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Understanding Pilot Fatigue



Manned flight remains one of the greatest achievements in human history, giving us the ability to soar through the sky and travel great distances in a matter of hours. However, with the innovations of manned flight and pilot supplies came the limitations of human pilots. We humans have plenty of needs and one of the most prominent is sleep.

For years, pilot fatigue has been a pervasive issue that poses a significant threat to aviation safety. Airlines, pilots, and regulatory agencies have attempted to find a common solution for this issue with varying results. Here’s a closer look at pilot fatigue.

The Problem with Pilot Fatigue

Pilot fatigue has been an issue since air travel’s inception. During his historic transatlantic flight from New York to Paris, Charles Lindbergh fought to stay awake during all 33.5 hours of his trip. While he didn’t succumb to sleep, the experience was enough to test his endurance.

Pilots today have to deal with this same problem. Long-haul pilots have reportedly fallen asleep at their controls. Airline pilots sometimes have to endure several long flights in a day, sitting for hours wearing aviation headsets, paying attention to their in-flight instruments. Then you have to add in the stress that comes with working a job, including the commute, the terrible diet, and the long layovers. On top of that are all the general stresses of life, like family and finances.

What makes pilot fatigue so different from normal sleep deprivation is the interruption of a pilot’s circadian rhythms. Your body runs on a natural clock that tells it when its time to eat, be awake, and, of course, sleep. This clock is coordinated by the day-night cycle, but a pilot constantly flies through different time zones.


The symptoms of pilot fatigue resemble the same as those of general tiredness, including:

  • Excessive yawning
  • Poor visual acuity
  • Feelings of sluggishness
  • Decreased reaction time
  • Diminished judgment and decision-making abilities
  • Generally poor performance

This can all culminate in your falling asleep in the cockpit and potentially crashing, but not all problems occur from falling asleep. You may be awake and provide incorrect information to air traffic control through your David Clark headset. You may accidentally mistake Venus for another airplane headed straight for you and take unwarranted evasive action.


Thus far, the only real solution to pilot fatigue is to get some sleep, but this is easier said than done. Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a rule that sets a minimum ten-hour rest period. Eight of those ten hours must consist of uninterrupted sleep. The rule also sets up limits on a pilot’s flight time for every week and every 28 days.

During longer flights, make sure you and your copilot/first officer switch off every so often to get in some rest. You should also consider ways of reducing their stress, so when you do get the opportunity to sleep, it’s completely restful.