The schedule was tight. Following a day on the slopes and an evening watching the Super Bowl, the pilot was a bit tired, but still had to contend with a 45-minute drive to the airport, a snowy instrument departure and a night flight to North Las Vegas Airport. He landed at VGT after the tower had closed and arrived at the hotel around 1 a.m. No rest for the wicked, however, as wake-up calls jolted him from bed in time for 7:30 meetings and a full day of walking through exhibit hall aisles. Then, after dinner at 6:30 p.m., he flew home, touching down on home turf at 3 a.m.
This could be a typical trip for the owner-pilot of a new light jet. The lack of sleep, lack of proper diet and onset of mental fatigue is a setup for mistakes. Even little mistakes at 300 knots and 30,000 feet can add up to big trouble.
Light jets open a whole array of issues for the owner-pilot stepping up in altitude, speed and complex aircraft systems. This major jump in operational capability is available to most instrument-rated pilots with a third-class medical and a flush bank account. Owner-pilots tend to be older than 50, have aggressive personalities (read: type A) and consider their time to be very valuable.
Piloting skills can be taught in the aircraft and the simulator, but human factors change daily and need to be part of the preflight checklist. Light jets are high-performance aircraft that can be rather unforgiving, and the pilot can find trouble in a hurry if the brain and body are “not in gear.”
As such, flying light jets should be approached with a professional attitude toward both piloting skills and human factors. Indeed, the basic rule for any pilot, no matter what he or she is flying, should be safety first and schedule second. As simple as that sounds, this rule is broken by GA pilots daily and is one of the reasons why airlines have a better safety record than we do.
|Cessna’s Citation Mustang was the first VLJ to receive full type certification. Pilots should assess their physical and mental fitness to fly before taking the controls of such a high-performance aircraft.|
Planning is the first step in regard to the human factors checklist. The pilot of a light jet, who generally is well established in middle age, needs to make some allowances for “maturity”! While these jets are highly capable and fast, do you really need to fly in the morning, meet for several hours and then fly home the same night? Sure, the aircraft can do it, but the fatigue and stress might be reduced with a RON (remain overnight) before the return. It may be wise to consider bringing a type-rated copilot for long flight times, providing a second set of eyes and another brain in the cockpit. Multiple takeoffs and landings can lead to the accident-producing factors of stress and fatigue.
Another step before every flight should be personal medical assessment. Are you fit to fly? How’s your fatigue level? What’s your nutritional status? How’s your hydration? I know several pilots who shy away from hydration prior to and during flights because they don’t want to use their Travel Johns during the flight! Due to its low ambient humidity, air in a pressurized cabin is very dehydrating. You lose fluids with each breath and from every pore in your skin. Combining that with the decision not to rehydrate is a perfect storm for light-headedness, headaches, intolerance to turbulence and poor judgment.
|The lack of sleep, lack of proper diet and onset of mental fatigue is a setup for mistakes. Even little mistakes at 300 knots and 30,000 feet can add up to big trouble.|
Before a flight, ask yourself if you feel well. Do you have pain that may be distracting or a symptom of something more serious? Did you just have a fight with your spouse that will distract you from focusing on flying? (For example, stress factors were involved in the John Kennedy Jr. accident.) When you’re flying high and fast, these issues might not be important until there’s a problem. Then a cascade of little problems become a big problem. Always be prepared for any flight eventuality, physically and psychologically. Even the most experienced pilots will make mistakes when presented with a novel problem at an unexpected time. Don’t let physical or mental issues add to that cascade.
And don’t fall prey to the “I’ll take care of it when I get there” attitude. Is indigestion causing that discomfort in your chest or could it be something else? Although having an FAA medical in your pocket might make you legal, it doesn’t automatically make you safe. I recommend a comprehensive physical exam at least every three years (and a nuclear stress test every five years for patients over 50). With a negative stress test result, there’s less than one half of 1% chance of a cardiac problem in the next five years. The only thing worse than having a cardiac problem is flying the flight levels not knowing you have a cardiac problem.
Assessing passengers for flight in a light jet is no different from assessing pilot preparedness. Although they’re not controlling the aircraft, no one needs an in-flight event to turn into a medical emergency or safety problem. Are the passengers anxious? Will they be allowed to smoke? Are they in good health? Do you have a portable oxygen bottle for emergency use? Is it reasonable to carry an automatic external defibrillator in the aircraft?
Even simple passenger issues like not having baby wipes for infants or airtight bags for dirty diapers can be a huge distraction in a small, pressurized cabin. Is there an adult who can supervise children in the back? There’s nothing more distracting than a couple of middle schoolers yakking during an instrument approach. Also, don’t forget about adjusting pressurization rates to prevent pain from barotraumas in the younger ones’ ears. That screaming can really cause the ILS crosshairs to go haywire!
Even basic issues like food and water accessibility need to be considered. And with a single pilot, are food and water within easy reach? This is another part of good preflight planning.
Ultimately, all pilots should have a plan for potential in-flight human factor issues. What airports are available for diversion? How can ATC help? If necessary, ask for priority handling or declare an emergency early. It’s not as much paperwork as common myth would have it, and anyway, paperwork really shouldn’t be a deterrent to declaring an emergency in a timely fashion.
Other medical resources are available via your radio or in-flight telephone. MedAire (www.medaire.com) is a subscription service, while Dial-a-Doc (www.dial-a-doc.com) puts you in contact with a board-certified physician in 90 seconds, 24/7.
I’ve long been a proponent of having a finger-tip pulse oximeter (www.flightstat.nonin.com) in the cabin for assessing oxygen levels in pilots and passengers. You should also keep a medical kit with common drugs in your light jet. Emergency drugs can be added to these kits as you deem necessary for your typical passenger load.
Most importantly, just because your new light jet can make a trip doesn’t mean it should make the trip. Pilots must also be prepared, mentally and physically, for the trip.
For articles on dealing with distraction, maintaining flight safety and other related topics, visit www.pilotjournal.com/proficiency.html.
Dr. Brent Blue is a Senior Aviation Medical Examiner who owns Aeromedix.com, a provider of GA medical and safety equipment. He was the team doctor for the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team at the World Competition in Hungary. E-mail him at [email protected].