Out of the Pattern Part 2 of 12

Playing the Physical Advantage

February 1, 2002

Fitness tips for safer flying

Exercise is either the thing you don't do and feel guilty about, or it is part of your life and you still feel guilty because you don't do it enough. Rather than yell at you about breaking your New Year's resolution (so soon?), airshow performers Patty Wagstaff and Sean D. Tucker have some exercise tips that even couch potatoes will like — tips to help you to improve your health and become a better, safer pilot. They also offer fascinating insight into the physical training required to fly under high-G loads.

Patty Wagstaff

A three-time national aerobatic champion and gold-medal winner in international competition, Patty Wagstaff begins training in March each year for her airshow season. She knows from experience that she'll need to be in great shape to face the high-G loads encountered during her performance.

Wagstaff works out three to four times a week in a gym or with a trainer, and varies her exercise between aerobic workouts and weight training. But she also rides a bike on weekends, takes her dogs to the beach, or just walks — things any of us can do.

"Enlist others to go with you for a walk. I go maybe a couple of miles," Wagstaff said. "I am not a long-distance runner at all, I just walk fast." She feels that running lowers her G tolerance because it makes the circulatory system too efficient — blood moves away from the brain too quickly at the onset of Gs.

Not surprisingly, she also noticed an improved reaction to high altitudes when she quit smoking. During her smoking days, she couldn't get much above 10,000 feet before feeling lightheaded.

Wagstaff admits that it is difficult to maintain diet and exercise discipline when on the road. "It is easy to fall off the wagon," she notes. "After three days you just say, 'Oh, well, I'll put it back together when I get home.' It is hard to work out in your room. I usually pick a hotel with a gym."

She is amazed at the number of aerobatic pilots who fly in competitions but who don't seem to realize that they must train like an athlete if they ever want to fly like one.

What about flying tired? All of us know that we will come home from an event or long trip somewhat fatigued. Is it safe?

"When you are flying, you are going to have the most fun you could ever have in your life, but it is serious fun," Wagstaff said. "Whatever gives you the most freedom also requires the most discipline. It applies to the pilot who goes to Oshkosh and is not getting eight hours of sleep a night. You have to have some discipline."

Fatigue leads to errors. Wagstaff admits that she has filed more NASA reports (for immunity from regulatory action) after long airshows than at any other time in her flying. "It's a Monday, I'm exhausted, I am trying to get home, and I will fly into Class B or do something stupid. I have my GPS in front of me, but I am just about to fall asleep."

If everything goes well on the way home, you can get away with cheating on the eight hours of sleep. But if there is an engine failure, you'll need to be at peak performance. Wagstaff met a pilot recently who sets personal standards more stringent than those required by regulation: He waits 12 hours from bottle to throttle and files IFR on every trip to keep his performance edge.

She warns as well against getting addicted to sugar. "It can happen in two days. I eat oatmeal because it doesn't have sugar in it. If you eat Froot Loops with sugar, by 10:30 a.m. you are going to want more sugar. In a day or so you'll start craving it."

That's not to say sugar is bad. Aerobatics dramatically lowers Wagstaff's blood sugar, as she found out when she snacked on a Snickers bar. "It was like an IV drip of glucose," she recalled. So it is good to replace blood sugar when the flying is particularly stressful. "It can be orange juice; it doesn't have to be sugar," she said.

She said she is not advocating that all unhealthy foods, drink, and lifestyle be abandoned. "Eating sugar is OK, sitting around is OK, drinking is OK. But you've got to balance everything you do. It is OK to fall off the wagon and have a doughnut, just don't eat three of them."

Here are several examples of what she means: "You don't have to have a hamburger; you can have grilled chicken. You don't have to drink Coke; you can have apple juice. You can have a baked potato at night; you don't have to have a big filet. You can have sour cream on your potato; you don't have to have butter. If you are older, you will find the weight doesn't come off as fast if you fall off the wagon.

"Eliminate fast food and start walking, and you don't even have to go to a gym to do that," Wagstaff said.

Sean D. Tucker

Sean D. Tucker originally learned aerobatics because he was afraid of stalls and wanted to conquer his fears. Boy, did he ever. The former crop-dusting pilot has become one of the best-known airshow performers in the world. His Harrier maneuver brings his modified Pitts to a stop in flight if the wind is just right, and it once brought a normally conservative Japanese audience to its feet. But he is equally well known for airplane-bending, pilot-smushing multiple snap rolls (horizontal spins). He must withstand as many as 12 positive and eight negative Gs during a performance.

Tucker believes that airshow pilots need both mental fitness and physical fitness. "If you don't have the discipline, you're going to die," he said bluntly. An anecdote about his learning to play golf shows the kind of edge Tucker must maintain. "I spent more time learning to play golf than I did taking care of business. It came to the point where it affected my flying, and I decided the avocation had to take a backseat. By going back to five days a week of disciplined workout and diet, I was back flying stronger than ever before," Tucker recalled.

