Dead Tired

Flying ‘under the influence’ of alcohol or drugs can produce disastrous consequences, but there is a more common problem that is likely to affect us all — abstinence or not. Professional pilots, whose work dictates tight schedules, layovers and multiple time zones, are especially at risk. When afflicted, they lose sharpness, coordination and the ability to think through problems, and they are no more proficient than a drunken pilot. Yet many affected pilots fly, regardless. What’s the problem? They’re tired. What’s worse? No one seems to care.

Several years ago, a private pilot planned a three-day outdoor adventure for himself and three friends. The group flew a single engine airplane to Bryce Canyon and then continued on to the Grand Canyon. They wanted to get as much done as possible in the time they had, so they came up with an itinerary for the trip that had them sight-seeing by day and traveling at night. The entire first day was spent hiking and taking photos. It was after dark when they loaded up the rented airplane and took off for the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, they never got there.

The sequence of events leading to the fatal accident included navigational errors, fuel mismanagement, loading errors and, ultimately, loss of control. [NTSB number LAX91FA106]. Many factors were cited as contributors to the accident. Alarmingly, fatigue was not one of them — but I feel it may have carried the lion’s share. The pilot had been awake for more than 15 hours before takeoff — and most of those hours had been filled with strenuous activity. The pilot was simply too tired to make intelligent decisions about his flight or safely fly the airplane. In the end, he pushed himself (and the aircraft) beyond his limits.

Most pilots would never even consider flying if they had consumed alcohol, but pilots often fly without proper rest. Familiarity may play a part. For pilots, drinking is a fairly rare occurrence and when you partake, you’re aware that you are impaired if simply because the law does not permit you to fly. Fatigue is different. You’re tired at some point every day — and there are no laws that require general aviation pilots to have downtime or sleep before flying. General Aviation pilots are left to their own judgement.

Important: Flying when you are tired is just as dangerous as flying while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Airline pilots, charter pilots and flight instructors all have ‘duty time’ requirements. These regulations dictate how many hours these pilots can fly during certain time intervals. Again, General Aviation pilots have no such duty requirements. What they have, instead, is ‘Get there-itis’ — a term used by the FAA and NTSB accident investigators to describe incidents related to pilot fatigue. The formula usually follows a set format…

  • A pilot works an entire day (usually a Friday) at his regular job. He gets off work around 5 o’clock, fights traffic to get home and pick up the kids and then heads for the airport. Or…
  • A pilot spends the last day of a vacation or business trip trying to tie up loose ends and then departs for home, minutes after his last meeting.

Common Thread: In these cases the pilot begins the flight tired and/or stressed. Acute fatigue is a simple fact of our everyday lives. After a long day of physical or mental work, we are just not as alert and aware as we are when we are rested.

As a tired pilot’s physical performance drops off, so too does his judgement and this can lead to a deadly snowball effect. Initial symptoms include a loss of sharpness or awareness and reduced coordination. A pilot who is not alert and not thinking clearly will make poor decisions — and only bad things can happen when a pilot makes poor decisions.

DEFENSE: It’s Not As Simple As It Seems
You might think that the remedy to pilot fatigue is simple — just get more rest. But the problem is really a function of smarter schedule planning. You should never make a schedule that will place you in a stressful or fatigued situation prior to flight. Don’t plan a trip if the hardest part will be getting to the airplane on time. Explain to passengers in advance that an airplane trip can and will have delays and schedule changes. Don’t let ‘passenger-pressure’ force you into a flight that you are not ready for.

Best: Remember the saying, ‘If you have time to spare, go by air.’ Take your time and do things right. If you can’t do that, don’t go.

In 1991 a fatal accident occurred when a 57-year old pilot fell asleep while in flight. He had been pheasant hunting for two days. It was in the late afternoon of the second day when he took off for home. The trip involved seven to eight hours of flying time. The pilot had originally planned to fly home the following day, but changed his plans when it became apparent that bad weather would be coming in. On the second leg of his flight home that night, he filed a VFR flight plan for 12,500 feet. Radar data later disclosed that the pilot maintained heading, but that altitude began to wander up and down. The airplane was not equipped with supplemental oxygen and it reached 13,100 feet at one point. For three hours, the airplane flew on while holding heading but at no particular altitude. The final 10 minutes of the flight was a gradual descent that ended when the airplane impacted terrain at about 5,700 feet and about one hour short of the destination.

The investigation discovered records showing that the airplane’s autopilot altitude hold was inoperative. The pilot had been up an entire day and then, flying alone at night, he climbed above 12,000 feet without oxygen — that could put anybody to sleep. The NTSB’s statement of probable cause [NTSB number LAX91FA040] was, ‘pilot fatigue, improper use of the auto-pilot, and pilot complacency.’ There are other details, which you may find more alarming.

Most pilots take fatigue lightly. But from today forward you should think about flying when tired in the same way you would think about flying after drinking. Quite simply, you should never do it.