10 Ways to Fight Pilot Fatigue

Pilot Fatigue Warning Signs - Pilot MallRaise your hand if you’ve ever experienced fatigue. Is everyone’s hand up? Good. Now keep it up if you’ve ever piloted an aircraft while fatigued. That’s what we thought.

Despite its potential dangers, pilot fatigue seems to be an accepted way of life, especially for many cargo pilots working early mornings and late nights or commercial airline pilots flying across multiple time zones.

Fatigue has been in the cockpit since the early days, with Charles Lindbergh documenting the challenges of staying awake during his historic trans-Atlantic flight.  

Naturally lack of sleep is a factor, but low-quality sleep, stress, poor health, dehydration, disrupted circadian rhythms from jetlag and night flying, plus commuting and extended layovers also play a role.

What can you do to keep from dozing off mid-flight?

Here are our top 10 ways to fight pilot fatigue:

Man Drinking Out of Water Bottle - pilot Mall1.      Hydrate

Many of us simply don’t hydrate well enough, and our chronic dehydration can sap our energy. Even the standardly recommended eight glasses of water or other hydrating liquid each day may not be enough. A better method for setting our personal daily hydration goals is to calculate our ideal intake based on our weight. This offers a more accurate starting point.

To determine your target hydration goal, take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 2/3 (or 66%). This is the baseline number of ounces you should aim for while on the ground. Add extra when you are flying and as needed based on your activity level.

Not sure if you are properly hydrated? The next time you pee, notice the color. Your goal is to hydrate enough that your pee is clear. The darker the yellow tint, the more dehydrated you are.

Quick Tips

Tip: It can be a great idea to keep a stainless steel water-bottle in your flight bag that will keep your liquids cold during your flight.

Napping Woman on Couch - Pilot Mall2.      Nap

Naptime isn’t just for kids. Multiple studies have been done on the fatigue minimizing impacts of napping. The sweet spot for naps seems to be a 20-30-minute power nap. It is long enough to rejuvenate you and not so long that you get into REM sleep and wake up groggy.

Our bodies’ circadian rhythm naturally dips in the early afternoon, so on days when your schedule permits, time your nap for somewhere in the 1-3 pm window. Of course, this isn’t always possible, so regardless of the time of day, if your body is craving a nap and you can squeeze one in, do. You should wake up feeling more awake and alert.

A Hand turning off an Alarm clock - Pilot Mall3.      Sleep longer

The general recommendation for nightly sleep duration is 7-9 hours for adults. Unfortunately, many of us are trying to function on 5-6 hours. This chronic sleep deprivation builds up a sleep deficit and contributes to pilot fatigue.

If we keep going on about our business without changing our ways and prioritizing sleep, we will soon be living a life of chronic fatigue. To help prioritize sleep and increase awareness of just how serious a sleep debt we have, try keeping a sleep log.

Although schedule changes and the impact of different time zones makes it harder for us to log 7-9 hours, it’s important to know where we’re at and to take advantage of nights when our schedule does allow us to get more rest.

Woman in bed wearing eye mask - Pilot Mall4.      Enhance your quality of sleep

The quantity of our sleep matters, but so does the quality. It isn’t enough to spend 7-9 tossing and turning in bed, waking up every 30 minutes to stare at the clock. For those hours to matter, we must do everything possible to enhance the quality of our sleep.

We get our most high-quality sleep in a dark, cool, quiet room, so it is important to do our best to create this optimal environment. At home, use blackout shades for darkness.

When traveling, pack an eye mask in case your hotel room doesn’t have blackout curtains. Comfortable earplugs help to block out unwanted hotel noise. Set the thermostat to between 60 and 72 degrees.

Man jump-roping beside a concrete wall - Pilot Mall5.      Exercise

A well-timed workout not only helps you to build up your body’s strength and improve your fitness levels, but it can also decrease fatigue. Our bodies are meant to experience higher highs and lower lows in our energy levels throughout the day. By exercising, we help to create that higher high which will then lead to the lower low of deep sleep.

Healthy Diet - Pilot Mall6.      Improve your diet

Healthy and smart eating can boost our energy. One of the primary considerations of eating to avoid fatigue is to choose foods that will promote stable energy levels. It’s tempting to grab that donut and pair it with a sugar-laden latte for a breakfast on-the-go, but you know what happens after that initial sugar spike, right? You’ve got it – the subsequent crash.

