NTSB’s Rosekind Warns of Pilot Fatigue and Sleep Problems at HeliExpo Safety Seminar
“Fatigue in the aviation industry has been on the NTSB’s Top 10 Most-Wanted list for two decades,” Mark Rosekind told a Heli-Expo audience on Saturday morning. “It still makes up six of our top 10 fears today.”
Rosekind, a Ph.D. and NTSB Board member dove right into the fatigue issue at the lead-off educational session at Heli-Expo 2012 in Dallas. He is also the high-energy former president, founder and chief scientist at Alertness Solutions, a fatigue-management consulting group. His focus yesterday was clear from the start. “Just because your flight department has never had an accident doesn’t mean your operation is safe,” he said.
Rosekind said aircraft noise and vibration in helicopter operations create special fatigue issues, as does the predominance of single-pilot, on-demand operations, often conducted at night. Fatigue poses significant risks to flight operations because it “degrades every aspect of human capability, everything about who you are.”
Contrary to what many aviators might believe, pilots falling asleep at the stick, is not the biggest concern. Fatigued pilots have demonstrated as much as a 20- to 50 percent loss of decision-making skills, memory, judgment, reaction time and situational awareness, none of which is normally apparent to the pilots themselves.
“It’s not like you can’t make decisions,” Rosekind said. “It’s just that [when you’re fatigued] you make bad decisions.” Lapses in judgment are also not predictable.
What makes managing fatigue such a complex issue is that solutions almost never involve a single, simple step. Some companies’ views on fatigue management are based more on the culture of the organization than science.
“Right now, we still celebrate getting the job done on very little sleep, no matter what,” Rosekind said. Helicopter accident rates, especially in EMS operations speak for themselves on that contradiction.
Pilots don’t really believe they’re cheating themselves on sleep, but few understand the cumulative effects of missing a few hours a night here and there. Then too, there are people who believe they perform just fine on less sleep than their bodies actually demand.
“Cheating on sleep does not make you more productive,” Rosekind said. “During sleep research, some pilots experienced a 62 percent drop in their ability to handle the rigors of flight.” Despite claims to the contrary, flying in the middle of the night by itself can degrade pilot performance by 30 percent, even more so during the circadian low that all humans experience between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. How a pilot feels has also been shown to have almost no relation to how those pilots actually perform when fatigued.
The question on everyone’s mind is what to do next, knowing full well that no safety culture changes overnight. While in-flight naps are not an option in helicopter operations, Rosekind suggests short naps between cockpit sessions, techniques proven to significantly improve pilot performance over that of people trying to force their minds to remain awake.
The strategic use of caffeine can also perk a person up, although it is no substitute for sleep. “Sleep is a vital physiological function,” Rosekind said. “Without sleep, you die.”
He added that Thomas Edison, a famous four-hour sleeper who regularly proclaimed the worthlessness of sleep, actually took two well-timed daily naps to keep fresh.