New NIOSH Training Offers Fatigue Management for Pilots in the Land of the Midnight SunPosted on by
For a pilot working in Western Alaska, the amount of daylight during their work day can vary as much as 14 hours between the summer and winter solstice (or more the farther north you go). These aviators often fly multiple legs each day, serving as a transportation link to over 250 villages across the state. In fact, over 80% of Alaska’s communities are not connected by roads. Vast distances, long hours of daylight, short flying seasons, and wildly variable weather can all contribute to the development of fatigue.
Fatigue is a general lack of alertness and degradation in mental and physical performance, and can affect pilot alertness, performance, and judgment during flight. Fatigue has repeatedly been shown to be an important risk factor for aviation accidents. A NASA survey of regional airline pilots found that 89% of respondents identified fatigue as a moderate or serious concern, 88% reported that fatigue was a common occurrence, and 86% reported that they received no training from their companies that addressed fatigue. Of the 1424 flight crew members responding in this survey, 80% acknowledged having “nodded off” during a flight at some time. Previous research by NIOSH has shown that 22% of pilots working in Alaska made a decision to fly when fatigued either weekly or monthly. Current Federal Aviation Regulations govern pilot flight times and duty limits, but do not ensure that pilots get adequate rest.
Pilot fatigue has been documented as early as 1927 when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean and has continued to be a risk factor in aviation operations. Air transportation safety organizations recognize fatigue as a priority focus area; the National Transportation Safety Board listed reduction of fatigue-related accidents on their list of Ten Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements for 2017-2018, and the Department of Transportation identified the issue of pilot fatigue as a top priority during a 2009 airline Safety Call to Action, following the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407.
The Federal Aviation Administration released new regulations in 2011 that govern flight, duty, and rest times for pilots flying commercial passengers on large aircraft. However, most commercial airline operations in Alaska do not fall under these regulations. The preamble for these new regulations stated that the commuter and air taxi community should expect to see regulations very similar to, if not exactly like, the new regulations for the large airlines that fly commercial passengers. These future rules would affect the pilots and operators of the commuter and air taxi companies in Alaska.
When NIOSH researchers talked to pilots and management of commuter and air taxi companies in Alaska, they found that there were certain situations that could create higher risks for fatigue, such as extended duty days during the summer, longer amounts of daylight disrupting sleep cycles, and long-term remote operations at bush camps. Both pilot and management stakeholders were interested in learning more about recognizing and preventing fatigue. In anticipation of future rule changes and to help pilots avoid flying fatigued, NIOSH recently released a fatigue prevention training program for commercial pilots in Alaska. Pilots and management urged that examples be Alaska-specific, as generic scenarios with a one-size-fits-all approach would not be credible. As a result, NIOSH worked with stakeholders to film all videos onsite in Alaska and feature real pilots and aviation workers with Alaskan aircraft. Additionally, aviation company management preferred an independent training method and pilots favored the opportunity to talk, learn, and share with other pilots, so the training was developed to be used both ways. It can be used individually by pilots, or in a group setting by companies as part of their initial or recurrent training programs. The training may also be used by any individual pilots who are not flying as commercial pilots.
The training is self-paced, computer-based, and provides information through four modules focusing on the risks and hazards associated with fatigue, the importance of good sleep, tips for getting good sleep, and preventing fatigue. The training builds on previous successful NIOSH fatigue awareness programs for nurses and truck drivers. It is available for download from the NIOSH Aviation Topic Page or you can request a hard copy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAPT Mary O’Connor, MS, REHS, is a Captain in the US Public Health Service and the manager of the NIOSH Aviation Safety program in the Western States Division. She is a licensed commercial pilot and is based in Anchorage, Alaska.