All pilots are susceptible to fatigue and the diminished decision-making ability that flying in a fatigued condition can cause. The FAA, concerned about fatigue as a risk factor in accidents attributed to pilot error, is proposing to “amend its existing flight, duty, and rest regulations applicable to certificate holders and their flight crew members.”
Although the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) applies to the air carriers operating under FAR Part 121, fatigue and its management are a vital concern to general aviation pilots as well. That makes the NPRM, to be published Sept. 14, worth perusal by any pilot. The NPRM would not apply to carriers operating under FAR Part 135.
What is fatigue? The FAA defines it in the NPRM as “a physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from lack of sleep or increased physical activity that can reduce a crewmember’s alertness and ability to safely operate an aircraft or perform safety-related duties.”
Proposed actions to combat fatigue include extending the standard minimum rest period from eight hours to nine hours to allow for travel time to and from a suitable place of rest where a pilot can get a full eight hours sleep. Another change would reduce maximum duty time from 16 hours a day to 9 to 13 hours, “depending on the start time and number of flight segments.” The changes provide “different requirements based on the time of day, whether an individual is acclimated to a new time zone, and the likelihood of being able to sleep under different circumstances.”
AOPA has long recognized the risks fatigue poses for GA pilots and has worked hard to educate pilots on how to avoid and manage its effects. The Air Safety Foundation’s Safety Brief “ Fighting Fatigue” presents common fatigue scenarios that at first glance might not seem risky. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear how the little things can add up, presenting a pilot with the need to fly a difficult flight after a long, stressful day, “at a time when the body naturally wants to ‘call it a day.’”
The safety brief also gives pilots advice on “sleeping smart.” That could mean avoiding exercise or caffeine in the hours before sleeping, or ways to make sleep easier during daylight hours. Even taking a short “power nap”—those 15- or 20-minute snoozes we sometimes steal in pilot lounges—can restore alertness and decision-making ability. Other things pilots can do to head off fatigue include avoiding dehydration, eating small meals throughout the day, and carrying snacks. Use a noise-cancelling headset, be sure that any medications are FAA-approved, and avoid conditions that could trigger hypoxia, such as flying without oxygen above 10,000 feet msl during the day or above 5,000 feet msl at night.
Whatever measures you employ, don’t hesitate to change destinations and land as soon as practical if safety demands it.