Flight duty at 3AM might not be the biggest problem a pilot could face. Indeed, this is easier to handle when such start times are not so frequent. But would you be able to spot the signs before fatigue and sleep deprivation get the opportunity to sneak up on you? We must all be aware of how sleep, or the lack of, can affect us in our daily routines. This becomes more pertinent when we are out of sync with the rhythm of our normal night and day patterns. Here is a story that will make you think twice about your views in relation to Fatigue Risk Management (FRM) and Flight Time Limitations (FTL) and why they are important.
Pilot in the Caribbean is the dream, right?
Many years ago, I was based at Miami International Airport. I was flying freight out of the Miami hub to destinations around the Caribbean and Central America. This sounds like a really nice job, right? In many ways it was. Most freight-dogs, like myself, suffer from the curse of only ever flying at night. Yet the international flights from southern Florida were usually during daylight hours.
Normally we would fly out in the early morning hours to a Caribbean island somewhere, spend the day in a tropical paradise and then return home for dinner with the family that same night! Sounds like a perfect pilot life, right? It was or it could have been! As all pilots know, this sounds too good to be true.
Time for "hell week"
About every third week, we had what we referred to as “hell week”. During this week we had to “pay” for our otherwise tranquil and cushy job. It started early Monday morning with check-in at 04:30. At this point, you had a long weekend of rest with lots of sleep behind you! Our trip was due to depart from MIA with the destination being Panama, Tocumen. The flight time in the old turboprops was just over 4 hours. Arriving in Panama, still feeling quite rested and vigilant, it was now time to go to the hotel for a few hours of relaxation.
After arriving at the hotel around 11:30, it was now time to go to bed! Or at least that was what the company expected us to do since we were having to work the entire following night. But who could fall to sleep at noon after having a good, normal sleep over the previous nights? It was often impossible to sleep. It was quite nice to just sit by the hotel pool or take a trip along the Panama Canal and look at all the boats. Going to sleep in the hotel bed was almost impossible.
We checked in again at 20:30 to the hotel lobby for transport to Tocumen Airport, with departure at 22:00. Our destination was just over an hour away in San Jose, Costa Rica. Arriving right before 23:30, we had about a two and a half-hour turnaround. We had to wait for refuelling, as well as the unloading and loading of freight, before heading back to Miami.
Keeping overflight permits in order
Just after 02:00, we departed for South Florida again. Another four hours in the air, over a completely dark and desolate Caribbean Sea. At this time, almost 24 hours had passed since we woke up for duty the previous day. As you can imagine, it was hard to keep our eyes open, especially with respect to the boredom of flying over the sea. For more than two hours there wasn’t much going on. However, when we approached Cuba we had to try to stay focused. We had an overflight permit over the island but, about 50 nautical miles before we entered the Cuban territorial border, we also had to receive a specific radio clearance from Havana control.
If not, the likelihood of being shot down was a reality. The relations between Cuba and the United States was, at the time, very frosty. Since we were working for an American operator, it was very important to follow the Cuban overflight regulation or otherwise risk a sudden death! Normally, the Cuban overflight was never a problem and, most of the time, the ATC controllers at Havana were very nice and helpful.
Midweek and already fatigued!
We used to land back in Miami again just before 06:00, almost 26 hours after we started our trip duty the previous day. With very little sleep, if any, during this period, it’s easy to imagine how weary this journey had made us. We now had a well-deserved rest for another 22 hours before it was time to do the trip again. When I was back in my home in Fort Lauderdale, at around 08:00, I almost immediately fell asleep.
It was, however, hard to get any “good sleep” and, in the early afternoon hours, I woke up feeling somewhat rested but still not as rested as I would have liked. Of course, sleeping half the day didn’t help when it was time to go to bed the following evening. For some reason, when bedtime was approaching, I felt really awake and rested! It was very difficult to get to sleep and Mr Sandman would often stay away until after midnight.
Just after 04:00 on Wednesday morning, it was once again time to check-in and do the trip one more time. This time around, the fatigue and tiredness were even more apparent. We had to complete the trip a third time, starting on the Friday morning, before “hell week” finally came to an end.
Overslept and woke up in a nightmare
On one particular night, between Friday and Saturday on the last Panama trip for the week, we had just departed San Jose, Costa Rica. I was tired beyond belief. The first officer told me that he was feeling pretty good so I asked him if I was okay to get an hours sleep. He didn’t have a problem with this so I asked him to wake me up in an hour. I went behind the cockpit, into the freight compartment, and lay down on a big, bag of parcels. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep.
After more than two hours, I woke up and looked at my watch. What happened? Why didn’t the first officer wake me up? I hurried into the cockpit. The first thing I saw when I looked out the front windshield were a lot of lights on the ground below. To the right, I could see my first officer sleeping soundly and snoring away! I woke him up, sat down in my chair and put my headset on. We had stormed right in over Cuba without any permission to pass over the border of the island nation!
