Safety topic from Episode 3

Fatigue management

Let’s face it, flying an aircraft requires enough concentration as it is, without the pilot feeling tired, stressed, or in any way unwell. Being well rested is a vital component of a pilot’s personal resources, and managing fatigue is an integral step towards being fit to fly. In single pilot operations, it can be life-saving.

Civil Aviation Order 48.1 Instrument 2013 states as a requirement that pilots must not operate an aircraft if they think they are fatigued, or likely to become fatigued over the course of the flight, to a degree that impairs their performance and results in an increased risk to flight safety.

Fatigue affects your ability to make sound decisions. At the very least, when you are tired, your ability to handle stress and excess workload in the cockpit will be compromised. At worst, you may lose that decision-making ability altogether and be unaware that it has happened. Managing fatigue comprises four basic elements:

  • Getting enough good quality sleep to build your resistance to fatigue
  • Being aware of the causes of fatigue, and the symptoms you may feel or see in others
  • Recognising when performance is being impaired by fatigue
  • Implementing strategies to manage fatigue

Allow some flexibility

It’s all very well to have an itinerary worked out for an air safari. However, you have to be prepared for that itinerary to change, and have a few days up your sleeve in case of delays. By the time our Out-n-Back crew landed in Cairns, mid-way through the safari, they were starting to show signs of fatigue. It was hot, and everyone had been putting in long days. Despite the pilots having complied with duty time limits, they soon realised that a two night stay with just one day off here was not going to cut it, so they made the decision to extend their stay by another night, to give themselves time for plenty of rest. 

Fatigue risk management is just another form of safety management. In a single pilot situation, listen to what your body is telling you, and let common sense prevail. Unfortunately, we cannot train ourselves to need less sleep and we cannot store sleep! Most of us have a pre-programmed amount of sleep we need to function effectively – usually 7-8 hours a night. You cannot expect to be at your peak level of performance when you’ve had a shocker of a night’s sleep. This may have been a result of too few hours between going to bed and getting up, waking in the very early hours of the morning when you would normally be asleep or else a restless night where you’ve been deprived of enough hours of quality sleep. 

However it’s not only the night before that we need to take into account. If you haven’t had enough sleep in the previous couple of days, you can build up a sleep debt which also diminishes your effective performance in the cockpit. So start preparing for your flight early, paying attention to your diet as well. 

Grow to become an old pilot by looking at the whole picture of you and your fitness to fly. Don’t forget about taking into account your level of hydration and nutrition throughout the planned flying day. It is easy to become dehydrated while flying and being dehydrated can exacerbate the effects of fatigue. Have you packed plenty of water and snacks? Your stomach needs feeding; your brain needs it even more. 

Always aim to eat a nutritious, light meal before you go flying, rather than a heavy meal laden with carbohydrates. Ensure you are not suffering from the effects of alcohol, and be careful with taking medications. Know what’s legal and what’s not and even if it is legal, know about its possible impact on fatigue and take that into account.

Recognise the signs

In a single pilot environment, you don’t have another crew member in the cockpit to cover any oversights you may be accumulating. The buck stops with you, so make sure you recognise the signs of fatigue early. It’s then up to you to take the appropriate measures to ensure it does not become detrimental to your performance.

An early indicator of fatigue is mood. Are you feeling a bit uncommunicative, perhaps a lot less positive about this impending flight than usual? Are you becoming frustrated with every little problem or struggling to make decisions? 

If you are indeed tired, expect that your performance capabilities will start to degrade, followed by a decline in the accuracy of your performance. This is particularly heightened when you are subject to demanding tasks or conditions, like excessive heat or turbulence, or complex procedures induced by bad weather. Certainly fatigue can impact a pilot’s ability to react quickly and appropriately to emergencies and operate in an effective manner.

Even in the daytime, taking the opportunity for a short nap between flights can make all the difference to your level of fatigue. Generally speaking, the longer the nap, the greater the recovery value. However, the benefit of longer naps can be hampered by what’s called sleep inertia – that period of sleepiness, which can last up to 20-45 minutes, after you’ve just woken from a nap, depending on individual differences. Because you will need some time to return to full alertness after a long nap this time should be taken into account when setting your alarm for waking. Try to avoid doing any safety sensitive work until you are fully alert. For maximum benefit, and to avoid sleep inertia, a nap should ideally permit at least 20 minutes sleep and be no longer than 45 minutes. 

As a pilot, being fit and well rested is not only an obvious advantage to performance outcomes; it’s your obligation, to yourself as well as your passengers. CAO 48.1 sets out clear limits on flight and duty times for flight crew members conducting various types of commercial operations. While there are no specific limits for private flying other than the requirement not to fly if too fatigued or likely to become so, private pilots are encouraged to stick to the basic limits found in CAO 48.1 Appendix 1. 

CAAP 48-1 offers guidance on the critical issue of assessing yourself for your level of fatigue, and includes a decision aid. It’s not a go/no go tool but it does assist in determining the level of risk and whether making changes to your plan is advised.