Pilot fatigue – old, but vital problem


During the Chicago Convention in 1944 it was established that pilot fatigue endangers flight safety. As a result to that it was decided to establish maximum amount of working hours that should prevent pilots from overstraining themselves and would help to assure passenger’s safety. Even though almost 60 years has passed since the Convention pilot fatigue remains serious aviation safety problem.

The working hours control systems appear in every airline, where collective labor agreements and fatigue risk management systems (FRMS) are also established.  Airlines must plan their schedule so that maximum working hours and minimum resting hours would not exceed or would not be less than established norms. In order to calculate hours correctly it is important to consider whether it is day time or night time. For example in European Union airlines have to ensure that the flight crew working hours would not exceed 900 hours per calendar year, 100 hours per 28 days and 13 hours per day.

Regardless to the requirements, statistics published in 2006 state that every 5th pilot experience fatigue. This means that at the critical moment one of the five flight crew members most probably would not ensure flight safety. As the result to that 15 – 20% of accidents happen because of pilot fatigue.

The biggest problem of experiencing fatigue appears for long-haul flight crew members. At the moment the longest flight in the world is 18,5 hours length and covers 16 000 kilometres without intermediate stops. During anonymous survey made in 2012, 43% participants admitted that they have unexpectedly fallen asleep during the long-haul. The survey shows that there have been some cases where even both pilots have had fallen asleep.

What actually pilot fatigue means?

The pilot fatigue may reduce alertness, which may cause poor observation of aircraft orientation and position in the space. In addition to that, it may cause mistaken perception of systems and wrong evaluation of the situation or decision making. Also the fatigue may extend the reaction time, which may be essential during the critical situation. Memory disturbance is one more result of the fatigue. Pilot may forget information received from other flight crew members or simply forget standard procedures or their sequence. The lack of attention and concentration may cause the incorrectly assessed situations, failed identification of the set parameters and etc.

According to the researches the biggest influence to the pilot is not the physical work itself, but rather harmful microclimate conditions including noise, vibration, unnatural air and changes of the pressure. It has been established that pilots also get so exhausted because of the irregular work schedules, unpredictable ‘call in’ and unstable sleep environment.

Pilot fatigue and accidents

Aircraft accident researches show that the accident rate has a close connection with the flight phase. For example during the last one of the flights when the flight crew continues approaching the airport, lines up with axis of runway, makes top of descent and lands the highest attention, concentration and professionalism is required. This is not the coincidence that   biggest number of accidents (36%) happen at the current – last phase of light when the flight crew is exhausted after long flight.    

Fighting the fatigue

Fighting pilot fatigue may become quite a challenge. The working hours and working environment is not something that may be controlled by the pilot. Although some things may be done, for example taking care of your health – good rest and quality food will give you more energy. In addition to that the Multi Crew Course (MCC) and Crew Resource Management (CRM) trainings may help you too. ‘During the MCC and CRM trainings pilots are being taught to communicate with other flight crew members. We encourage pilots to be honest and sociable. This would not help to avoid pilot fatigue, but it would definitely help to recognize if someone of flight crew members are experience one. In that case pilot will be more alert and may prevent flight crew from making mistakes’ comments Povilas Maknavicius, the Instructor at Baltic Aviation Academy.  

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