How to Combat Pilot Fatigue in Southern Africa

Pilot fatigue is certainly not a new concept in the aviation industry, long posing a critical safety risk to pilots, crew and passengers. What causes it, and how is it best managed within a safety-conscious flight department? Sherryn de Vos explores…

Sherryn de Vos  |  24th August 2022
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Sherryn de Vos
Sherryn de Vos

Sherryn de Vos is a content specialist at AOM Digital, a digital marketing agency whose primary client...

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Pilot fatigue is a problem within Southern Africa


Pilot fatigue is a direct cause of varying factors of the job. From sleep loss, to extended wake times, disruption in circadian cycles, and an overbearing workload, pilots face a plethora of challenges in their roles if the right safeguards aren’t in place.

Despite measures being put in place by the airlines, civil aviation regulators, and operators alike, fatigue seems to still be one of the most prominent concerns for pilots on the African continent.

Fatigue is Still Posing Huge Risks

Pilots and aviation operators are inundated with strategies and measures to try and counter the effects of fatigue as much as possible. Some of the strategies include:

  • Awareness of the circadian cycles and scheduling of flights around these;
  • A constant focus on a pilot's day-to-day lifestyle, including diet, exercise and sleep cycle;
  • Pre- and post-flight naps;
  • The use of pharmaceuticals to promote sleep when off-duty, or performance stimulants while on duty;
  • The use of next generation technology in avionics (helping to ease pilot workload) while flying.

So, with these measures in place, the question arises, why does fatigue remain such a huge concern within aviation, and particularly in Southern Africa? 

“Whilst most pilot’s experience fatigue during the course of their training and careers, some are at higher risk due to the nature of the operation,” argues Philile Mdletshe, First Officer on the Medevac Fleet for NAC.

Mdletshe highlights how in Medevac operations fatigue is a significant issue, due to the unpredictable nature of the operation. Long duty hours to complete a mission and the time at which a flight can be activated take their toll. “We run a 24/7 operation, and due to the critical nature of our work, we need to be prepared to fly at any time,” he adds.

“It is my responsibility to ensure I am well rested before a flight, and maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle." 

In addition "we comply with a strict Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) that is regulated by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). The main purpose of the FRMS is to ensure that we understand, assess, and manage fatigue risks effectively.”

Are Pilots Getting the Rest They Need?

While, unlike foreign territories, domestic airlines in Southern Africa only really operate during the day, and most domestic airline pilot’s duties fall within their circadian cycles, in Mdletshe’s case, being a medical air evacuation pilot means being on call more frequently, and having more unpredictable hours.

“I have to be ready to leave for an emergency at any time when I am on call, even if activation falls outside my normal sleeping pattern. Whilst not often, I have also flown through the night to complete a mission.”

According to Mdletshe, one of the factors that can contribute to fatigue is the level of automation and latest technology available on the airplane. Some operators continue to use older aircraft which may have legacy avionics, requiring far more manual work for the pilot, which can contribute to pilot fatigue.

Indeed, older aircraft cockpits have six different instruments the pilot needs to monitor simultaneously, including:

  • The airspeed indicator;
  • Altimeter;
  • Attitude indicator;
  • Heading indicator (directional gyro);
  • Turn coordinator; and
  • Vertical speed indicator.

“In a glass cockpit, information from these instruments are combined into one screen and pilots can simply gather all of the information they need by a quick scan,” Mdlestshe summarizes.

Traditionally, operators in Southern Africa have been known for buying the more affordable, older aircraft from Europe and the US, which has resulted in a lot of Southern Africa’s aircraft fleet being older and less technologically sophisticated.

Is a Glass Cockpit the Whole Answer?

As established, glass cockpits reduce pilot workload and fatigue, while simultaneously increasing situational awareness in the air and on the ground.

But there are a few things pilots should be aware of. The first challenge with the absolute automation of glass cockpits is that it can actually lower the attention of the pilots, according to Mdletshe. “If you are simply pressing a button and allowing the aircraft to do the rest, you will find that your pilots start becoming more reliant on the technology,” he warns.

The second thing to consider is the fact that some of the technology is created to essentially override a pilot's actions or decisions, according to Mdletshe. “The problem here is that algorithms and technology sometimes cannot see what a pilot is seeing. When technology is created to override human decisions, it can come at a price.”

What’s the Answer for Fatigued Pilots?

Ultimately, according to Mdletshe, there’s a balance to find. “Advanced avionic technology lessens the workload of a pilot and enhances aviation safety. Aircraft with older technology have the potential to increase a pilot’s workload.” Update these older avionics, he suggests, to help mitigate fatigue.

However, cockpits cannot be so automated that they take the power out of the hands of the pilots. “In the case of a pilot seeing something that the system doesn’t, they should be able to take matters into their own hands and override automation.” Part of that rests with the pilots, who need to play an active role in not over-relying on the technology.

“It is well worth keeping your brain supple and able to work out calculations, and navigate for yourself,” Mdletshe suggests.

And, of course, having found the right balance with the flight deck, there are the various other practical steps for retaining pilot mental and physical fitness, and ensuring adequate rest is had. These should be promoted and supported in the flight department’s safety management system, helping to enshrine sensible anti-fatigue measures as standard within the organization.


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