"When you are fit, you feel strong the whole day, alert, with a good positive mental attitude for handling life's challenges," he said. His discipline includes eating carbohydrates in the morning, such as bread, oatmeal, juices, and fruits, and switching to protein in the afternoon, such as fish or meat. He eats small meals six times a day, with the largest meal coming at 10:30 a.m. Even when on the road, he makes sure he has something healthy to snack on rather than the more readily available junk food.

He works out three or four days a week, often combining weight training and aerobic exercises. When he does aerobic exercise alone, such as walking or running, he works out for 45 minutes to an hour. But the average pilot need not work that hard.

"Give it 20 to 30 minutes a day — that's all you have to do," Tucker said. He works harder because of the way he flies. "I fly heavy sustained G loads when doing snap rolls while diving at the ground. The snap rolls have me plastered against the side of the airplane. I feel like the muscle on my forearm is leaving the bone. If I am fit, it doesn't bother me," Tucker said.

Tucker travels 125 nights a year, and says the key to getting a good night's rest is exercise. "I get to a show on a Wednesday and am up at 6 a.m. the next morning, jet-lagged out. I work out for 20 minutes when I am wiped out emotionally and physically. There's not a cappuccino in the world that will give you more energy than a workout."

There are ways to get exercise, however, without really appearing to. At the airport, he always carries his bags and, like Wagstaff, always uses the stairs rather than the escalator.

While Tucker suggests that pilots make a commitment to discipline, he admits it has to be fun, just as flight training must be fun to retain a student's interest. "When you're in shape, your mind handles stress so much better," he said. But what if your exercise program and your diet aren't enough, and you find yourself exhausted at the end of a long week enjoying an airshow or vacation?

"If I am exhausted, I will wait another day and not open the cockpit door," Tucker said. "You can't abuse the privilege of flying — it is not a right, it is a privilege."


E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.


Putting It Into Practice: What's Said and What's Done

Sometimes it's hard to be perfect

I agree with everything that Al Marsh, Patty Wagstaff, and Sean D. Tucker have to say about living a healthy lifestyle. How could any responsible person not agree? Now that that's out of the way, let me say that I try to do all the things that these exemplars live by, but gosh, I'm only human. The fact is I don't exercise nearly as much as I did a couple of years ago, and I'm starting to pack on the poundage.

I don't think you necessarily need to obsess over things such as your lung capacity or body fat percentages to be a good pilot. Well, maybe if you're Patty Wagstaff or Sean D. Tucker you do — because of the gut-wrenching G forces they subject themselves to in their airshow routines. All you need to do is maintain a reasonable level of fitness. Seven days in a row at the gym, running six miles each time, with a marathon every month? Go for it. It will certainly help your physical conditioning, but so much of flying is more mental than physical. I've flown with fitness freaks who had trouble flying instrument approaches — and they were instructors themselves!

One thing I do feel strongly about is fatigue. I know it well and know how it can impair you at the end of a long flight. To fight it off, I try to use oxygen as much as I can. Yes, fitness can help stave off fatigue, but there's absolutely no substitute for dosing up on O 2. And getting plenty of high-quality sleep.

Because I've done a fair amount of transatlantic flying in light singles, I've been asked for my personal fitness guidelines for safe passage on what can be a grueling flying marathon. Perhaps, I've been asked, there are some nuggets of wisdom that might apply to everyday flying?

The key to facing a 35-hours-in-three-days stint in the left seat is getting enough sleep. Diet is important too. So is staying hydrated. Then why don't I follow my own advice? Because the anticipation of a long overwater crossing isn't conducive one bit to deep, dreamlike sleep. I'll be up at 3 a.m. thinking about fuel reserves, blown winds aloft forecasts, or ice — things like that. Diet? What diet? I don't dare eat too much because — well, you figure it out. Ditto with drinking too much water, although in-flight urination is more easily dealt with than, uh, you know what I mean. And whatever you do, don't drink fruit juice or eat fruit.

So I fly along hungry and thirsty, sipping a little bit of bottled water now and then. After five hours of flying like this (often without an autopilot, and often out of ATC contact) you can bet I'm fatigued. In a couple more hours it'll be time for the approach. Hopefully it won't be at night or in rotten weather.

To perk myself up for the approach — sorry, Patty — I scarf down a Milky Way or two, and take some of the water and wipe it over my face. By God, now I'm ready! That Milky Way is totem-like for me, not something to hate for its sugar content alone. It means the leg is almost over. Eating it is sacramental, in many ways. It makes me alert, too — if only for a half-hour or so. Snickers are good, too. But sometimes the nuts fall off the candy bar and get chocolate on the carpet or seats, and if there's anything you don't Rant to do on a delivery flight it's mess up the interior of a brand-new airplane.

At the end of an average transatlantic trip I will have lost about seven to 10 pounds. My pants fit looser, that's for sure. It may not be a Wagstaff-and-Tucker-endorsed method of physical conditioning, but it's what you have to do on trips like that. I try to do the exact opposite when flying more conventional trips. — Thomas A. Horne