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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flying Drunk from Fatigue!

Pilots are intimately familiar with being sleep deficit. Flying across time zones and at night messes up our circadian rhythm and takes a toll on our bodies. But Pilots in a training program have an equally difficult time sleeping. Strange bed in a noisy hotel and the stress of the program don’t help. And many of my friends are now facing the inability to sleep.

Studies have shown that less than 6 hours of sleep we begin to feel stressed, and stress impacts the ability to sleep. Then, as we age we often have difficulty sleeping without interruption. Yes, we fall asleep, but wake up during the night and lay there staring at the wall. When we don’t sleep, we diminish the ability to sleep.

What can we do to sleep better?

  • Just as we did when our kids were young, create a habit pattern. Not easy while on the road, but during training, or while at home… tell the body it is time to sleep.
  • Turn off the television and computer a minimum of one hour before bed. And if you can, do this at the exact same time every night. You are turning off the brain and training your brain, it is time to go to sleep.
  • Do not drink alcohol before bed. The alcohol turns to sugar and will wake you up during the night.
  • Do not drink caffeine 10 hours before bed.
  • Avoid all liquids two hours before you sleep.
  • Avoid desert. Keep the sugar out of your blood stream. Chocolate is a double whammy… sugar and caffeine.
  • Take a hot bath and read what I call a bathtub book… light reading that will take your mind off your day, your worries, your kids, your studies.
  • Keep the temperature cool in your bedroom. The cooling down process induces sleep. The cool room will assist in keeping you to sleep. This works great just after your hot bath.
  • Do not be afraid to take a nap! As a mother and grandmother, I assure you that keeping the kids awake to make them tired so they sleep better does not work. A baby that can nap often will sleep far better throughout the night… and you will too. Nap when you can!
  • Breathe. You still can’t turn off your mind? Practice deep breathing and visualize the breath moving slowly through your body. We do this at yoga and I have fallen asleep on my back, on a cold floor in a gym. It works.
  • Take melatonin.

Pilots cannot take most sleep inducing drugs, and neither should you. They’re addictive, and unnatural to the body. Melatonin is another story.


Melatonin is the chemical produced by the body’s pineal gland which induces sleep, and is affected by the seasons and day and night cycles. At night 5 times more melatonin is produced inducing sleep. When a pilot is flying all night, or crossing time zones, the circadian rhythm gets messed up, the body thinks it should be sleeping and yet it’s still daylight for another 10 hours…but late at night at home. The impact is that melatonin is not being produced.

As we age our bodies also naturally stop producing as much melatonin, and then we don’t sleep. But when we don’t sleep, we don’t produce melatonin, and the vicious cycle begins. For some people there have been reports of vivid dreams, and nightmares. However... this means your dosage is too high. ½ mg could be all you need. But your body will adjust and what my have given you nightmares initially, will provide a good night sleep.

I am a full proponent of pilots taking a nap during flight. The impact of lack of sleep is devastating. Personally, I would rather have my pilot rested after a 40 minute cat nap landing my plane, than one who has forced his eyes to stay open all night. Lack of sleep impacts reaction time, coordination and judgment. 17 hours awake is equivalent to an alcohol level of .05! How many pilots are flying drunk from fatigue? A scary thought.

Sleep and Memory:

Lack of sleep prohibits our ability to function properly and efficiently, creates stress, and that lack of will kill you quicker than lack of food and water. But sleep also impacts your memory, because we only store memories while we sleep. You don’t sleep… what you learned is not going into your brain permanently for retrieval later.

A note on preconditioning: If you’re not sleeping and it is impacting you, you’ve created a pattern of worry. I don’t need to be in your head to know that you fear you won't sleep tonight. You’re more than likely thinking about this through out your day in-between yawns. This thought process is actually preventing you from sleeping. Try the above techniques and tell yourself, “I am going to sleep all night tonight, and I will wake up at __ am tomorrow morning.”

Sweet dreams!



  1. This is excellent advice Karlene! So good in fact that I'm bookmarking it! I couldn't agree with you more, I want my pilot rested and refreshed when it's time to land the plane!

  2. Thanks Heather! The scary thing is the less we are allowed to do up there, the more fatigue sets in. I could tell you how many times I've been awake well over that 17 hour mark at work. Not a good thing. Think about your doubles at work...and always something happens at the end of the shift. Oh...and imagine the hours the doctors and in the hospital work and then operate on us. Okay... now I don't want to think about it any more. :)

  3. Great advice, although I am happy to say I already take Melatonin when I travel...take it as soon as you arrive (that night), and your basically set...I did it when I went to london, England..took an early flight that left at around 8 am and got in at like 6 pm...took melatonin, and the next day, I was basically on that time zone!

