Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sweet Dreams

Don’t take for granted the importance of a good night’s rest

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ASLEEP IN THE COCKPIT? A good night’s sleep can make the difference between a safe flight and a potentially life-endangering one.
If the NTSB had its way, the FAA would be gauging whether or not you’re having sweet dreams and sleeping through the night cuddled up with your teddy bear. Okay, the teddy bear’s an exaggeration. There’s no exaggeration, however, when it comes to quality and duration of sleep being an issue for pilots. Regulators and the industry are now paying long-overdue attention to pilot fatigue. Quality of sleep, length of mandated rest periods, allowable maximum duty times and allowable flight times all have come under review with respect to air-carrier crews.

The issues also apply to general aviation pilots, even though specific FAA regulations may not. For its part, the NTSB is placing special emphasis on the need to study and address the implications of the phenomenon called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

OSA is a nighttime sleeping disorder in which the upper airway narrows or collapses during sleep. Affected individual can’t breathe, which causes them, at least partially, to wake up. They may not even be aware of what’s happening. The disruption can occur hundreds of times nightly, preventing adequate sleep and causing affected individuals to wake up fatigued. People with OSA may have difficulty dealing with challenges and staying awake during the day. Research has shown that people who are obese or snore are more likely to suffer from OSA, and men are more likely to have the affliction than women. Adding to the significance of OSA as an aviation medical issue are studies linking OSA with hypertension, heart disease, heart arrhythmia and increased risk for sudden cardiac death.

In a safety recommendation, the NTSB called on the FAA to modify the application for medical certificates so that it asks whether the applicant has, or has ever had, obstructive sleep apnea or any of the risk factors for OSA. It wants the FAA to find a way to identify those pilots who are at high risk for OSA, and be sure that those who already have it or are at high risk for developing it are receiving treatment before being granted unrestricted medical certification.

The NTSB believes that while an estimated 7% of the U.S. adult population has it, FAA medical records indicate that as few as 0.3% of third-class medical certificate holders have been diagnosed with OSA. As a further contrast, the NTSB notes that the U.S. Air Force indicates 1% of its pilots have OSA.


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