flying tired

January 8, 2019

To remove oneself from flight status for reasons of fatigue is a weighty decision. But if you press on regardless, flying into situations beyond your ability to cope, the repercussions can turn deadly. LeRoy Cook explains

Ferry flights are always unpredictable, a characteristic that is part of their attraction despite the risk of frustration. Picking up an unknown airplane at a first-time location, then taking it across the country to eagerly awaiting hands, is invariably a puzzle waiting to be solved. It’s exciting, completely unlike routine business trips in one’s familiar cockpit. Gets the old juices reinvigorated, so to speak.

One trip in particular points up the hidden pressure and fatigue that can result from following life’s unexpected turns, taken in an eagerness to meet a schedule. In most cases, ferry flying is done, as much as possible, on a convenience basis. You quickly learn not to plan on being anywhere in particular at any certain time, thereby minimizing the risk of flying in poor weather with equipment of unknown virtue.

The venture I’m about to describe, however, appeared to be well suited for a weekend movement of a fast airplane to a new home halfway across the US. The Bonanza was ready; the weather looked benign; the after-work outbound airline connection was synchronized suitably. A kitbag of spare clothes and charts, electronic and paper, was packed and ready; I was off for the adventure.

Experienced airline travelers know better than to rely on scheduled times late in the day. Commercial air carriers like to maximize utilization by starting the day on a distant coast, flying to a hub to reload, then zig-zagging to another way station or two, ending up at an overnight parking spot. Somewhere, there’s always a line of weather, often right over one of the stops, so the later flights get delayed by those building storms, either through ground stops or diversions.

Thus, the Airbus taking me out to the Left Coast of the US finally showed up two hours late. As the clock struck midnight, my busy day terminated in a near-empty airline terminal, following five hours of ennui in a middle seat logged after a hasty departure from home. Even with a couple of hours of westbound time change to roll the clocks back, the lack of rest while imprisoned in a seat with a frozen recliner was taking its toll.

Naturally, the rental car counter was unmanned at such an hour. The eventual staff person showed up to pronounce my reservation irretrievable, so a sub-sub-compact vehicle was eventually entrusted to my care long enough for a one-hour drive to the Bonanza’s home town. There, I learned that the hotel room supposedly waiting for me had not been guaranteed; it had been given to another weary traveler, and substitute lodging had to be found in the wee hours of the morning. Eventually, I collapsed into a hastily-acquired bed, grateful to be there.

Bright Eyed?

Nonetheless, I reported for duty after three hours of less-than-blissful slumber, wired by caffeine and the adrenalin of the coming trip. Pilots in general are always eager-beavers when a flight is waiting on them; in reviewing the aftermath of the day to follow, I should have stayed in bed. I may have been ready to go, but the airplane wasn’t.

Paperwork issues had to be resolved, there were questions about which equipment was operable and which not, and the promised ANR headsets were not going with the plane. The planned early-morning departure turned into a mid-morning launch, which of course meant the afternoon thunderstorms over the mountains were able to get a head start. The first leg of a ferry trip is always a proving run to check out fuel burn and gauging, thus one does not stretch out the time aloft by dodging around weather and relying on being able to refuel at a distant fuel stop. Accordingly, I stuck to a known route with reliable FBOs, landing prematurely before tackling the highest and most weather-likely portion of the trip. Naturally, the autopilot proved to be less than stellar, but the hand flying, in the Lindbergh tradition, served to keep me from dozing off.

Once the Central plains started to descend from the western mountain ranges, the lack of rest began to take its toll. I welcomed another fuel stop; the expected tailwind had vanished, and the endless flatlands crawled past with leisurely tedium. Added caffeination revived my resolve, even though I was approaching 36 hours since arising from my last true sleep. The weather was behind us, daylight was still available, and I had made peace with the machine, so I determined to press on to at least a handy RON (remain over night) spot within easy reach of the delivery point the next day.

 Stupor Leads To Stupidity

When one is fatigued, it’s easy to succumb to temptation. One’s judgmental faculties are dulled by the hum of a cockpit environment, so it’s easiest to stick to the flight plan, leaving decisions to chance rather than evaluate a course of action. As the sun disappeared, I found the cockpit light rheostats were operable and I accommodated to the change of late-evening haze to the improved scenery of darkness. Drawn on by lethargy, I pointed the Beech’s cowling toward my well-lit home base. Eventually, the winking beacon hove into view and I snapped awake to make sure the landing checklist was doubly complete. Revived by challenge, I rolled the mains onto the runway and shut down at the first open tiedown. The effort required to climb down from the wingwalk proved that I had exceeded the limits of human endurance by focusing on missionitis; I was almost too wobbly to drag my bag to the lounge.

