Raise 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:
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.
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
Learn more about Pilot Fatigue and other Aeromedical factors in the FAA Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge FAA-H-8083-25B
For an instant pick me up, keep a Boost Oxygen 10 Liter Bottle in your flight bag.