Posted by: Christopher Turnbull | March 30, 2011

Potomac Approach, November 135Zzzzzzzz

I promised several of my colleagues that I’d write a blog about guns, drinking good scotch, and playing golf (all interests of mine). However, I became sidetracked this week with the recent story about an air traffic controller who fell asleep on the job at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Fortunately, the two commercial airliners approaching the airport landed on their own without incident. However, this sleeping incident has generated some interesting debate about staffing levels, fatigue, and safety.

So, was it fatigue? Can fatigue be that powerful? What can we do to recognize and prevent fatigue issues before they become national news?

Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, I contend we must all take personal responsibility for our own actions. As such, we pilots must remember that we have a great deal of responsibility when flying. We must be aware of fatigue and its effects on our physical and psychological well-being. That means we must get an adequate amount of sleep every night in order to perform our important duties. A lack of sleep affects our memory and our ability to perform complex tasks such as flying. Have you ever flown your airplane at night after a long day at work? Or flown early in the morning in a different time zone after only getting a couple of hours of sleep at a noisy hotel? If so, you may have felt the effects of fatigue.

Most people need at least 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Uninterrupted (quality sleep) is the key; not just a period of lying in bed tossing and turning. Stanley Coren, PH.D. reported in The New England Journal of Medicine in April of 1996 that there is an increase in traffic accidents on the Monday immediately after daylight-saving time begins and a decrease in accidents the Monday after going back to standard time. The loss of one hour’s sleep and disrupted circadian rhythms increases the risk of accidents.

Imagine the potential effects on you physically and psychologically if you’re consistently not getting a good night’s sleep.  The effect is even greater for those who work irregular hours and keep irregular schedules.  Pilots, medical professionals, rotating shift workers, and night owl workaholics are especially at risk because their needs to perform with sleep patterns outside of their normal circadian rhythms.   Now add additional stress from work, financial problems, marital or family problems, a lack of exercise, illness, poor diet … you get the point. Any combination of these can be a recipe for disaster.

So what are some of the things that affect our ability to sleep? The obvious one is caffeine. Although caffeine can give us a boost of energy during the day when we need it, it can also delay our ability to fall asleep as well as impair the quality of sleep we get. We also know that it can increase a person’s heart rate as well as their blood pressure. Even if you think you’ve developed a tolerance for caffeine and can fall asleep quickly, it can disrupt the deep restful sleep you need. The peak affects of caffeine occur between one hour and three hours after consuming it. As a result, you should avoid drinking caffeine at least six hours prior to bedtime. Don’t forget that caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate, as well as certain medications.

Other things that can disrupt sleep include the use of alcohol, cigarettes, a lack of exercise, noise and heat to name a few. Although you may fall asleep more quickly after drinking alcohol, it has an effect on the quality of sleep you get. The nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant even though you may feel relaxed after smoking.  Days spent sitting in a cockpit or conference, or a regular lack of exercise can disrupt your body’s metabolic processes and affect our ability to rest.  When we travel, we often encounter environments that are not suitable for quality rest.  Noisy hotel rooms – or worse, attempts to sleep in airport or FBO terminals – can negate all efforts at sleep.  Also note that a warm, bright room can make it more difficult to get a restful night’s sleep.

I’m sure the debate over the most recent incident will continue. However, we can use this incident as a reminder of how fatigue can affect and impair us physically and psychologically. Avoid the temptation of thinking that you “can handle it” or that it “won’t happen to you.”  Fatigue is real and it can be deadly.  And yes, YOU are susceptible.  Know the signs and avoid things that contribute to a poor night’s rest, disrupted circadian rhythms, and ultimately fatigue. Much like alcohol intoxication, the performance degradation of fatigue can go largely unnoticed.  We become accustomed to dealing with it and think that we are unaffected – until it’s too late.


  1. […] a follow up to the ongoing chatter regarding ATC and Potomac Approach; take note of the recent announcements from aircraft manufacturers, HondaJet and […]

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