Air Transport World

Fighting off fatigue: cockpit catnapping.

A wag asks: How do you cure a pilot's insomnia?" And answers: "Put him in the cockpit." That wisecrack has a lot of truth. One of the toughest problems some airline pilots face is simply staying awake on the job. Few other occupations can wreak as much havoc on a worker's wake/ sleep cycle. Pilots routinely work erratic schedules, frequently sleeping away from home. And for many, the problem is compounded by jet lag--some crews cross as many as 10 time zones in a single flight.

Now, NASA is offering a program that uses education to help combat fatigue. It is a "training module" developed by the agency's Flight Human Factors branch, with support from FAA. At the core of the module is this message: "Like food and water, sleep is a physiological need vital to human survival and critical to human existence." The need for sleep cannot be laughed off or overcome indefinitely by force of will.

When a flight-crew member is deprived of sufficient sleep, not only is that a health concern but also a safety issue, because fatigue leads to impaired performance. Fatigue-related incidents account for more than 20% of the 261,000 reports in NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System. Fatigue has been suspected in numerous accident investigations but the link is difficult to prove. Tests can document the involvement of drugs or alcohol, but not fatigue.

Some evidence was introduced this year, with the publication of a study by the National Transportation Safety Board that analyzed 37 major air-carrier accidents in which pilot error was found to be a factor, looking for patterns. …

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