Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pilot Fatigue

Are you safe to fly?

A Distracted Brain Compounds A Bad Situation
Life is nothing but one long distraction. Almost every attempt to move steadily toward a goal is continually being frustrated by one thing or another, pulling us off track. That's just the way life is. But, some of us handle distractions better than others, and some distractions are more disruptive than others. So, it's important that before we crawl into the cockpit, we recognize that we may be bringing some of life's distractions into the cockpit with us, and that can create a dangerous situation. This is especially true when we're tired and/or fatigued because a fatigued brain is far less capable of dealing with distractions than a rested one.

The distractions that originate outside of the cockpit can be dealt with much better than those that originate inside the cockpit because we should be able to recognize them before we strap in. Maybe it's financial problems, a divorce, a cat that refuses to use the litter box, whatever. If something flitting around the fringes of our thought patterns is threatening to interfere with our thought processes, we need to be aware of that and address it. If we're distracted, 100% of our brain may not be available during the flight, and this is definitely not a good thing. If we're fatigued, as well, we're compounding a really bad situation and shouldn't be in the air.

Distractions And Fatigue As Check List Items
How do we know ahead of time, when distractions and/or fatigue are getting the best of us? Simple: add a single, unwritten item right at the top of the pre-start checklist—Brain Check. Climb into the airplane, lay our hands in our lap, put our head down and, for five seconds, let our mind run free while we analyze what it's doing. We need to look at ourselves as if we're outside observers and see if there's anything floating around in our thoughts that has nothing to do with flying an airplane. If our thoughts aren't totally airplane oriented, it might not be a bad idea to cancel the flight.

Further, if, when starting the airplane and preparing to taxi, we find we have to thinker harder than normal to know what to do next, then we know that this is a flight that shouldn't be taken.

Even if we don't bring distractions into the cockpit with us, pre-existing fatigue will definitely come aboard with us. So, if there are distractions during the flight—a radio stops working, there's a mechanical malfunction, weather forces us to scud run, etc.—that fatigue may rob us of the mental acuity required to deal with the developing situation. It takes very little mental fatigue mixed with relatively minor distractions to cause major problems, so we need to be aware of exactly how fatigued we really are.

Everyone has distractions in life. And civilization almost guarantees that each of us will be fighting a little fatigue. We just have to recognize both and make sure we stay on the ground, so we don't purposely create a dangerous situation when either or both reach disruptive levels.


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