Tuckered Out

Heed the warning signs of fatigue

September 1, 2004

Back in the mid-1990s when I was working full time at a flight school in Maryland, pilots employed with the school did contract flying in addition to flight instructing. One of those annual contracts had us working with the University of Maryland doing some environmental sampling. Essentially, we were taking samples of air in columns from the surface to 10,000 feet msl using a Cessna 172 and some specialized computer equipment. The work was done in the summer, and because we were looking for the most polluted air we could find, the flying was done on the hottest, haziest, muggiest days. I can remember one time when the temperature on the asphalt ramp was close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and when a person weighing more than 180 pounds or so walked, they left noticeable impressions in the surface of the ramp. The impressions didn't last long, but they were there, and I've never been so miserably hot in my life.

The comfort level in the airplane was not much better. We were lucky to get 200 to 300 feet per minute on our climbs during takeoff, and even after burning off fuel and climbing, things didn't get much better. Even at 10,000 feet, the temperatures were often still in the 70s or 80s, and the humidity was crushing. Forward visibility didn't exist. Because we had to stay in one spot to spiral, we essentially did a climbing turn around a point to get up, or a spiraling descent to go from 10,000 feet to the surface. We could see down, but hardly at all ahead.

If you have any familiarity with the summers on the Mid-Atlantic coast, you know that days like this can last for weeks, and that was one of the reasons we wanted the contract. Not only did we get paid well, but also the weather was often to the point where we couldn't safely solo students, and many of them didn't want to come out to the airport anyway.

When I first started this work, I didn't realize how tiring it could be. I thought I understood, but I was wrong. Dehydration was a serious issue. So was general fatigue. At first I thought I was chosen for the work because I was light (airplane weight was a big factor), that my bosses were doing me a favor to help me build time and make some money, and because my schedule allowed it. Only after doing it did I realize I was probably chosen because I was dumb enough to take it. For days on end, I flew eight to 12 hours a day, spending 10 to 15 hours at the airport. At night, I was often so tired I had trouble sleeping as soundly as I wanted. I also found I would get so tired that my appetite would be suppressed, and I had to force myself to eat, and to eat well.

The full effect of the potential dangers of flying tired hit me late one summer night while chasing samples. The person in charge of this program was an Australian meteorologist at the University of Maryland. He was one of the nuttiest people I'd ever met. He was huge, at least 6 feet 5 inches tall, never shaved, always had on a baseball hat, swore like a sailor to the point of being downright crude, and bypassed every opportunity to bathe that he could. He was also an unrelenting workaholic. Needless to say, we got along just famously, and I loved working with him. He pretty much insisted that I do his flying, and I readily volunteered. Bruce had never taken flight lessons, but he had spent enough time in Cessnas that he could safely manipulate the controls, he knew how to read the instruments, and in a pinch, I'm sure he would have made a survivable landing.

One night, we were doing some joint work with NASA and the Army. NASA had a Lockheed U-2 at 60,000 feet off the East Coast, and the Army had a Lockheed C-130 doing orbits someplace else. We were doing our orbits about 15 miles off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland. At 2:30 in the morning, I was flying a 172, talking to a U-2 pilot who wanted to trade places with me, sharing very cramped quarters with a crazy, smelly Australian, all while drinking Mountain Dew and water to stay awake. This was the third night in a row of this, and I was just beginning to realize how exhausted I was. My eyelids were quivering, my throat was dry, and I felt like I hadn't brushed my teeth in a week. On top of that, the spirals had us making regular turns away from the shoreline, facing Europe. There was no horizon, and it was dark. I mean, it was dark. The panel was a blur, and sleep was closer than I wanted it to be.

And then it happened. Flying due east, in a climb, the attitude indicator just quit. It did so in a spectacular fashion. We were in a left turn, and all of a sudden, it indicated that the bank of the airplane was going from 30 degrees to 90, accompanied by a severe pitch-up. In my headset, I could tell that it had registered with Bruce first. I can't write what he said, but it got my attention. I slowly and deliberately leveled the wings using the turn coordinator and the wet compass (I wanted to isolate the single instrument from the vacuum system). Once I verified that the directional gyro worked, I made a shallow turn back to the shore, using the lights on the shoreline as a visual reference. Bruce was already digging up an instrument cover for the attitude indicator, which was swinging wildly from upside down to right side up. When I told him he was on the hook for the bill, he threatened to remove the cover.

