the flight instructor who agrees to take just one more student after a full day of flying, pushing the limits of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations section 61.195, which prohibits instructors from teaching more than eight hours in a given 24-hour period.

Fatigue is part of our workaholic American culture, which is known for too much of the wrong food, too little of the right exercise, and insufficient or poor quality sleep. Pilots are not immune to developing such bad habits. In its annual sleep survey for 2009, the National Sleep Foundation found that 20 percent of Americans sleep fewer than six hours and that only 28 percent sleep more than eight hours per night. We report more sleep than we actually get, so the data perhaps underestimates the actual amount of sleep loss experienced by most Americans.

In the spirit of “know your enemy,” human factors research is making progress toward making us wiser in the wearying ways of fatigue. The FAA offers a brochure for pilots titled “Fatigue in Aviation,” which offers some useful tips on staying healthy and alert, but each pilot needs to be aware of his or her own unique habits and physiological limitations.

Avoid Becoming a Headline

As a pilot, one of the best ways to avoid becoming an NTSB accident statistic is to ask yourself, “If this flight goes badly, what would the NTSB report say about me? How would the headline read the next day? ‘Sleep-Deprived Pilot Avoids Fatigue Warning Signs and Crashes, Killing All.’” If it’s bad, maybe you should reconsider flying and take a nap.

When there is an accident, an incident, or a close call, trained investigators seek to determine the cause in an effort to prevent such events from happening again. The best investigations identify not just the obvious cause, but rather the numerous factors in the overall chain of events.

The following are a list of simple questions that investigators may ask during an incident or close-call investigation. Pilots can benefit from pondering these questions before they leave the ground, to assess whether they are suffering from fatigue that could lead to an embarrassing incident or a deadly accident.

Example of Investigative Fatigue Questions for Work Task Mishaps (adapted for GA operations)

  • How long were you awake prior to the mishap? How long was your last “major” sleep period (more than two hours sleep) prior to the work task mishap?
  • How much additional sleep did you obtain through nap(s) since your last “major” sleep period?
  • How much did you sleep in the 24 hours prior to the work task mishap?
  • How much did you sleep in the 72 hours prior to the work task mishap?
  • How many hours did you work in the five days prior to the work task mishap?

Squeezing in More Sleep

Avoiding fatigue is not rocket science, yet we as humans continue to challenge conventional sleep wisdom by drinking too much caffeine, consuming too much refined sugar, not getting enough exercise, and engaging in other sleep-preventing behaviors, all while working long hours often under great stress. Our jobs have reduced the requirement for extensive physical work, and child’s play is now more likely to involve a computer game than a ball field. This vicious cycle drives us to exercise less, eat more, and sleep less—and the cycle continues.

The solution is amazingly simple, yet often difficult to implement: Get more sleep. Humans need about eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. It takes about 15 minutes in bed to fall asleep, and your last 15 minutes of sleep is not healthy, restorative sleep. That means that you should spend eight and a half hours in bed, dedicated to sleeping, each night. Don’t allow television, radio, or food in bed. If you miss sleep one night then you must sleep extra the following night to catch up. If you want to avoid fatigue, these simple rules are not negotiable.

If you are uncertain of your sleep duration, then you should try keeping a sleep diary. This may be the first advice you would get from a clinical sleep professional. The FAA developed a chart that you can use to track your sleep patterns over a 14-day period. Do you need more sleep? Go to and find out.

Numerous scientific studies have matched the performance of fatigued drivers to the performance of drunk drivers. The next time you are awake for 20 hours straight remind yourself that your performance level is equivalent to that of a legally drunk driver. Fatigue can affect not only your ability to drive the car, but your decision to drive in the first place. Should you be flying an airplane when you are in that condition? Write the next day’s page-one headline in your head, and then lay it down on your pillow to sleep.

William B. Johnson, Ph.D., is FAA Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor for Human Factors in Aircraft Maintenance Systems. He joined FAA in 2004 after 30 years of private sector experience in academia, safety engineering consulting, and airline/MRO training. He is an Aviation Maintenance Technician and a 40-year pilot.

Katrina E. Avers, Ph.D., is a research scientist in the Human Factors Research Division at FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. Her research focuses on organizational assessment, fatigue education, fatigue reporting systems, and fatigue risk management programs for flight crew, cabin crew, and maintenance technicians.

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