“With such a busy summer work schedule I had been eating less healthily, exercising less and sleeping less all leading to a much less healthy lifestyle…. So how to deal with it? Most people would say: “Get more sleep”.

But it isn’t as simple as that.”

What follows is an account sent to us by a Pilot who wanted to share their own experiences and what they did to change the situation. They make no claims about their experience other than hoping it may be of interest and possible help to other pilots. We are tremendously grateful to them. 

Have you ever been at 1300ft on the approach and wondered how you got there?

 

I have. One minute I was at 2000ft at an intermediate flap setting and the next minute I found myself at 1300ft still not fully configured. It was a truly disturbing experience and the worst part of all, I had the autopilot out and was flying manually but clearly I’d fallen into a little microsleep. Luckily, when I came around I quickly called for the gear down, and final flap settings to be fully configured in time and landed safely. But then once on the runway I forgot to select reversers so had to be prompted by my colleague.

 

Taxiing off the runway I decided to address the subject “I’m really tired, I don’t think I should fly the next sector”. I gave my colleague control of the aircraft whilst we discussed this on the taxi in.  This was an example of acute fatigue, a short lived episode caused by not enough sleep in the previous two evenings prior to an early start time. Of course I didn’t feel fatigued when I arrived at work, but how do you know how you are going to feel after a long flight?

 

The aviation definition of fatigue is:

 

  "A physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from sleep loss or extended wakefulness, circadian phase, or workload."

 

To many people, fatigue is simply resolved by a quick nap or resting but for a pilot, when it comes on at a critical phase of flight, recognition is the first hurdle and then effective management is key.  Some signs are obvious – yawning, struggling to keep you eyes open, staring blankly. But others are harder to recognize and it might be your colleagues who notice your fatigue before you do. Mood changes, inconsistent performance, slow reaction times are all signs of fatigue.

 

Short-term strategies for managing fatigue if it occurs during flight, include caffeine, food and water to maintain hydrating and blood sugar levels and to engage in conversation. It’s so important to make your colleague aware as soon as you recognize that you are fatigued. That way they are able to monitor you more closely and if flight conditions permit, you may be able to take some rest or get out of your seat and do some stretches to increase blood flow. All of these strategies should get you through the flight so that you can get home and catch up on rest.

 

But what if it is a more long-term issue?  Chronic fatigue is a long-term problem that develops slowly after longer exposure to fatigue. Towards the end of last summer a couple of family members started to show concern for me due to some subtle personality changes. I was uncharacteristically irritable, short tempered and easily distracted. I wasn’t even aware of these changes so it was a real shock to be told of their concerns. I took a bit of time for self-reflection and I have to admit that their concerns were absolutely right. With such a busy summer work schedule I had been eating less healthily, exercising less and sleeping less all leading to a much less healthy lifestyle. External, non-work related stress factors also played a part in terms of sleepless nights worrying about personal issues too.

 

So how to deal with it? Most people would say: “Get more sleep”. But it isn’t as simple as that. There is no point lying in bed for the recommended 8 hours if it is 8 hours of disturbed sleep where you wake up worrying about something. Some techniques I have turned to may sound ridiculous but they worked for me so perhaps they may work for others too.

 

Firstly, I took my TV out of my bedroom and put up black out blinds. Less distractions and a more comfortable sleeping environment is a great place to start. I also bought an alarm clock rather than using my mobile phone as an alarm and I now leave my phone at the other side of the room so that I can’t be distracted by it when I am struggling to sleep. I set up a sort of bedtime routine so I now use a sleep spray on my pillow that supposedly aids sleep but I’m sure a cup of chamomile tea would work just as well and I use mindfulness meditations techniques to help me fall asleep. I now fall asleep quicker and feel like my rest is of better quality. 

 

But the changes I made didn’t just revolve around bedtime. I re-established healthier eating choices and got back into my exercise regime. Eating healthy foods at regular intervals helps to maintain constant energy levels and makes even the thought of exercise more tolerable. I felt much better quite quickly and many of my concerned family members were now at ease.

 

But now that I was aware of the issue, I could still feel that a lot of my energy was being used up on the other worries that I had which were still causing me stress. I knew I had to address these worries or else I would never be back to my usual self. So I turned for help. I spoke to a close family member about the other worries I was having and together we were able to resolve some underlying issues that were causing me undue stress. Talking through everything that was worrying me gave me more self-awareness and a whole new perspective on everything.

 

Who knew that talking about your worries could reduce fatigue? But not everyone has a family member or friend that they can talk to about these things, so peer support could be the perfect place to turn. 

Pilot experience - Fatigue

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