The many decisions required during the foregoing-described journey were influenced by a lack of rest. While no paying passengers were involved this time, I have to wonder if my ability to handle a revenue flight would have been up to the challenges. To remove oneself from flight status for reasons of fatigue is a weighty decision, with repercussions reflecting your value as a crew member. But if you press on regardless, flying into situations beyond your ability to cope, the repercussions can turn deadly.

Could Fatigue Have Played A Role?

A benchmark accident held out for study will always be the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 at Buffalo, New York in 2009, a Bombardier Q-400 flown by a relatively-experienced crew that resulted in the deaths of 50 people. Among the many factors contributing to the accident were the lack of rest prior to reporting for duty, compounded by the previous work schedule. The copilot had commuted to work from Seattle, Washington to Newark, New Jersey via a lengthy airline flight and had been awake off-and-on during the hours leading up to the accident. The captain, who lived in Tampa, Florida, had spent the previous night at the Newark airport, hardly conductive to proper rest. Both he and the copilot evidently relied on couches in the crew room for sleep when off-duty during their three-day schedules. While the captain was faulted for having incorrectly handled the loss of control from an aerodynamic stall, pulling frantically against the stick pusher, the first officer’s lack of rest may have contributed to inadequate monitoring and verification of the captain’s actions, and an uncommanded retraction of the flaps. While fatigue was given only slight mention in the official accident report, which focused on poor flight management and lack of stall recovery, the crew’s lifestyle was certainly tiring.

Legal To Go?

Is legislation the correct response to fatigue-induced accidents? Unfortunately, most of the time there are adequate rest rules in place, but often crew members themselves do not assure themselves of proper “downtime” before showing up to fly. As in my ferry-flight scenario, planned schedules don’t go off as expected and self-confidence overrules common sense. “I can handle it” or “I have to do this” reasoning takes the place of refusing or delaying the flight.

Corporate flying is particularly susceptible to fatigue-inducing work schedules. Many times, the crew must report in during pre-dawn hours, depart early enough to deliver their passengers to a morning business meeting at the destination, then loiter until late afternoon to bring the executives home. Snoozing in a corner recliner at an airport waiting room or catching up on paperwork in the airplane only adds to the lethargy.

Crossing multiple time zones destroys the circadian rhythm regulating our body clock. “Jet lag” is a real threat to crew health, and perhaps contributes to more incidents and accidents than is realized. The advent of ultra-long range corporate jets requires extra attention to crew scheduling and relief staffing. One of my Hong Kong-based friends has to make regular flights to New York, a 14-hour grind in a Gulfstream G650. While technically admirable, such jaunts take a toll and must be accommodated with extra planning to keep the crew fresh and rested.

It is critically important for pilots to understand the need for off-duty discipline. If the schedule calls for reporting in an hour before beginning a full day of flying, one cannot spend the hours prior to “show up” time in personal pursuits like flying in from a distant vacation spot or working at a second job. I once rode along with a light-cargo airline. The single pilot of the piston twin came to the airplane for an 8 p.m. departure after having been up all day in romantic pursuit of a female acquaintance. He took off in convective weather to meet the loaded truck at his first pick-up point, two hours away, subsequently heading for a midnight rendezvous with other airplanes at a regional sorting center. After a couple of hours were spent waiting on his reshuffled load of freight to placed aboard, he made two more stops to deliver the goods. On the dead-head trip home, he was exhausted to the point of asking me if I would mind taking the helm while he caught a few winks. I had slept enough hours in the afternoon to be alert, so I took the controls and he was out like an extinguished candle. We were fortunate in that the rough weather had moved out of the area and after 1.5 hours of holding a heading I saw the home airport come into visual range, whereupon I woke him up for the landing.

The only way to manage the fatigue danger is to have a plan in place to assure that a rested crew is always at the controls. This takes more than just specifying the number of hours a pilot can fly or how long he or she must remain off-duty before the next departure. Consideration must be given to the number of hours the pilot has been awake in addition to the flight time, the age and physical condition of the individual and the effect of time-zone crossing. Crew members themselves must avoid the temptation to forego preflight rest for non-work-related activity, like a second job or recreational pursuits. It may be tempting to live several hours away from one’s aviation domicile, but that commute to work has to be factored into the fatigue budget.

Flying tired is often viewed as an achievement worthy of pride if you are able to pull it off. Instead, it needs to be examined as a flaw to be eliminated in the future. You may get away with it time and again, but eventually it will cause a scare, or worse. Waking up after dozing off at the controls should never earn a notation in your logbook.