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Create Guardrails To Manage Fatigue Like Pro Pilots

At the airlines, pilot rest and duty time limits are the law. For private pilots, it’s up to us. Here are some tips to steer you away from risk and toward peak performance.

Create Guardrails To Manage Fatigue Like Pro Pilots

General Aviation pilots have the sole responsibility to determine if they are rested and ready for flight. Tools like the I’M SAFE checklist are available to help with these important decisions, but gray areas abound. In both the airline and military worlds, two essential concepts guide these professionals in these critical areas, crew rest and crew duty day. These terms define the period before and during the flight day that a pilot or crew member is officially available and able to fly. These procedural guardrails protect the traveling public as well as the aviators who take them on their journeys. Maybe as private pilots, we can learn something from these folks and decide what our personal minimums are for preflight readiness and in-flight decision-making. 

Nearly every one of us has had the experience of having our airline flight delayed or canceled because the crew that brought the aircraft in had exceeded their crew duty day. This should be a welcome message and only a short-term annoyance. Airlines are large operations with many moving parts and levels of supervision. Getting the right crews to the right place at the right time while fighting weather and gate holds and mechanical issues is a mammoth challenge, one that carries with it the risk of the airlines asking or requiring their pilots to fly longer days than is safe. 

So, years ago, the airline unions, the FAA and airline management all agreed on a set of regulations to prevent pilots from flying while fatigued, and that seemed to be working fine. Then came the 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 accident near Buffalo, New York, in which crew fatigue was again cited by the NTSB. That tragedy, in which a commuter plane crashed into a neighborhood outside Buffalo, brought to light some critical areas for improvement. 

The final FAA rule that emerged in 2011 required pilots to have at least 10 hours of crew rest before each flight, and of that, at least eight hours for uninterrupted sleep. It also began to address the number of flight segments per day, circadian rhythm and total yearly flight time limits. Each was worthy of consideration. 


Similarly, the U.S. Air Force rules for Crew Rest and Duty Day are clearly defined. Generally, each aircrew member is required 12 hours between their last official duty and beginning preflight, two hours of which are allotted for commuting, chores, etc., and 10 hours of rest, of which eight hours are for sleep. The service feels so strongly about this that a single phone call from flight operations to the crew member restarts the crew rest clock right then and there. So, management is on notice that if it wants the pilots to fly the next day, it needs to leave them alone. 

Once a professional pilot arrives at work, the duty day requirement averages around 12 hours. An additional pilot is required for operations beyond this. And, yes, there are exceptions. The B-2 bomber regularly flies missions over 30 hours with only two pilots. However, a lot of research has gone into these ultra-long-distance flight profiles. FedEx and UPS pilots have tailored crew rest and duty requirements to facilitate their nocturnal travels. And long overwater flights carry as many as two additional pilots. The takeaway from all this is that crew rest and alertness are important enough that procedural guardrails have been set up to protect the pilots and crews. So, what does all this mean to me and my Cessna 182 as I set off on my annual 16-hour trip from the West Coast for a wonderful week at AirVenture 2021?

 “Sleep debt is a real problem and is often misunderstood. It is not the result of one lost night’s sleep; rather it is the result of cumulative loss of sleep over time.


First, let’s understand the problems unique to general aviation. Unlike the airline or military pilot, we are the aircraft owner, operator, maintenance supervisor, passenger management specialist, weather observer, dispatcher and, oh yes, the pilot! And on top of that, flying is not usually our full-time job. If we are self-employed or own a small business, we know that it is a 24/7 commitment. On the other hand, working for a non-aviation company (Dunder Mifflin?), our boss may not really understand the meaning of this sacred pilgrimage to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 

However, they really want to see that big report on their desk the day you plan to leave. And meanwhile, back on the homefront, the dog needs to go to the kennel, the kids have minor colds and a small oil leak has developed in the bird. Welcome to the real world. So, what to do? Maybe we should set up a few guardrails of our own. Here are some things to consider. 

Sleep debt is a real problem and is often misunderstood. It is not the result of one lost night’s sleep; rather it is the result of cumulative loss of sleep over time. For instance, staying up late every night for a week to finish that big report that your Steve Carell-lookalike boss has been asking for all week can generate deep fatigue. Unfortunately, its effects are cumulative, so getting one eight-hour sleep period the night before you depart for Wisconsin is not enough. Plan ahead to ensure you are well rested. 


Circadian rhythm requires a long technical explanation, but let’s oversimplify this concept in pilot terms. There are morning people, and there are night people. You know this if you are married or in a relationship. Your significant other is inevitably the opposite type! As the pilot, your circadian rhythm is the one we care about. Knowing where you fall on this continuum may help you plan for your trip at your most efficient and wakeful time.

Getting started always takes longer than you think. In the winter, there are snow and ice to clear, driveways to shovel and very short days. For your July AirVenture trip, the aforementioned dog still has to get to the kennel, which we just discovered does not open until 9 a.m., the kids are slow to wake up, and you have to make just one short stop to turn in that pesky report the boss wanted. Oh, yes, the coastal fog just rolled in. All of this conspires to make your departure later than planned. And when you’re dealing with shorter winter days, it can easily push your first day’s arrival after dark. 

Give yourself some slack. Maybe the first day out, you plan to leave a bit later in the morning and set up a place to stay en route that promises a bit of rest and relaxation before making the longer legs the following day. Review the I’M SAFE checklist the night before and be honest about what you learn. Plan your longest leg first up and then for each following leg, reduce the time by about 30 minutes. While you won’t feel tired when you start, by the third leg, that shorter duration will feel mighty good. 


Finally, know when to call it a day. Two pilots were flying north from Key West to Pittsburgh in the late fall. They departed late morning, encountered some unexpected headwinds and a minor mechanical issue, and landed an hour short of the Steel City after three long legs. The sun had set, and they were in the foothills of the Appalachians, but the lure of a quick one-hour flight to the destination was very powerful. Finally, one pilot turned to the other and said, “Well, partner, it feels like we have already written the first three chapters of the accident report. Should we take off into the night and write the final chapter, or just call it a day?” When they arrived in Pittsburgh the next morning, after a good meal and a better night’s sleep, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the NTSB was nowhere in sight. 

In the end, good decision-making is what good airmanship is all about. While general aviation pilots have more freedom to plan our crew rest and crew duty days than our airline and military brethren, we also have more distractions and unrelated responsibilities. Setting up a few guardrails can only help. Understanding ourselves, our sleep and rest cycles, and our symptoms of fatigue, plus demonstrating some simple common sense, can make that trip to AirVenture even more enjoyable. Looking forward to seeing you in Oshkosh this July! Fly safe and enjoy the ride.

Read “Tactical Napping: How To Sleep On The Job” and “Solo And Asleep: The Dangers Of Fatigue While Flying” for more information about managing fatigue.


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