Fortunately, we were able to fly the airplane home following Route 50, and that night I slept for 10 hours. The initial surge of adrenaline had worn off, leaving my body just numb with fatigue.

Even in my airline career, fatigue is still a serious concern. Short days become long days, and long days become an eternity. Americans have never fully appreciated the need for adequate sleep, and a recent statistic shows that 37 percent of Americans have admitted to nodding off while driving. How many fall asleep while flying? It happens. Several years ago, a pilot of a Piper Seneca fell asleep and crashed in the Gulf of Mexico right after he woke up. I can only wonder how many controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents occur because the pilot has the autopilot flying and falls asleep. Nighttime cargo pilots I know tell me horror stories of falling asleep.

If we average six hours of sleep a night, which is what too many people do, that means we are awake for 18 hours. Think about how tired you are after a long day of work. If you work an eight- or nine-hour day, you probably still have seven or eight hours of being awake in front of you. Since many private pilots fly after work, odds are that they are not in the best shape either mentally or physically to be piloting an aircraft. On top of that, there is less oxygen for you to breathe, even at 5,000 feet, which will affect how alert you are. Again, one cannot help but wonder just how big a role "being tired" might play in the total accident rate. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has been interested in this for some time but there is not a lot of data to tie directly to accidents. "Unfortunately, many unexplained accidents occur where an otherwise capable pilot fails to follow procedure or makes a bad decision, but the pilot is not around to tell us that they fell asleep, or were fatigued or hypoxic," says ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg. "Fatigue doesn't leave behind a marker like carbon monoxide or medications do so it is highly speculative to determine the exact factors in many of these cases."

Fatigue affects everything from flight planning to concentration to how well you talk on the radio. It's hard enough for an airline pilot to handle a 14-hour day, let alone a nonprofessional pilot flying after a 14-hour day. So what can you do to fight fatigue? Here are some hints:

Be consistent. This is one of the hardest things to do. Even if you get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Changing your body clock is a shock to your system, and it is not as easy to recover as you think. Want proof? If you sleep in on Saturday and Sunday mornings, look at how hard it is to get up on Monday morning.

Watch your diet. Avoid the caffeine and sugar. Both will give you a temporary boost in energy, but the falloff will leave you feeling worse than you did before the jolt. Eat a good breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a relatively light dinner. Eating too much in the evening tends to make sleeping difficult. Stay hydrated, especially in flight. If you're thirsty, you are already dehydrated, which will accelerate feelings of sluggishness.

Nap. It may not always be feasible but if you can, lie down for an hour, figuring to sleep for 45 minutes or so. If you try to go much longer, you may wake up feeling worse because you may wake up during the deepest stage of your sleep pattern.

Exercise. This goes without saying, but regular exercise makes you feel better, regardless of your flight schedule. It increases your stamina and general fitness.

Be aware. By the time you actually feel any level of fatigue, it's too late to fight it off. Fatigue is insidious, slow. If you sense that you are tired, you probably have been for at least an hour. Do something to reduce the workload, like turning on the autopilot. Keep yourself busy with a good scan and tracking your flight on charts, not just on your GPS moving map. Be very aware that your reaction time is going to slow considerably (to this day, I don't know how long I just watched that attitude indicator tumble).

There comes a time when a sleep-deprived person is no better off cognitively than a drunk driver. And if you do find yourself falling asleep, land! Maybe you really are just tired, but being exhausted will make you more susceptible to other problems. Fatigue has been recognized as a causal factor in at least one aviation accident, a flight that crashed during approach into Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

I've made the mistake of flying when I shouldn't have, when I was just too tired, when I wanted to just get the job done. Now that I've learned my lesson, I don't do it anymore. I've become much more attuned to the early signs of my own personal warnings: increasingly frequent yawns, missed or mistaken radio calls, altitude/heading deviations, even sloppy landings. Sometimes I will look at my preflight weather, read it, and not remember any of it. I've learned how my body tells me it needs to rest.

Sometimes it means not getting paid. But at least I am fully awake when I complain about the self-induced shortage in my check. Deep inside, I know I've done the right thing.

Chip Wright, AOPA 1086994, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a CRJ captain for Comair.