    It is scary to think that pilots work that long...another flight (it was a charter), the flght crew was supposed to fly from canada to cancun, but there was a storm, so the outbound aircraft left like 8 hours later than expected...combine that with getting to the airport an hour earlier and waking up, they were up 10 hours..with the 5 hour flight down, thats 15 hours, and an hour turnaaround brings it to 16...after another 5 hour flight, the pilots were awake for AT LEAST! 21 HOURS!!!

    I definitely agree that that is NOT safe....but like you said, Id rather not think about it lol

  4. Hi Pilot, Thanks for the reply. Yeah on the Melatonin... it works!
    Your experience is one that happens often...and not the best case. Do you know that a 20 minute nap is the best refresher? Amazing what it can do.

  5. I know! its almost a miracle lol....
    really? i think the faa needs to modify the 16 hr rule for not just flying, but also consider time b4 hand and turnaround too!

    Yes, i do take 20 min naps lol...tey really do refresh me :D

  6. Hi Pilot... I think that instead of more FAA regulations, we need to look more at human factors in flight, and do what it takes to keep the pilots alert in the flight deck while we work. Keeping the brain alive. I think alternating reading, taking a nap, and the ability to do things that keep your brain alert will all help. Maybe we should blog about the options! lol. More to come today...

  7. Good timing for me, as I've been suffering from a bit of stress-induced insomnia. :-) My biggest offense is usually working until bedtime. With kids around, sometimes the only time to write that darned article and meet deadline is to work up to (or past!) deadline. But it's definitely a bad habit.

  8. It is scary when you really think about it. Pilot's need their rest! There are far too many lives in their hands as well as a huge piece of very complicated machinery.

  9. Heather, This is so true! My new motto for this life, this time around... sleep more!

  10. I remember you telling me the '17 hours awake is equivalent to an alcohol level of .05' fact!

    I'm really bad at sleeping and I'm always tired, but I love being awake early in the morning. I must get on average 6 hours sleep a night if I'm lucky. I think this advice will help though! I have to admit, I do nap sometimes... I'll have to learn how to sleep better for the near future!

    I've read somewhere that fasting for 16 hours resets your body-clock and reduces the effects of jetlag, is this true? It's not something I'd probably try, but I'm curious about it..

    Thank you for writing this!

  11. Aeropup... You need more sleep than 6 hours a night! So... a good plan for you... shutdown those engines and your mind earlier, and get to bed so you can get up early. Your body will get adjusted to whatever you tell it to do... but you'll never feel perfect unless you get the sleep you need. Now is the best time to fix that. I had never heard that about fasting...maybe you fall asleep because your exhausted without food. lol Try the hot bath, fun book, and sleep in a cool room. It works.
    Sleep well!

  12. I know this sounds either crazy or just too stone simple to work, but just consider the source.

    I don't know when it became a problem for me, but at some point in my teens or twenties, I was having a hard time getting to sleep.

    I think it was my mom who asked me if I thought I'd be better equipped to deal with whatever was stressing me if I was good and tired the next day. Of course, the answer was no. She said, "Then stop thinking about it. Just let your mind rest, just for the night, and then take it all head-on again, stronger, tomorrow."

    It clicked, and I've gotten quite good at turning off the lights behind my eyelids as well as on the front side; not because I have nothing to worry about, but because I know I'll handle all of it better, stronger, faster (yes, like "The $6M Man") the next day with some solid sleep.

    Fortunately, jet lag doesn't hit me too hard going to South America like I do most often, but when I do go to western Europe, I still don't have much trouble if I don't nap excessively. I think I may be highly light-sensitive, though.

    I don't even want to start popping pills - natural or not. Caffeine (via coffee) is my only consistent foray into pharma - and she's a very jealous mistress. I'm afraid I might end up an honorary former member of Guns 'n Roses or something if I take any more than a peek down that road.

    Same theory works with fighting illness, to me. Stay down - rest. Let your corpuscles do their job, and let your liver or whatever makes 'em make more. Call in sick. Tell the world you're out for this play. They'll deal, and you'll miss less game by the end.

  13. Hi Nate, Thanks for a great comment! I too use to have a hard time sleeping...started when I was 5...and lasted for years. Until I started working so hard (as a teenager)... the four hours in bed I would crash. Then three babies in three years. Then the commuting and jetlag and rushing home to take care of the house and kids. It became a cycle. But...I retrained myself during my 744 training. Slept great and retained a ton. Now... I take my bath, turn off my brain with a book, and I'm out...oh, if the phone stops ringing... I could sleep for 9 hours.
    Excellent advice to all... take care of yourself and call in sick! We don't do any favors for anyone not feeling well at work.


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