Are You Awake?

Make a serious self-assessment of your alertness before flying.

The recently implemented FAA rules on pilot fatigue for airline pilots made me ponder the importance of being alert when flying. If you’re not on your game it’s easy to nod off, particularly if you’re flying with an autopilot, and the consequences can be devastating. It’s worth taking an extra step in the prefight process to consider your level of alertness as a step to decrease risk.

Part of the new FAA rules require each pilot to sign a form stating he or she is “fit” to fly. I suggest you create the same rule for yourself. The act of actually writing down “I am mentally and physically ready to fly” makes you consciously think about it one last time before cranking the engine – a step you may not take seriously otherwise.

But a quick self-assessment of your current state may not be enough. Research conducted by the Department of Transportation in the mid-1990s, which studied truck drivers in the United States and Canada, found that “there was a tendency for drivers to rate themselves as more alert than the performance tests indicated.” So before you sign yourself off, take a couple of minutes for a more in-depth evaluation.

Fatigue is not easily assessed, but the DoT study found that the performance of the truck drivers was significantly worse during nighttime hours, particularly during the hours from late night until dawn. The study concluded that the time of day was a much stronger indication of drowsiness than the length of the trip. And while eliminating night flight may not be an option, make sure you are well rested before jumping into the airplane in the dark.

Another factor of drowsiness that was not included in the DoT study is altitude, and the lack of oxygen at higher elevations can affect your mental state even more at night. If you're flying in a non-pressurized airplane, breathing supplemental oxygen will help. I would suggest O2 above 5,000 feet at night and 10,000 feet during the day. It's a small price to pay for increaed alertness. Make sure you set up and test your equipment before signing yourself off for the flight.

Another study conducted in Australia and New Zealand in 2000 found that people who had been awake for 17-19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent. In other words, if you fly after being awake for more than 17 hours, you would perform worse than you would with an illegal amount of alcohol in your system.

And while no sane pilot would jump into the left seat after drinking alcohol, it is important to drink to stay alert. For more information on the importance of hydration to stay alert, see my tip "Pilot Hydration."

It’s impossible for the FAA to monitor or police your mental state. It is an important assessment you’re responsible for. If you feel that you’re not performing at the top of your game despite your thorough preflight assessment, land the airplane and get some rest.

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