Preflighting (Part 1): You ARE The Weakest Link

Whenever we fly, we become an integral part of a human-machine system — we’re also the least consistent and the least reliable part of that system. Consider for a moment that the vast majority of aviation accidents are attributable to human error. Although we wouldn’t dream of ignoring control surfaces during our preflight, perhaps we should pay a little more attention to preflighting ourselves, too. There is a somewhat hackneyed but convenient acronym to use for such a checklist: “I’M SAFE“. It stands for Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Emotion. Bear with me a minute here…

Discomfort is a poor cockpit companion, and poor health and poor judgement a dangerous (but inherent) mixture. Any illness, whether it’s a cold, indigestion, headache, or any underlying condition that hinders our ability to fly — especially when the chips are down such as in turbulence or IMC — can jeopardize our very safety. Pilots are ordinarily healthier than the general population, but that can change quickly. Pilots should be wary of anything that requires a drug to make them feel better.

Defense: Key ingredients for good health are exercise and diet. If we fail to make time for these, we eventually lose time to sickness.

I could read you the riot act from the Civil Aeromedical Institute, but you might just lose interest… Most drugs only hide symptoms and almost all have side effects, which can compromise judgement and coordination. In short, unless your AME has said it’s OK, or you otherwise know something is benign — be it prescription or OTC — don’t do it. Drug companies do very few bioassays on birds … or pilots! Many reactions, such as drowsiness, can result in anything between impairment and incapacitation, and vary in degree between individuals. Plus, an impairment that we didn’t notice when we took off may become obvious once airborne.

Defense: The case of a blocked sinus justifies the only deliberate in-flight self-medication that I would volunteer, and in fact I always fly with a little plastic spray bottle of nasal decongestant. I’ve never had a sinus block, but I’ve read accounts of how excruciatingly painful they can be! Otherwise, if you notice a physical or mental impairment after departure, fly a normal pattern and return.

I don’t mean physical stressors like noise or pressure changes — we’re talking about less obvious psychological tensions associated with certain financial, family, or career events. (Then there’s the in-flight variety, such as when the engine figures out you’re over water and starts running rough…) Some stress is good; it keeps us awake, motivated, or alert to danger. Too much, however, causes cognitive overload and can interfere with our ability to fly safely. You might see signs like irritability, anxiety, confusion, or aggression. Certainly others would, if it graduated to trembling and sweating!

Defense: Obviously, these are automatic no-go’s — the trick is spotting them. Beware of events in or around your personal life such as moving, death, divorce, change of work situation (even if for the better), and take a close personal inventory before flying under pressure.

Good Lord! If this one isn’t brutally obvious, you’ve been hitting the sauce a bit too often. According to the Forensic Toxicology Research Section of the FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute, alcohol continues to play a part in between 10 and 15 percent of all GA pilot fatalities (though that is far better than the approximately one-third alcohol involvement in driving fatalities). Alcohol particularly affects the brain, the eyes, and the inner ear. Hangover effects can linger for two or three days, and studies have shown lowered performance — particularly in more demanding instrument flying, with blood alcohol content of just 0.025% (airline pilots are flagged at 0.04%). If you drink enough that either level doesn’t effect you at all, get help — you drink too much.

Defense: That eight hour bottle-to-throttle or 0.04% blood alcohol rule is inadequate. Don’t drink and fly. Don’t drink yesterday and fly today, either.

This can be the most insidious of all causes of inattention or impaired function because, like hypoxia, it can be difficult to recognize. This is one arena where business aviation probably does worse than GA, due to scheduling and other operational issues. A recent NASA / NBAA study revealed that almost three quarters of the 1500 pilots surveyed cited fatigue as a serious concern, over 60% said fatigue was common in corporate aviation, and over 70% admitted to having nodded off during a flight (hopefully only while another crewmember was at the controls!).

Defense: Don’t go by how you feel, go by how many hours you’ve slept, how many hours ago that was, and what you’ve been up to in the meantime. Compare that with your normal routine and how that routine stacks up against the past few days. Then make a factual assessment about whether you should be more or less fatigued than usual. After that, factor in how you feel … with a grain of salt. Adrenaline is great — until it runs out — and chances are it will run out sometime during cruise.

I could write an entire article on this one. Just as bringing office problems home can cause our families to suffer, so too can bringing problems from the ground into the cockpit cause our flying skills to suffer. When disturbed or preoccupied, our eyes still see, but the brain can actually fail to integrate that into a meaningful picture. (This phenomenon of a handicapped “visual bandwidth” is beginning to be acknowledged by many jurisdictions in regard to cell phone use while driving.) Any time you encounter a soothing inanity about how someone in the throes of gritting their teeth over a particular conflict (big or small) just hops in an airplane and escapes all their worldly cares, take that with a grain of salt…because unlike the title of that famous comedy — and despite what you may read — watch out: in this case, you can take it with you.

Defense: Two words — self-awareness. How was your drive to the airport, and how did you react to it? Even mild-mannered everyday worries or aggravations should invoke extra care in our flight planning and operation as they may occupy mental space you should be using for something else.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t just take my word for it. You’ll see all of this and more in Chapter 8, Section 1 of the Aeronautical Information Manual. Read up; fly safe!