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Imagine the following: A corporate flight crew arises at 4a.m. the morning after returning from a long day in the cockpit the night before; they manage to eke out about six hours of their usual eight-hour sleep. At 6 a.m.- flight plan filed- the passengers on board- the crew flies a ‘five-plus-30’ leg to the far coast so the people on board can tend to the business at hand; the flight crew cleans up the aircraft- refuels- files for the ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st January 2009
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has...
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Pilots can’t be safe flying barely awake.

Imagine the following: A corporate flight crew arises at 4a.m. the morning after returning from a long day in the cockpit the night before; they manage to eke out about six hours of their usual eight-hour sleep.

At 6 a.m.- flight plan filed- the passengers on board- the crew flies a ‘five-plus-30’ leg to the far coast so the people on board can tend to the business at hand; the flight crew cleans up the aircraft- refuels- files for the return flight- grabs lunch using the FBO crew car- then returns to the airport to prepare for an equally long flight home.

At 10 p.m.- after securing the aircraft for the night- they learn that tomorrow they need to arrive early yet again for another long day of flying; and again- they sleep less than usual – again by about two hours.

While the preparatory activity and stimulants (coffee) make them feel like they are at their normal level of alertness- in reality the two flight crew members are well along in accumulating a sleep deficit – and on a direct heading toward experiencing the physiological effects of their sleep shortage.

Next day- that sleep deficit begins to influence their performance- showing up on the return flight of that third straight overly-long day. Errors seep into their routine- their usual sharp attention to detail and finely honed coordination begins to break down. And finally- during a moment of a simultaneous yawn from their physiological fatigue- they both miss the radio call warning them of converging traffic on their descent toward the home field.

When the TCAS system barks its warning- just as the controller calls them again- the urgency of a life-and-death encounter with the closing traffic shocks them into action. Fatigue- it seems- just reared its insidious head – normal- predictable- documentable. And were it not for the salvation of technology- this flight crew- its passengers and those of another aircraft might well have become a new set of accident statistics.

Scenarios like this composite scenario are among the reasons why Dr. Mark Rosekind counsels about the dangers of fatigue and the need for fatigue countermeasures through his company- Alertness Solutions.

Regulatory efforts to manage the work and rest cycles for airline pilots date back more than 70 years- from the Civil Aeronautics Administration rules of 1937; and then- nothing changed until nearly 50 years later – nearly 30 years into the jet age when the speed and reach of aircraft effectively neutered the regulatory vestiges of the piston-airliner era.

In the 1980s and again in the 1990s- the CAA’s successor- the FAA- tackled modifying those rules – yet incidents and- it’s believed- accidents continue to occur in the airline community- as well as our own business aviation community. The August 1993 crash of AIA Flight 808 at Guantanamo Bay- Cuba- drew attention to the issue in the mid-1990s. The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board cited crew fatigue as the probable cause of this accident.

More recently- an incident over Hawaii early last year resurrected the issue. On February 13- 2008- pilots of a ‘go!’ Airlines 50-seat CRJ Regional Jet were commanding a flight to Hilo from Honolulu when they failed to respond to radio calls; controllers even tried emergency frequencies as the jet overshot its destination. The jet flew about 15 miles beyond its destination and well past the point at which it would have started down. After controllers re-established contact with the flight crew- they turned around the jet and landed safely. The airline- a division of Mesa Air Group- suspended the pilots that day and- in April- terminated their contracts citing evidence that both airline pilots apparently fell asleep on the flight deck.

Although the effects of fatigue- sleep interruption and sleep deficit have seemingly been studied to exhaustion- these problems continue to manifest themselves in daily flight operations of airlines and corporate flight departments- alike.

Among the unsettling facts documented by these studies is that corporate pilots admit in a majority percentage of nodding off in the cockpit – nodding off when they were supposed to be monitoring and managing their flight- as opposed to taking a scheduled nap.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration conducted a study of fatigue in corporate-flight operations in conjunction with the Flight Safety Foundation and the National Business Aviation Association that revealed some disturbing results. Nine of 10 corporate pilots identified fatigue as a moderate or serious safety issue from their experience. Even more telling - 75 percent admitted to nodding off during a flight.

According to Dr. Rosekind- a regular lecturer at Bombardier’s annual Safety Standdown events- two main physiological factors affect fatigue: sleep and sleep loss; and circadian rhythms.

Since Federal Air Regulations covering private aviation- FAR Part 91- don’t regulate the issue as other FARs do for commercial operations- it’s up to operators- owners- flight departments and flight crews to become informed and to enforce their own steps to mitigate fatigue as a safety-of-flight issue.

NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System database- which depends on voluntary reports of pilots- controllers- and mechanics- includes an entire subset dedicated to fatigue-related reports from commuter and corporate pilots. They read like a bad story of simple failures with large implications.