The second thing I noticed were two military MIG 15 fighter jets. I tuned into the frequency of Havana Control and could hear a very upset and angry air traffic controller in Havana trying to call us. He was literally screaming at us and it took some time before he calmed down and gave us a clearance to continue through the Cuban airspace. We found out that the two MIG 15 jets had orders to shoot us down. It was just pure luck that I woke up when I did. Another minute of sleep and I would not be sitting here today writing this!
Types of fatigue
Fatigue is a dangerous thing and it can kill you in many different ways. Even if getting shot down by fighter jets due to fatigue is one of the more rare situations! Fortunately, today we recognize fatigue as a great hazard to our health. It can degrade our human performance and has proven to have contributed to many accidents and incidents all around the world.
We can consider fatigue as an umbrella term that has many different meanings. The mere word ‘fatigue’ is often mistaken for tiredness. However, fatigue is more than tiredness. Let’s divide fatigue into two categories; acute and chronic fatigue.
Acute fatigue can relate to current events. There is a belief that this type of fatigue is easier to recover from, providing you have an opportunity to rest. Chronic fatigue is the cumulative effect over a longer period of time. This is the result of inadequate rest and recovery levels and may render the body more prone to illnesses and unhealthy conditions.
We can also divide fatigue into three other groups; physical, mental and emotional. Physical fatigue can result in muscle soreness, oxygen debt (frequent yawning), and the feeling of tiredness. Mental fatigue is the kind of fatigue we experience after a mentally demanding task. Especially those tasks requiring great concentration or the processing of complex information. Emotional fatigue, or “burnout”, might be the most serious stage of fatigue. This stems from working in tiresome settings with psychological and disagreeable tasks.
Why we have Flight Time Limitations (FTL)
The fatigue I experienced during and after my “hell week” on the Panama run was both acute and chronic. The acute fatigue had already set in during the latter part of the first trip of the week. I could feel the chronic effects for some time. They were still present around a fortnight after my initial “hell week”.
If you recall, the first two weeks of my roster were very pleasant. Often only two sectors and a different Caribbean beach every day! Isn’t that the kind of life every pilot dreams of? The problem was that the chronic fatigue, resulting from the “hell week”, could last for up to two weeks. So, instead of enjoying the excellent Caribbean beaches, all you wanted to do was to sleep. When you finally started to feel normal again it was time for another week of hell.
To protect us from the dangers of fatigue, the authorities have stipulated flight time, duty and rest limitations. These regulations tell us how much we can work and how much we need to rest. These rules have, over the years, become more and more stringent. Yet, even way back when my fatigue incident happened and I had my MIG encounter, we had limitations in flight time and rest requirements. As strange as it may sound, our trips during “hell week” were perfectly legal! The amount of rest time allocated to us was more than sufficient and the actual duty time was not extremely high. At least it seemed good on paper when you looked at the regulation compliance.
The purpose of Fatigue Risk Management System (FRM)
Unfortunately, even if the duty and rest requirements have now become more regulated, we can still find ourselves susceptible to the effects of fatigue. The Flight Time Limitation (FTL) regulation is there to protect us but it can’t take into account every possible operational situation. Constantly working on a schedule that just barely meets the rest and duty requirements will, sooner rather than later, most likely result in fatigueness. There are many voices among crew members around the world demanding that the FTL regulations should be even harder in order to further protect pilots and cabin crews from fatigue.
Flight time, duty and rest limitations are, fortunately, not the only regulations we have at our disposal to combat fatigue. Today, every operator must have a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRM). This is part of the Safety Management System (SMS) and its purpose is for the operator to identify potential or existing fatigue hazards in the company’s operation. We can achieve this with the use of certain safety measures, such as a risk identification matrix. There is also a continuous need for a predictive, proactive and reactive approach to the dangers of fatigue.
The FRM is a systematic approach for the operator to anticipate and detect fatigue hazards. However, each crew member also has an important part to play in FRM. It is imperative to report each situation of actual, or even potential, cases of fatigue. For the operator to be able to make the best risk assessments and work out necessary mitigating solutions, the fatigue management team relies on reports being submitted by the crew members.
Spot the signs by learning more
If you want to learn more about flight time, duty and rest limitations or The Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS), I can highly recommend you to take part in the Scandlearn courses covering these subjects. For the sake of yourself, your family, your colleagues and passengers, learn as much as you possibly can about the dangers of fatigue and the different tools we have to combat this safety risk!
Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS)
Flight Time Limitation (EASA FTL)
Are you feeling the effects of fatigue? Don’t be afraid to speak out, there is help available. Don’t sit idle, admit there is a problem and make a plan for your recovery. It’s for the sake of flight safety but also for the sake of your own well-being.
Do you have similar stories? If so, share them with us in the comment section or send us an email with an excerpt to [email protected] Thank you!
Stay safe and remember to get plenty of rest!