Unsolved Issues: Part 1, Amber Berlin

The FAA’s final rule on pilot fatigue places more responsibility on the pilot by making fatigue a joint responsibility between pilots and certificate holders (i.e. the employers). This stated responsibility is designed to curb the pilot’s desire to stay out too late and become overly fatigued. However, pilot fatigue is not only a product of off-duty pilot behavior but also a result of the scheduling practices of the certificate holder and circumstances beyond the pilot’s control. Some additional factors which contribute to fatigue include both positive and negative stressors, the suboptimal use of caffeine and alcohol, and improper diet and lack of exercise. These factors work together to reduce the quality and quantity of sleep and the level of recovery attained during sleep. With each of these factors even mildly contributing to the fatigue level, a pilot may become fatigued through no direct fault of his own, but simply because of normal human behavior.

Once fatigued, the pilot’s cognitive ability is reduced to a point where they are unable to determine, using their own fatigued brain, the level of fatigue they are experiencing. The conscientiousness that makes a good pilot, which “reflects facets of order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, and deliberation” also causes the pilot to underestimate subjective fatigue (Calderwood & Ackerman, 2011, p.441). This attitude causes an erroneous perception of being able to discipline their body into compliance; the false idea they can try harder and achieve a state of wakefulness even though they are under the effects of fatigue. The pilot has a duty to the certificate holder to fly the schedule, and the pilot also wants to be able to fulfill this duty without repercussions. Because fatigue affects perception, the pilot may end up with the illusion of being fit for duty, when he is actually operating under a dangerous level of fatigue.

According to Neri, Dinges and Rosekind (1997), “when attempting to judge how sleepy an individual is, the worst person to ask is that individual” (p.11). When applying this statement to the FAA’s rule, individual reports of fitness for duty cannot include a pilot fatigue assessment because it is impossible for the pilot to make an accurate assessment of his fatigue level. Considering the magnitude of the problem of fatigue, a fatigue assessment is the main factor the FAA is seeking with this report.

While the FAA does realize the pilot is unable to make an accurate self-assessment of fatigue, they assume fatigue education and training will mitigate the problem and have mandated a Fatigue Risk Management Plan (FRMP). However, the solution they have provided is dependent upon a properly functioning brain, which a pilot under the effects of fatigue will not have. Therefore, the solution will not be effective for those who need it most, the pilots who are too fatigued to fly. Whereas a normal, rested brain will be able to assess the situation and make a determination of risk, and also recall from memory the information needed to do so, a tired brain operating at a fraction of its normal ability will not be able to provide an accurate assessment or recall the information necessary to perform this task. Is there a viable solution? This is what we’ll be taking a look at next time, in Unsolved Issues: Part II Countermeasures For Fatigue in Aviation That Are Ignored

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References:

Calderwood, C., Ackerman, P. (2011). The relative impact of trait and temporal determinants of subjective fatigue. Personality and Individual Differences, 50 , 441445.

D. F., Dinges, D. F. & Rosekind, M.R. (1997). Sustained Carrier Operations: Sleep Loss, Performance, and Fatigue Countermeasures. Fatigue Countermeasures Program. NASA Ames Research Center.

Additional Resources:

FAA Brochure on Pilot Fatigue

Additional Flight Safety Articles:

Halley’s Comet and the Go No-Go Decision

Positive Exchange of Flight Controls and Language

How Crew Resource Management Makes Flying Safer

Featured Image: Morgan Schmorgan

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