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Sleep Sense


Male passenger sits on a suitcase with his face buried in his hands. He is all alone and waits for a plane to take him home or to take him on a business trip or vacation. He looks bored as he is stranded on the airfield with no hope for take off soon.

Consistent, uninterrupted, adequate sleep allows the body to rest and recover. But extensive traveling, consuming excessive alcohol and caffeine, or staying up late can wreak havoc on our sleep pattern. In addition, aging and various medical conditions—such as depression, stress, sleep apnea, etc.—can influence how well we sleep.

Beyond a Yawn

We know the obvious “red flags” (yawning, heavy eyelids), but it’s important to stay alert to more subtle signs as well. Some people notice a ringing in their ears, while others have difficulty with tasks that require dexterity or coordination. Fatigue can also lead to noticeable cognitive and behavioral changes. Many people find themselves feeling irritable, losing focus in the middle of extended tasks (checklists, for example), or having trouble making relatively simple decisions.

Snooze Alert

Although a lack of sleep is normally the underlying cause of fatigue, other factors can trigger how tired we feel. Here are some common reasons and suggestions for dealing with them:


  • Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day
  • Bring a bottle of water with you


  • Eat several small meals during the day
  • Keep a few low-glycemic snacks in your flight bag (e.g., nuts, apples, yogurt)
  • Avoid large meals before flights

Cockpit Environment

  • Use a noise-cancelling headset
  • Bring a passenger: It’s easier to stay awake when you have someone to talk to
  • Even better, bring another pilot to lend a hand


  • Be honest with yourself about how well you’ll be able to perform
  • Be prepared to cancel the flight


  • Check that the medication is FAA-approved
  • Be extra cautious if it’s your first time taking the medication


  • Avoid flying above 5,000 msl at night without oxygen, 10,000 msl during the day
  • Learn to recognize the signs of hypoxia
  • Be particularly cautious if you’re a smoker

Fighting Fatigue Strategies

  • Before going to bed—Avoid alcohol and caffeine three to four hours—and exercise two to three hours—before sleeping. Don’t eat a heavy meal close to bedtime, and avoid using sleeping pills.
  • Beware of medications—Understand potential side effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Avoid any that can cause drowsiness or impaired alertness.
  • Consult your physician—Diagnose and treat conditions causing sleep problems.
  • Be comfortable—Create a pleasant and peaceful sleep environment—for example, adjust the room temperature and sleep on a comfortable mattress.
  • Sleep eight hours—Have a regular bedtime and get eight hours of sleep.
  • Limit nap time—If you must take a nap, do so for less than 30 minutes to be productive.
  • Can’t fall asleep?—If you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, get up and try an activity that helps induce sleep (read, listen to relaxing music, etc.).
In addition, aging and various medical conditions—such as depression, stress, sleep apnea, etc.—can influence how well we sleep.

Stress and Emotion = Fatigue

These powerful dynamics influence our brain’s ability to access memory (severe stress) and appropriately reason (negative emotions). Fatigue or sleep deprivation exhibit the combined effect of the two, leading to poor aeronautical decision making, slowing our response time, and reducing our state of readiness.

Medical Self-Assessment: Stress

This video excerpt from No Greater Burden: Surviving an Aircraft Accident is featured in the Medical Self-Assessment: A Pilot’s Guide to Flying Healthy online course. Explore how stress, emotion, and fatigue can impact concentration.