Combat Crew Fatigue

  • Published
  • By Capt Andrew P. Gray
  • 349 ARS/SE
All of us have heard the saying, "I'll get plenty of rest when I'm dead." People have been using it for as long as I can remember to swat away the fact that they are sleep deprived and in no condition to be performing the tasks assigned to them. Unfortunately, if we as aircrew take this to heart, especially in a combat environment, we might actually become the unlucky ones who wind up proving this theory. 

As pilots, we have dealt with the issue of fatigue since we first started flying. The physical toll a long flight takes on your body is not something to mess with. After I started flying the tanker, I figured that since I was now in a crew aircraft that things might get better. I was wrong. Flying with a crew does allow you to share responsibilities, but you are still just as tired as you would be flying by yourself. This is especially true once you get into a deployed situation. There are many factors I as a tanker pilot have experienced that work against you while you are in a deployed location. First, you have to endure two long flights, sometimes 10 to 12 hours each, in order to arrive at your base. This alone causes such jet lag and fatigue that you are unable to fly missions for several days, and even when you are able to fly again, you still are in a sleep deficit. 

The next factor that you have to deal with while deployed is the drastic change in environment. The locations that we currently deploy to are very hot, humid, and sandy. This is a far cry from the climates that most of us are used to. The impact this has on our energy level and our sleep patterns is apparent from day one. You are more lethargic and actually have a much more difficult time getting to sleep. 

Finally the last major factor that affects your sleep and fatigue levels while deployed is your flying schedule. Depending on the luck of the draw, you could fly during the day and have to deal with the brunt of the heat, or you could fly at night and have to contend with everyone who is not on the night schedule, going in and out of the dorms, slamming doors, watching television loudly, and talking in the halls. Also the amount of times you fly per week could drastically increase your fatigue level. All of this just continues the constant attack on your alertness and productivity. 

Now that we see how these factors (which are not the only ones out there) affect our sleep patterns and fatigue levels, let's look at what effects this could have on your ability to accomplish your mission. From a tanker standpoint, one of the worst things that could happen is not being able to refuel your receiver. If you are tired, you might not be paying close enough attention to the fuel panel, and before you know it, you could have a severely out-of-balance aircraft and not enough fuel in the proper tanks to refuel your customer. This inattention due to fatigue could cause a receiver to have to divert or possibly even eject. Now, not only did you not complete your mission, neither did your receiver. 

Another example of the cost of being fatigued is the chance of navigational error. Everyone has heard about people typing in the wrong coordinates or just not paying attention and flying into an area that they are not supposed to be in. If you're tired, your concentration can lapse and then this scenario could easily happen to you. The fallout from such an error could be disastrous. On one hand you could fly into another area and possibly cause an in-flight collision, or on the other, you could fly into a completely different country and cause an international incident. The chances of this happening are quite high if you don't pay close attention to what you're doing and where you're going. 

The last scenario we will look at is, in my opinion, one of the scariest. Imagine turning on to final approach, getting your gear and flaps down, and then falling asleep and waking up on short final. I've heard of this happening before and just can't imagine what I'd do in that case. Luckily from what I heard, this scenario ended well, but it's unacceptable to ever be fatigued to the point where you fall asleep during a critical phase of flight. Unfortunately, with the way deployments tend to go, I can easily understand getting to that point. 

Now what can you do to make sure that this doesn't happen on your next deployment? From my experience, one of the best things to do is to get into a schedule and stick to it. If you can get your body into a set routine, then you'll have an easier time getting to sleep and staying asleep. Also use ear plugs, if needed, to help block the noise coming from the halls. 

If you are still having a hard time sleeping, but you know that you have to fly and pull your weight in order to get the mission done, you can always go and see the flight doctor. He can provide you with sleep aids that will help you fall asleep and get some rest. The only problem is that you must be careful when you take the medication, due to the fact that you will be DNIF for a specified period of time. Also in some locations, it's not easy to get the flight doc to prescribe you the medication. 

My last suggestion for what you can do, if everything else fails and you believe you're getting to the point where you can't safely accomplish your mission, is to tell someone. It falls on you to let your leadership know that you are fatigued to the point of being unsafe and you need to be off the schedule. If they can't take you completely off, then maybe the schedule can be readjusted in order to allow your crew the extra rest they need. In any case, you need to be vocal about your crew's fatigue level and ability to get the job done safely. 

Fatigue has and always will be a problem for aircrews in deployed locations. Hopefully what was discussed in this article will help you become more aware of the possible causes of deployed fatigue and some of the things you can do to help mitigate the risk to your crew and the mission. Remember, we are all working together to get the mission done and if one piece of the puzzle is not there, the effects reach far beyond just our ability to not get a good night's sleep.