Sleep, Food, Water, and Performance

I have taught about the relationship between a pilot’s need for proper rest and flying for a long time. Corollary to having the proper rest is eating right and proper hydration. It is a complex equation, and I was pleased when one of my students simplified it for me.

My student said humbly, “Your habits outside the cockpit determine your performance inside the cockpit.”

Never had I talked of the complexity of the idea as simply as the student voiced it. After he made his comment, I admired how well he couched the concept.

Sleep is one of the most critical aspects influencing pilot performance. In order for you to be on top of your game, whatever “your game” might be, the player has to have rested well. This concept entails many considerations and conditions.

One consideration involving sleep is the hour one wakes every day. College-aged young people do not like hearing this. They naturally stay up late and sometimes sleep into the afternoon. Some never get out of the habit, continuing the practice late into their lives. And there is nothing wrong with going to sleep late and getting up late as long as they are acquiring their needed rest, with regular sleeping hours.

All pilots, however, require a certain amount of rest in order to function properly. A similar situation, one almost everyone can identify with, is driving tired.

Each of us has probably driven beyond the safe limits of common sense and started nodding off at the wheel. When it comes to flying, the situation is even more problematic; the droning of the engine, the boredom of sitting on an airway and only watching the oil pressure and temperature gauges, the DME counter, and the VOR needle—all, combine easily to put humans in the aluminum cocoon to sleep. If the pilot does not actually go to sleep, they can find their senses dulled almost to the point of incapacitation.

Like the driver who is unaware of all the traffic around their car while driving down the Interstate, the pilot becomes unaware of the little important details required to pilot the airplane. Such fine details as being alert for radio calls, monitoring engine instruments and health, maintaining the airway and altitude, and more.

Even if the pilot feels as though they are alert enough to fly, working complex problems such as an approach sequence in a GPS receiver may be an effort. It could amount to an effort that could lead the pilot and his passengers straight to an incident or accident.

Every time I discuss the importance of rest with a young pilot or a class of new pilots, I cannot help but think of the Kalitta crash at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I am very familiar with Guantanamo Bay, having operated A-4 Skyhawks for the Navy for two years off Leeward Point.

Flying one of the Navy’s most maneuverable attack jets off the Leeward Point runway was a challenge because of the placement of the fence line dividing the naval reservation with Communist Cuba. Final approach to runway 10 was less than half a mile.

I marveled at the flight crews of the large jets that routinely came into the field. I recall one day standing in the squadron ready room on the second floor of the hangar watching an Air Force crew make the approach to runway 10 in their C-141 Starlifter. They overshot the runway horrendously—both longitudinally and laterally. It appeared as though they were going to lose it and fall right into the hangar where I stood with several squadron members. There would be no escaping death if the Air Force pilots lost it. Later at the club when the Air Force crew walked in, we Navy pilots toasted their victory at executing a masterful waveoff without crashing and killing us all. (Service rivalry at its best!)

Before I left the island, other large jets came and went; one other stretch DC-8 almost killed me as I sat in marshal at the end of the runway while waiting for the other jets in my flight. I left at the end of 1985 and the crash I had anticipated during my two years on the island did not happen—until August 18, 1993.

A few minutes before 5 p.m. local, a Kalitta Air DC-8-61 approached Leeward Point for landing. The pilot and his crew had been flying for far too long a time.  They finished a full Part 121 duty period at 0800 EDT and were just starting rest periods. Scheduling planned their next duty cycle to start at 2300.

As it turned out, the company called the accident crew back into action when the originally scheduled airplane went down in Miami. By the time of the 1656L crash in Guantanamo, the captain and first officer had been “on” since 2300 the night before. This, according to the scheduler, fell within the company’s crew rest criteria.

Reading through the voice transcripts will make experienced pilots cringe. It is right there, in the printed words on the page. As you read, you can feel their fatigue, note their confusion with procedures, and watch as they take a long time to complete routine tasks. You can almost see how slowly their minds are working by the amount of time they spent awake preceding the crash.

This crew, as with other professional aircrews, faced the problem of flying when the schedule demanded. In this case, the result was an accident resulting in the injury of the three crewmembers and the total loss of a hull.

The probable cause, as determined by the National Transportation Safety Board, was… “the impaired judgment, decision-making, and flying abilities of the captain and flightcrew due the effects of fatigue; the captain’s failure to properly assess the conditions for landing and maintaining vigilant situational awareness of the airplane while maneuvering onto final approach; failure to prevent the loss of airspeed and avoid a stall while in the steep bank turn; and his failure to execute immediate action to recover from a stall.”

All brought upon the crew by a lack of sleep.

Fly safe—and get some rest.


©2012 J. Clark

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2 Responses to Sleep, Food, Water, and Performance

  1. Harrison says:

    Joe, your students will find that many airline flights depart before the restaurants open at the hotel or the airport. Coffee and granola bars from your flight kit sustain you until mid afternoon. Sleep doesn’t come easy when you have a 3:30 am wake up call. The best you can hope for is a hotel van driver that knows an all night donut shop on the way to the airport (There’s a very good one in Daytona Beach). You are very wise to give your students a heads up on the importance of rest and nutrition, but it can be a real challenge. A wise old captain gave me good advice when I started flying the line, “When you get a chance to eat…eat. When you get a chance to sleep…sleep.” You learn that defensive eating, even if you’re not hungry, is a good thing.

    We won’t even talk about the nights when you just snuggled down with your Teddy Bear and the phone rings asking if you can be at the airport in an hour for an all nighter to the west coast. Sometimes they ask, “Can you be here for departure?” Unable to resist being a wise ass, the answer is, “I will be unless they leave without me.”

    One night the phone rang at 3 am and when I answered they asked to speak to Captain Jones. I said, “He’s not here. Hang on, I’ll let you talk to his wife.” I headed for the shower while Diane tried to expalin that I was on my way. Women can be so sensitive sometimes.

    Some folks are predicting a pilot shortage in the near future. Keep up the good work my friend.

    • Joe Clark says:

      Harrison, as always, your comments are right on target and peppered with just the right amount of humor. I know that donut shop in Daytona – sometimes their products make it to the university… But I try to avoid walking into the shop myself (even though Ardis wants me to bring some of those warm wares home.)

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