Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pilot Fatigue

Are you safe to fly?

By the same token, we can log an hour hand-flying instruments in turbulence, with fairly complex routing and approaches down to minimums with will-we-make-it-or-not outcomes ahead and we deplane with some spring left in our step, but our brain is done for. We have to concentrate just to read the menu at lunch.

Good Days, Bad Days And Creeping Fatigue
Our brain is a curious organism, and most of us will freely admit that we aren't truly in control of it at all times. We all have days when, for no apparent reason, we just can't get it together, even when we're neither fatigued, nor tired. We're just having an "off" day. It's as if there's a thin layer of fog over our thought processes. Then we have other days when our brain is a lean, mean, thinking machine, and we can do no wrong. And we've all seen how those differences affect our performance in the cockpit. However, all of these naturally occurring factors can be severely aggravated by mental fatigue.

The single biggest danger with mental fatigue is that we can easily be suffering from it and not have a clue that it's there because of the insidious way that it creeps up on us. Plus, the causes of fatigue can be varied and inconsistent: Some things can turn our brain into Silly Putty in nothing flat, while other times we can truck along for most of a day and be just as sharp at the end as we were at the beginning.

It's logical that our brain has to work harder in intense flying situations, so it naturally tires out more quickly. However, there's a secondary factor at work here that can make a relatively normal situation into a high-stress and fatiguing one, and that factor is "experience." New experiences demand more of our brain, but after we've built up experience in those situations, they'll generate far less stress and the fatigue associated with it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in flight training.

Learning to fly is the very definition of "intense." Every second spent in the cockpit has our brain running as fast as it possibly can because everything is new. And the pressure doesn't let up. Just when we catch up with something, e.g., how to turn the airplane, something else, e.g., landing the airplane, pops up. It's all about learning something new and then concentrating on it to perfect it. At no time does a student's brain spool down. It's always running at 100% in an effort to break through the fog of newness into crystal-clear understanding. This can really tire the old brain out. This is why it's almost always counterproductive for a student to fly three hops a day: The last hour, he's working with a toasted thinking apparatus.

A brain is essentially a non-moving muscle and needs to be treated like one. Exercise it, then give it some rest to regenerate itself, before tossing it back into the fray. The ideal flight-training schedule has a hop early in the morning and another later in the afternoon with as much time as possible between to allow recharging the mental batteries. A few hardy souls can handle three hops a day, but "normal" folks will find the third hop to be largely nonproductive. Much worse, when they can't seem to get things right because their brain is on the backside of the fatigue curve, they get frustrated. Learning to fly is already rife with frustration, so we don't need to make it worse.


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