If you attended the AOPA Summit in Long Beach, California in November, 2010 and came to any of the Fly Well panels you would have seen the inimitable Duke Naipohn whose expertise on sleep disorders will be leveraged by me for a future article in AOPA Pilot magazine. We covered a lot of material in our three sessions and a good night’s sleep figured in all of them, because let’s face it, taking an airplane from point A to point B requires some darn fine machinery, a gallon or two of go-juice, decent enough weather and a very complex piece of computing capability – a pilot. If that pilot comes to the party without all his or her faculties in proper working order chances are everything will go okay. Until it doesn’t.
We know that accidents usually require a whole chain of events to come together for a “perfect storm” to occur. If the humanoid in the left seat is on top of their game, the outcome may just be an elevated heart rate. If, however, the hard drive controlling the yoke is in sleep mode the outcome may be no heart beat.
At Summit, Duke said on several occasions that drowsiness is not the first sign of a sleep problem, but rather the alarm bell ringing for impending disaster. So what are the elements at play here? First and foremost is that most dreaded disease “got to get there-it is” also described by aviation safety expert Bruce Landsberg as “stupidity.” What possesses otherwise smart pilots to embark on a long flight at night in IMC over mountainous terrain after pulling a full shift at their day job? Why climb in the cockpit before the sun rises after too short a night in horizontal attitude?
There may be true medical conditions causing daytime drowsiness, most common of these being sleep apnea and although that will be covered at another time, if you are tired and yawning during the day after having been abed for 8 hours, please see your doctor now, do not wait for my article.
Glenn Turner said that “worry is like a rocking chair – it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere.” It certainly interferes with sleep and if stress or concern is part of your life be aware that it will impair your sleep and negatively impact your flying. Certain foods are not ideal prior to sleep – avoid caffeine and be aware that tea and chocolate also contain caffeine just like coffee. Also avoid anything with lots of sugar, so a late night snack of ice cream is not ideal. The habit of watching television in bed can also interfere with sleep as it leaves one mentally stimulated – I guess it depends what kind of TV you are watching! A better solution is to read a book under the illumination provided by directed lighting so that the remainder of the room is dark. Some soothing music also helps as does a good mattress. Think about it, you spend a third of your life on a mattress so it makes sense to have a comfortable one!
There are a number of prescribed medications that can assist with sleep, but use caution and discuss with your physician and utilize the AOPA medication guide to avoid an issue with your AME. Also be aware that having taken an “allowed” medication you may be drowsy the next day so please be cautious about flying in that state.
William Shakespeare had a lot to say about sleep – the state where we perchance to dream. Just be sure you get enough of it so you can enjoy your dreams and your flight the next day!
March 10, 2011