Instead, put down the processed, sugary foods and choose a more complex carb and protein option like oatmeal and peanut butter or eggs and whole-grain toast. These types of foods will stay with you and offer a stable, long-lasting source of fuel.

Close up of a coffee cup with a plane in the distance7.      Be strategic with caffeine

Oh, the double-edged sword of caffeine. It gets you going when you need it, but if you drink it too close to bedtime, it can also keep you awake just when you have finally laid down to try to sleep.

Go ahead and have that cup of coffee in the morning if you need it but set a cut-off time and stop drinking caffeine at least 3 hours before you plan to sleep.

Man in bed in the dark using smartphone - pilot mall8.      Watch your pre-bed screen time

Darkness helps to signal our bodies to produce more melatonin and trigger sleep. Certain types of light can disrupt that process. Blue light from computers, cell phones, TVs and other digital devices is especially harmful.

Limit your screen time before bed and consider installing a blue light filter application on your devices so if you do happen to check them in the middle of the night, it doesn’t interfere with your sleep cycle.

morning sunlight coming through window blinds - Pilot Mall9.      Full-spectrum light

Energy levels follow our body’s circadian rhythm, and when we have irregular schedules that don’t align with normal days and nights, that can throw off our energy levels.

Help compensate by using a full-spectrum light. This light mimics the sun, so if your schedule has you waking up in the middle of the night to begin your day, turn the light on for about 15 minutes before you must get out of bed. This will help to simulate waking up with the sun.

10. Follow the FAA’s Pilot Fatigue Final Rule directive

In response to growing concern about the effects of fatigue on commercial passenger airline pilots, the FAA announced their final rule directive. This directive mandates such things as a 10-hour minimum rest period between flights.

Eight hours of that ten hours must be available for uninterrupted sleep. Pilots must also sign off that they are “fit” to fly. According to the final rule, if a pilot reports that they are fatigued, the airline must remove the pilot from duty.

Even if the final rule doesn’t apply to you, it is worth reviewing because it contains some best practices you too can use to fight fatigue and promote safe, alert flight.

The FAA's Aviation Fatigue Brochure

The FAA also has provided a printable brochure on how to fight fatigue, this can be a great print out to keep handy around flight schools, FBOs and for a pilot to keep in their flight bag.

Fatigue Related Accidents

There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from studying the tragic incidents caused by over-exhausted pilots. Here are just a few documented plane crashes that can be attributed to pilot fatigue.

Korean Air Flight 801Korean Air Flight 801

The 6th of August 1997 was a typical flight for Korean Air Flight 801, heading from Seoul to Guam. As they started their descent towards the island, weather conditions began to worsen and they requested a slight change in direction.

At 01:31, they asked for radar assistance for the landing approach and were given clearance to land on runway 06L. However, there was confusion when it came to the glideslope and its functionality. Despite the captain's instructions, the plane continued to descend and they confirmed an incorrect altitude.

The control tower instructed them to make contact at 01:41:01 and gave them clearance to land. The plane began its descent and acknowledged the landing instructions at 01:41:33.

The software issued a warning on the minimum safe altitudes, causing the crew to call for a missed approach at 01:42:19 when they couldn't see the runway. Tragically, in their attempt to go missed, the plane crashed into Nimitz Hill just seven seconds later.

After investigation, it was determined that the captain failed to properly plan and execute the approach, while the first officer and flight engineer failed to effectively monitor and check his actions. Fatigue and inadequate training also played a role in this tragedy.

Contributing to the accident was also the Federal Aviation Administration's intentional inhibition of the minimum safe altitude warning system and their failure to properly manage it.

Convair CV-440 Flight 2735 Plane Crash AccidentConvair CV-440 Cargo Plane: Flight 2735

A tragic event took place on September 11th, 2019, near Toledo-Express Airport in Ohio, USA when a cargo plane crashed and burst into flames, claiming the lives of both crew members. The flight departed from Laredo International Airport the previous evening and made a stop for refueling at Millington-Memphis Airport before resuming its journey to Toledo.

Despite acknowledging a landing clearance, the pilot did not make any further communication before the plane hit trees and ultimately crashed onto the premises of a truck repair company.

It is believed that exhaustion from their overnight flight schedule may have caused the flight crew to lose proper airspeed during the approach, leading to an inadvertent stall and tragic crash.

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