Fighter pilots are reported to fly an average of 120 hours per month. The numbers are a bit different regarding commercial pilots, who can fly up to 75 - 100 hours per month.
So it’s no wonder managing fatigue would be one of the most pressing concerns, especially overnight.
It’s safe to say that pilots do not have the luxury of sneaking in a quick nap, as they are required to stay hypervigilant and alert at all times.
In the early days of aviation, trips were relatively short. In 1908, Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel in 36 minutes, breaking records.
The first non-stop flight across the Atlantic happened in 1919 when John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew from Newfoundland to Ireland in 16 hours, using a special plane.
During the flight, they faced challenges like snowstorms and had to navigate by the stars. Let’s take a look at some of the common tricks on how pilots stay awake.
What is Jet Lag?
Our bodies have a built-in circadian rhythm system to keep us alert or sleepy. This rhythm relies on light, food, and activity to control hormones like adrenaline and melatonin.
However, it's not good at handling rapid changes in time zone from air travel. Our circadian rhythms adjust to changing time zones far more slowly than the time it takes us to travel between them.
It can take more than 10 days to adapt if you have crossed 12 time zones. This delay in the time it takes the body or the circadian rhythm to catch up and adjust to the new time zone is known as jet lag.
Jet lag is a temporary sleep problem when your body's internal clock is out of sync with your time zone, often due to rapid air travel across multiple time zones.
This can lead to symptoms like fatigue, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating as your body tries to adjust to the new schedule.
How Do Pilots Stay Awake During Long Flights?
During WWII, pilots turned to instant coffee for a quick energy boost. Some even swallowed the coffee crystals with cold water for a quick pick-me-up.
At the same time, U.S. military doctors began prescribing low-dose amphetamines, nicknamed "go pills," for flights up to 30 hours.
Today, the aviation sector explores alternatives like Modafinil and focuses on proper scheduling, strategic napping, and sound sleep. Here are a few strategies that pilots swear by:
1. Prioritizing Sleep
One of the fundamental ways to ensure alertness is by getting adequate sleep before the flight.
Some pilots adjust their sleep schedules in the days leading up to a flight, staying up later and then getting a substantial rest the night before.
This helps them wake up feeling well-rested and ready for their journey.
But where do pilots sleep?
Pilots have two ways to catch some sleep during flights. They can either rest in their seats in the cockpit or use a bed, sometimes even in the passenger cabin.
Bunk rest, where they get a proper bed, is usually saved for those long flights. But on shorter trips, pilots often take quick power naps in their seats, lasting about 10 to 20 minutes.
Can pilots sleep during flights?
Yes, pilots sleep while in the air; it's all about staying sharp and being at their best when it matters.
Since pilots are responsible for large planes flying at high speeds, there are strict rules they have to follow when it comes to getting some rest during the flight.
2. Staying Engaged
Inactivity and a lack of mental stimulation can make anyone drowsy.
Pilots combat this by ensuring they have tasks to occupy their minds throughout the flight.
Whether monitoring instruments, communicating with air traffic control, or conducting routine checks, there's always something to do in the cockpit.
3. Keeping the Cockpit Bright
Darkness is conducive to sleep, so it makes sense for pilots to keep the cockpit well-lit.
They often set the cockpit lights to their brightest settings, making it challenging for sleepiness to set in.
Not only does this strategy align with the natural human inclination to stay awake in a well-illuminated environment, but it also contributes to maintaining alertness and focus during the flight.
4. Turning on the Heat
Most people prefer a cooler environment for sleep as it allows them to snuggle under blankets for added comfort.
Pilots, on the other hand, keep the cockpit temperature slightly warmer than usual due to temperature theory.
This minimizes the ‘coziness’ factor and prevents them from getting too comfortable, reducing the likelihood of nodding off during the flight.
5. Staying Hydrated
Airplanes have very dry air, and staying hydrated is essential. It helps you stay awake, sleep better, and feel good upon arrival.
It's generally a good idea to avoid excessive coffee and alcohol since they can dehydrate you.
6. Employ In-flight Tools
During flights, there are tools like the Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) that help manage and predict how alert the flight crew is.
These computer systems take into account factors like how long the flight is when the crew is supposed to be on duty and the time zones they're crossing.
This way, they can plan to have well-rested crew members when needed.
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