The Tired Pilot

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Despite my current short-haul flights flying only CONUS, I have had the opportunity to transit many European countries in a past assignment. One country in particular has left a vivid memory of a culture unknown to Americans. Throughout my many extended stays in Seville, Spain, I was able to observe a daily schedule where siestas were still standard. This is in sharp contrast to the American way of pressing through weariness with that Grande coffee just after lunch. 

The American way is in opposition to most current studies that prove taking short naps in the mid-afternoon is much more effective than caffeine, and the results are higher work productivity. So, why is this important for a flight safety article? Well, besides the fact that sleep is very near and dear to my heart, the FAA, NTSB, and many other flight safety organizations have stated crew fatigue is a major hazard to the transportation system. 

A NASA study has shown that brief "power" naps during trans-oceanic flights significantly improved a pilot's alertness and performance. I'm sure the honorable Charles Lindbergh would agree on his 1927 Atlantic crossing. He stated, "My mind clicks on and off. I try letting one eyelid close at a time while I prop the other open with my will. My whole body argues dully that nothing, nothing in life is quite as desirable as sleep. My mind is losing resolution and control." Now I know, at least on a smaller scale, that many of you have felt this way on extended duty days or OEF/OIF missions-where you turn around and you're the only one awake. No, that never happens right? In fact, this phenomenon has become so important to the aviation industry that a laundry list of companies have begun studies. These include: Singapore Air, Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, the Washington based Flight Safety Foundation, NASA, Emirates, the University of South Australia's Centre for Sleep Research, and many more my limited
research has turned up. Can the same be asked of Air Mobility Command? I honestly don't know but I do intend to research the facts. 

Preliminary studies have shown that fatigue plays a role in all of our society, not just transportation. Fatigue has a negative impact on our safety, productivity, and our quality of life. Early research has shown that fatigue has the general effect of moderate alcohol consumption. Job performance is affected every hour of being awake from 10 to 26 hours on an equivalent scale of .004 percent rise in blood alcohol. The same study shows that being awake for 18 hours is equal to a blood alcohol level of .05. The legal limit for driving in most states is .08. Would we want to fly an airplane at a BAC of .05? Obviously the answer is no. However, I remember many channel missions where I was awakened during my normal sleep cycle to fly an augmented (24-hour) flight duty period without adequate rest. Flying a nighttime multi-step-down TACAN into Sigonella NAS at the end of an augmented day with the equivalent of a BAC .05 should raise some eyebrows in the safety community. Now consider those crews flying with Night Vision Devices (NVDs) into hostile airfields on a repeated basis. 

I'm not a physiologist, but from my limited reading, the two main contributors to fatigue are sleep loss and circadian rhythm disruption. These two contributors have a direct effect on the amount of errors and aviation accidents that occur. 

An additional problem is self-identifying fatigue, something that is difficult to do. NASA reported that pilots felt the most alert just six minutes before they actually fell asleep. Because of this difficulty, it is very hard to identify fatigue as a causal finding in an investigation. With this being said, we can still identify many well-known accidents where pilot fatigue played a major role. This includes China Airlines flight 006 in 1985, Arrow Air charter flight in 1985 (285 military fatalities), and the well-known American International flight 808 that crashed in Cuba. I don't know how many Air Force SIBs have stated fatigue as causal, or even an "other finding of significance," but I suspect fatigue is under the surface of a lot of mishaps. 

That of course is an "un-official" proclamation, based solely on conjecture. However, if our job as safety officers is to identify risk, I will be so bold as to identify fatigue as one of mobility crews' top risks. 

So, what do we do about this risk? First, we can take clues from the civilian aviation community. Emirates are testing different variations of rest periods as well as three or four days off before or after each long distance flight (up to 18 hours flight time). Emirates are also considering a two or three day layover, mid-trip. Qantas and the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority are collecting data from monitoring long haul pilots with duty periods from 12 to 14 hours. Our mobility crews are flying very similar duty times, if not longer. Over night flights are very common within AMC and many aviation organizations are looking at collecting data from shift workers in order to understand the effects on working at night. 

Research is also being done on the flight deck environment and the crew rest area located on the aircraft. The characteristics of the flight deck have been shown to make pilots more susceptible to fatigue. This includes movement restriction, variable airflow, low barometric pressure and humidity, noise, and vibration. On top of all of this is the more complex instrumentation and jobs associated with modern cockpits. Research has shown the constant vigilance required to operate in these modern environments decreases alertness by 80 percent in one hour. 

The latest research has delved into crew rest prior to flight, including using drugs for sleep and crew rest during flight. This has led to FAA concerns and studies to help establish explicit standards for approving on-board flight crew rest areas. Again, the challenge is applying all of these studies to the Air Force mission. This means re-evaluating cargo's priority and when passengers need to arrive at their destination. Does a crew absolutely need to be alerted at 0300 for cargo to arrive at a certain Zulu time, when the possibility of transportation by rail, ship, or commercial air may exist? This also applies to transporting passengers. Is the risk of being awakened during a crew's circadian rhythm, as important as getting the passengers to their destination at a certain time? Is alerting crews before their normal wake time in order to fly a local training mission due to maintenance or training-requirement constraints worth the risk? I'm confident these ideas are already being considered, but they continually warrant a second look as mission requirements change. 

Scientific analysis already proves that aircrew fatigue can raise the risk substantially during any mission. The least we can do is study on-going research projects, and perhaps fund a few of our own. I know I would love to see the brain activity analysis on a C-17 crew flying an augmented crew day into OIF and back. A study taking place on our mobility crews would offer invaluable information to the rest of the aviation world due to the amount of missions where the factors that contribute to fatigue are present in large quantities. Perhaps with the purchase of a new tanker, we will look at the crew bunk area and try to imitate those in the most modern commercial aircraft such as the A340-500 and the Boeing 777 ER/LR. Lastly, the ORM analysis used for pre-flight go/no-go decisions needs to be constantly updated, reviewed, and the importance reiterated so inadequacies and crew complacency don't contribute to a mishap.