The Pilot Fatigue Problem

Causes, Symptoms and Effects of Pilot Fatigue

Exhausted pilot at the airport
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For years, pilot fatigue has been a real issue. Airline pilots, as well as cargo, corporate and charter pilots can all face fatigue while on the job. While pilot fatigue can be common and overlooked, it poses a very troubling threat to aviation safety and should be taken seriously.

There is a long history of debates between regulatory agencies, airline pilots and unions, and aircraft operators over pilot fatigue issues.

Today, the issue is still being argued as the industry tries to find a common solution in an effort to decrease the risks associated with fatigue.

The Problem:

Pilot fatigue has been a real problem since the beginning of air travel. Charles Lindbergh fought to stay awake on his record-breaking 33.5-hour transatlantic flight from New York to Paris on the Spirit of St. Louis. Long-haul pilots have reported falling asleep at the controls. Cargo pilots that fly at night face fatigue from challenging the body's natural internal clock.

The Lindbergh flight provides a great example for the real issue today- that fatigue is an acceptable risk and one that isn't given enough credit. Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris without falling asleep. Similarly, pilots today get away with flying tired all the time. If you ask an average pilot how much sleep he got the night before a flight, it's probably on par with the average American, which is about six and a half hours.

This might be an acceptable amount of sleep if you have a desk job. But the additional stressors of a pilot's 10-hour workday, long commutes, lengthy flights, terrible airport diets, long layovers in airport lounges, and potential jet-lag increase operational risks for pilots.

One more thing: Pilots, like everyone else, face unique family situations, financial stress and other life stress outside of work.

In general, your average pilot might be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted when he takes the controls. But time after time, the plane takes off and lands without incident, making fatigue a somewhat socially acceptable risk in the aviation world.

Causes of Fatigue:

Obviously, fatigue is caused by lack of sleep. But it's not always that simple. It can manifest acutely, such as after a runner completes a marathon, or over time, which we may know as burnout. Here are some specific causes of fatigue:

  • Lack of quality sleep
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Interruption of circadian rhythm
  • Mental or emotional stress (such as family problems, anxiety, or checkride stress)
  • Physical exertion, such as heavy exercise
  • Poor health, including dehydration or poor diet

Specifically, fatigue in pilots can be caused, or amplified by, the following:

  • Commuting: some pilots start their day 2-3 hours earlier than others in order to commute to work. Some have to drive a long distance to the airport; more often, though, a pilot's commute is because he doesn't live near his home base at all, and he must fly in from a different airport, adding hours to the beginning of his day.
  • Layovers at airports: sometimes pilots will have a 12-hour layover at an airport, where they are meant to rest. Instead, some choose not to sleep, or otherwise can't get to sleep. They watch TV, check email, or catch up with old friends and might get a few hours of sleep before their next flight departs.
  • Jet-lag: More apparent with long-haul pilots, jet-lag can be a big problem when it comes to pilot fatigue. Most operators give ample time for pilots to adjust to jet lag, but the body does go through stress when its circadian rhythm is interrupted, making it hard for pilots to sleep when they need to, and difficult for them to stay awake later when they need to.
  • Night flying: Cargo pilots, especially, deal with fatigue when flying lengthy routes at night due to the imbalance of the body's natural circadian rhythm. This will be especially true for those pilots that have varying schedules or alternate day and night shifts.
  • Monotonous tasks: Pilots that fly the same aircraft on the same routes into the same airports daily are prone to boredom fatigue.

Symptoms of fatigue

  • Falling asleep
  • Yawning
  • Poor visual acuity
  • Feeling "sluggish" or "drowsy"
  • Decreased reaction time
  • Decreased concentration

Effects

  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor performance of tasks
  • Forgetfulness
  • Poor judgment
  • Diminished decision-making skills, including making rash decisions or lack of making a decision at all
  • The ultimate risk of pilot fatigue is an aircraft accident and potential fatalities, such as the Colgan Air crash that occurred in early 2009.

Nine hours into his 33-hour flight, Charles Lindbergh wrote in his journal that, "...nothing life can attain, is quite so desirable as sleep." He goes on to record the many effects fatigue had on his flight, including falling asleep with his eyes open and his aircraft getting out of control.

Fatigue is a very real problem for flight crews. While the FAA and aviation operators can help mitigate the risks of pilot fatigue through education, changes to flight hour limitations and other fatigue management programs, the ultimate responsibility of fatigue management lies with pilots themselves.