Aviation In Canada

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Anyone who works shift work knows the importance of sleep, and at least some of the difficulties surrounding getting sleep. I used to be a sound sleeper. I could sleep through anything. Now, just about anything wakes me up. I often wonder how pilots do it. Some of their schedules are worse than mine (they must be to be in the air when I get to work for an early shift).

As tired as one could be, adrenaline often keeps one awake and alert while things are hopping. I picture this being the same in the cockpit starting up, taxiing and preparing for take-off, and in the initial phases of flight. The descent to landing, the approach, and the touchdown in particular are all things that I would expect would keep a pilot awake. But the enroute portion, especially on a long leg, I picture being largely boring enough to prevent the release of adrenaline (unless, of course, your ATC were to make a mistake), and I can see how monitoring gauges and looking at a sometimes endless sea of white cloud below and blue sky above, or indeed nothing on a dark night over the ocean, could lead one to become very drowsy.

For ATC, looking at a largely empty piece of airspace with no conflicts to monitor and nothing to say as everybody goes about his business can be pretty, well, tough. I mean, in order to do your job, that is to provide "full time attentive flight monitoring," you have to watch what's going on, and staring at a blank screen and keeping your attention focussed on the job can be a challenge. Statistically, they say that most incidents in ATC occur not when things are busy, but when things are slow.

Of course, being well rested is very important. A good night's sleep can help stave off sleepiness that can arise from a low workload, which in turn lends itself to a low stress load. As bad as too much stress can be for an individual, too little can also be a bad thing. And as pilots well know, there are few chemical remedies that can be legally be used to help get sleep or keep someone awake at those crucial times. I suppose that's where coffee comes in, since caffiene is legal.

For all it's importance, sleep is still underrated. A good night's sleep is so important, and yet we'll all forgo some sleep at some point in time voluntarily for that awesome party or whatever else takes one's attention. As long as we don't let it get in the way of the radar screen we're looking at, or the cockpit tasks we have to monitor, we should be OK, no?