• A “small jet flight crew reports landing without clearance after (a) very long duty day.”
• A “fatigued Falcon 10 captain climbed to 2-000 feet before the 4.5 DME on the TEB 5 even after the (first officer) warned him of his altitude.”
• “Fatigued corporate jet flight crew fails to comply with 1-500 foot MSL restriction on TEB SID from TEB.”
• “An advanced cockpit corporate jet (First Officer) inadvertently shut down both engines in flight by selecting the fuel levers closed instead of turning off ignition.”

There are many- many other reports generated by the flight crews involved in the reports. The issue of fatigue is one likely to grow at a time when an increasing percentage of business aircraft can fly both transcontinental and intercontinental distances – with commensurate 12-- 13- and 14-hour legs – as well as an increase in jets approved for single-pilot IFR operations.

So- our example pilots suffered small sleep loses on trips of length and across time zones that disrupted their circadian rhythms; in turn- those disrupted circadian rhythms contributed to further sleep loss – which exacerbated the disruption of their circadian rhythms- and more sleep loss.

Something has to give- and it shows up in crew fatigue - fatigue that continues to build until either the pilots get a few days off to catch up- or something tragic occurs. In a testament to the quality of our aviators and equipment- actual accidents from these instances are relatively rare – but the problem is equally pervasive.

Even for crew members who can get a full eight-hour sleep period in- often that sleep is far from restful- according to Dr. Rosekind- because of a variety of factors – strange room- changes in background noise- even something as innocuous as differences in lighting. So if the crew members are trying to catch their eight hours after crossing several time zones- as is common in business aviation- they may be quite tired but sleep poorly.

And eight hours of periodically disrupted sleep is no better than a much shorter sleep period of normal depth and restfulness. The result is largely the same: a sleep deficit- and a tired pilot – even if the sense of tiredness is not recognized at the time.

Repeat such a cycle two or three times in a week- and as time progresses- our poor crew members are woefully under-rested- their fatigue level building – and with that increase in fatigue- their ability to perform to their best is ultimately compromised.

Because of something in our nature- in such cases we tend to overestimate how long it takes us to get to sleep and to underestimate how long we slept. That it may not be as bad as we think is the good news.

The bad news though- is a tendency to say we’re more alert than objective measures indicate. It may be worse than we think.

How long- and when- we sleep aren’t the only factors that can contribute to building fatigue. There are several others according to Dr. Rosekind. Among them: medical conditions; medications; alcohol use prior to sleep time; and work conditions that contribute stress.

Then there are the effects of time zone changes (Jet Lag)- as well as the effects of changes in latitude. Flying to the far north during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer can throw us off- even without a big jump in time zones. The preponderance of daylight beyond our body’s expectation of dark can disrupt our sleep.

Throw in a jump of three or four time zones onto a trip that takes us far north- and we’ll suffer from problems in resetting our circadian rhythms to the new time zone for much longer than we would on a trip that starts and ends at about the same relative latitude.

Fortunately- there are methods available to counter these fatigue factors. It starts with knowing the problems.

ALERTNESS MANAGEMENT SAFETY EVALUATION: http://www.alertnesssolutions.com/Resources_Info/SpecResources_docs/AMSE.pdf

At the link above- Dr. Rosekind’s company- Alertness Solutions- provides a simple tool that flight departments and pilots alike can use to evaluate where things stand for that operation.

The Alertness Management Safety Evaluation covers five principal factors related to fatigue management: Education; alertness strategies; scheduling; healthy sleep; and organizational. In 20 straightforward yes-or-no questions- the user can get a handle on how much is being done to manage fatigue and- more importantly- what more needs to be done.

According to the grading scale provided- if any section lacks any “Yes” answers- that entire area needs addressing; the more “Yes” answers per section- the better the organization has the issue covered.

By tapping resources available from Alertness Solutions- from NASA and FAA sources- a flight operation can develop training to educate crew and managers on fatigue and alertness- create scheduling practices and policies to help obviate the problems of fatigue and alertness- enlighten crew on how to recognize whether the sleep they’re getting is adequate to help them avoid fatigue- and move the organization to embrace the steps needed to keep crew members flying safely- alert and rested.

Any solution available depends- however- on sympathetic bosses- ones who recognize and adjust their plans when a flight crew says it needs added rest to be at its safest.

In his own flight of private aircraft for business travel- this writer started recognizing the insidious nature of fatigue and its impact on pilot performance- and has adapted strategies to prevent it from becoming a safety-of-flight issue.

At its most basic- being aware of the issue and cognizant of the signs of fatigue provides a potent weapon to making that new decision that can save a life- and an airplane. Sometimes- that new decision is no more complicated than after recognizing that the problem exists- rescheduling a flight and the meeting planned at the other end.

It beats being dead wrong from being asleep in the cockpit.

You can hear lectures and attend workshops on this and other safety related issues in business aviation at Bombardier’s annual Safety Standdown.

Find out more from www.safetystanddown.com

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