4 Tips on Combatting Pilot Fatigue

Just because pilot fatigue is common in Business Aviation doesn’t mean you have to overlook it. Aviation Director Andre Fodor shares a compelling case for lowering the impact of fatigue, and shares tips on how to do so...

Andre Fodor  |  02nd November 2023
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Andre Fodor
Andre Fodor

With a focused approach on global excellence and creativity, Andre Fodor has managed flight operations...

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Practical tips to help pilots fight fatigue

It must be fate when your editor asks you to write an article on pilot fatigue management and you find yourself afflicted with chronic exhaustion...

It began just recently when I was asked to fill-in for a sick crew member on a trip to India. Two days after accepting the request, I was overflying the Middle East fighting jet lag and a nagging cold while using every technique I know to stay awake and alert.

The operator, a highly professional Flight Department, did everything right. They swapped crews in Europe and gave us two nights to acclimatize to the change in time zone. But anyone who has flown a similar assignment will know there’s no effective way to acclimatize quickly and be fully rested for such flights. In these scenarios, we all start on the back foot.

Regardless of what popular tricks and techniques we employ, we must simply combat the tiredness. And of course, with pilots being pilots, the night before such an epic flight is usually one of restlessness, fitful awakenings to check the alarm clock, and worries over the details of the upcoming flight.

Owing to geo-political circumstances, a flight from Europe to India which once took 5.5 hours has become a complex nine-hour ordeal, making rest all-the-more important. The routing took us south towards Greece, overflying Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE before heading towards our northern India destination.

Fatigue is a Significant Pilot Concern

Posing considerable risk to flight safety and a pilot’s general wellbeing, fatigue is always my most significant concern. It’s a particularly relevant danger for Business Aviation flight operations where we often self-regulate and fly new routes and demanding airspaces. Fatigue impairs our cognitive and physical performance.

If we’re not careful, pilot fatigue leads to reduced performance, loss of job satisfaction, and ultimately serious error that could cause a fatal accident. Implementing a fatigue management strategy is essential to improving and maintaining our health and upholding the safety of our operations.

As corporate pilots, we are often exposed to short- term sleep deprivation, extended periods awake (particularly those who fly overnight), long duty hours, and a persistently poor sleep quality over extended periods. During my recent flight to India, all these factors played a role, compounded by the cold I was fighting. I had to use every trick in the book to successfully complete the flight.

So what are those tricks, and how can corporate pilots combat fatigue generally? Allow me to share...

1 – Be Deliberate: Ringfence Your Rest Time

The primary way of preventing fatigue is to get appropriate, prolonged and cumulative rest. In my recent long-haul example, I should have called-in sick.

However, even when at home I find myself tired. The busy lives corporate pilots lead don’t provide many opportunities to stop early, take time out and relax before trying to sleeping. But there are things we can do to help ourselves. With Smartphones within constant, easy reach, it’s difficult to disconnect before getting some rest.

Scrolling through our phones immediately before sleep does not allow our brains to transition from stimulated alertness to the deeper state of rest that allows the mind and body to recover.

So, it’s important to hold rest time as sacred. Cut out the distractions, and, resisting the temptation to scroll through your phone or watching TV, keep your pre-sleep activities to a minimum.

2 – Help Your Circadian Rhythm

Protecting the time allocated for your sleep is just one component of combatting fatigue, though. Factoring in your circadian rhythm is another. If your body is out of sync, you could find yourself staring at the ceiling, alternating between counting sheep and glancing at the alarm clock. But there are ways to counteract this problem.

On long-haul flights, I book my hotel room starting the night before my arrival, ensuring it’s ready when I arrive in the early morning. I specify the room should be in a quiet area of the hotel, and upon entering the room, I take a small dosage of melatonin. Darkening and cooling my room, I wear eye and ear covers and go to bed without looking at the smartphone or TV.

My aim is to catch about five hours of sleep before waking, taking a shower, exercising, then trying to go back to bed in line with the new time zone.

Keep in mind that not all hotels are designed equally. It's better to pay a little more for a hotel that caters for flight crews, providing the services that you need to get rested.

3 – Strategize What You Eat and Drink, and Exercise!

Only use caffeine tactically. By refraining from caffeine or work-out drinks (unless flying in the opposite direction on the clock), you can get maximum benefit from caffeine when you need it the most.

Opting for low starch, high protein, smaller in-flight meals will help, too. By ‘grazing’ on food in the cockpit, it’s possible to spread eating throughout the flight, without the sleepiness that follows a large meal.

Flying a large cabin jet gives me the luxury of getting up to stretch, and, whenever I get the opportunity, to do some push-ups to get the blood pumping.

During evening flights, I also keep the cockpit well-lit (unless operationally impossible), and I occasionally place a mint-infused face towel in the chiller to freshen me up and provide some sensory stimulation.

4 – Tactical Napping

I wish there were guidance regarding tactical napping for Business Aviation pilots. Unfortunately, General Aviation regulators do not address the benefits and legality of napping in the cockpit.

My own view is that it’s better for one of us to take a twenty-minute nap than having two pilots fighting to stay awake at high altitude and high speed, or at the approach phase of the flight.

Addressing the Issue of Fatigue With the Boss...

As I discuss fatigue with colleagues, I often ask how they communicate the need for rest with their principals. Sadly, I tend to find them reticent to broach the subject. But they shouldn’t be!

If our passengers were really aware of the challenges affecting pilots, and the dangers fatigue presents, they are more likely to be inclined to accept changes in departure times, the higher cost of crew swaps, or larger airplanes with adequate crew rest areas. After all, it’s for their own benefit and safety, ultimately.

Though fatigue may be part of every professional pilot’s life, that’s no reason not to actively take steps to reinforce safety and health with good standard operational procedures.

If you haven’t already done so, develop a set of guidelines for your Flight Department outlining procedures to be followed when pilots are fatigued. Incorporate a fatigue management protocol that stipulates processes be accomplished slower, and with greater awareness.

Above all, learn how your body communicates fatigue, attuning to those subtle cues. There are long-term consequences for not doing so, because fatigue impacts you heart rate, blood pressure and overall health. You’ll age faster, feel worse, and get sick more often when your immune system is lowered, owing to fatigue.

So, get serious about fatigue. Have difficult conversations with the principal, exercise, develop good eating habits, and improve your overall wellness and fitness by safeguarding your rest times.

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