The I'M SAFE Checklist

Pilot Risk Management: There's a Checklist for That!

As pilots, we love our checklists. So it's no surprise that there is a self-assessment checklist to assist pilots in determining their own physical and mental health before a flight. 

The I'M SAFE Checklist is taught early in flight training and is used throughout a pilot's professional career to assess their overall readiness for flight when it comes to illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, and emotion.

I - Illness

Mid adult man lying in bed looking at thermometer reading
Getty Images/Kathleen Finlay

The FAA requires most pilots to possess a valid medical certificate for flight, but the occasional medical exam every five years doesn’t cover illness such as colds and flu. In the interest of safety, the FAA does regulate this topic loosely by stating that if a pilot has or develops a known medical condition that would prevent him from obtaining a medical certificate, he is prohibited from flying as a required crewmember (FAR 61.53).

In addition, FAR 91.3 states that the pilot in command is directly responsible for the operation of the flight. The pilot alone is responsible for ensuring his health is up to par before taking the controls.

Colds, allergies, and other common illnesses can cause problems for pilots. From sinus pressure to general malaise, pilots can easily become more of a risk to the flight than an asset.

Before flying, pilots should think about recent or current illnesses that might affect flight. After the coughing and sneezing subside, a pilot might feel well enough to fly but could still have trouble performing the Valsalva maneuver, for example, which equalizes the pressure inside of his ears.

M - Medication

Aviation Medical Doctor
Image: Getty/Joe Raedle

With illness, it's mostly clear when a pilot should or shouldn't fly. But with illness comes medication, and all medications should be scrutinized by both the pilot and his or her doctor before taking it. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can be dangerous for a pilot to take before flying.

If medication is necessary, pilots should discuss the specific effects of the medication with an aviation medical examiner to determine if it causes mental or physical impairment that would interfere with the safety of flight. Then, pilots need to be aware of residual effects of both short-term and long-term use of medications. Even after the medication has been stopped, the effects of it may remain in the body for some time.

So how long should you wait after taking medication to fly? Well, that depends on the drug itself, but the FAA recommends waiting until at least five dosage periods have passed. If the medication is taken once a day, for example, you would wait five days before flying again.

S - Stress

Businessman with head in hands in conference room
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There are at least three kinds of stress that pilots should be aware of: Physiological, environmental and psychological stress.

Physiological stress is stress in the physical sense. It comes from fatigue, strenuous exercise, being out of shape or changing time zones, to name a few. Unhealthy eating habits, illness, and other physical ailments are included in this category, too.

Environmental stress comes from the immediate surroundings and includes things such as being too hot or too cold, inadequate oxygen levels or loud noises.

Psychological stress can be more difficult to identify. This category of stress includes anxiety, social and emotional factors and mental fatigue. Psychological stress can occur for many reasons such as divorce, family problems, financial troubles or just a change in schedule.

A small level of stress can be a good thing, as it keeps pilots aware and on their toes. But stress can accumulate and affect performance. Also, everyone handles stress differently. A source of anxiety for one person might be a fun challenge for another person. It's important for pilots to be able to recognize and evaluate their stressors so they can mitigate risk.

A - Alcohol

Man enjoying a drink at the bar
Getty Images/Yagi Studio

There's no doubt that alcohol and flying don't mix. Alcohol abuse affects the brain, eyes, ears, motor skills and judgment, all of which are necessary components to safe flight. Alcohol makes people dizzy and sleepy which decreases reaction time.

The rules surrounding the use of alcohol while flying are clear: FAR 91.17 prohibits the use of alcohol within the 8 hours before flying, while under the influence of alcohol, or with a blood alcohol content of .04% or greater. The FAA recommends that pilots wait at least 24 hours after drinking to get behind the controls.

A​ pilot should remember, though, that they can follow the "8 hours from bottle to throttle" rule and still not be fit to fly. Hangovers are dangerous in the cockpit, too, with effects similar to being drunk or ill: Nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue, problems focusing, dizziness, etc.

F - Fatigue

Airline pilot sleeping
airline pilot sleeping. Getty

Pilot fatigue is a difficult problem to address completely, as fatigue affects everyone differently. Some people can function well with little sleep; others don't perform well at all without at least ten hours of sleep per night. There's no medical way to address the sleep issue with pilots -- each pilot must be responsible for knowing his or her limitations.

The effects of fatigue are cumulative, meaning that small sleep deprivations over time can be dangerous for pilots. Pilots should also take into account time changes, jet lag and day/night scheduling options when managing fatigue.

Although there are FAA regulations and company policies for commercial pilots to help manage fatigue, the responsibility for safety lies with the pilot alone.

E - Emotion

mad pilot
Image: Getty/Westend61

For some people, emotions can get in the way of behaving in a safe, productive manner. Pilots should ask themselves if they are in an emotionally stable state of mind before departing. Emotions can be subdued and managed most of the time, but they can also resurface easily, especially when faced with a stressful situation.

Most of the time, this type of self-assessment is hard, but pilots need to try to maintain an objective view of themselves to assess their behavior and emotions in a safe way. For example, if a pilot notices that he is unusually angry or impatient while preparing for a flight, he may want to reconsider flying.