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Fatigue and Pilots - a deadly combination!

Updated: May 23, 2023

Fatigue is an expected and predominant part of life. The official definition is "extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness.

Fatigue is a general lack of alertness and degradation in mental and physical performance that for a normal individual presents a minor inconvenience, resolved with a nap or by stopping whatever activity brought on the fatigue.

However, if that person is a pilot, the consequences of fatigue can be disastrous.

“Fatigue is a condition characterized by increased discomfort with lessened capacity for work, reduced efficiency of accomplishment, loss of power or capacity to respond to stimulation, and is usually accompanied by a feeling of weariness and tiredness.”


1. Fatigue can develop from a variety of sources. The important factor is not what causes the fatigue but rather the negative impact fatigue has on a person’s ability to perform tasks. A long day of mental stimulation such as studying for an examination or processing data for a report can be as fatiguing as manual labor. They may feel different—a sore body instead of a headache and bleary eyes—but the end effect is the same, an inability to function normally.

2. Fatigue leads to a decrease in your ability to carry out tasks. Several studies have demonstrated significant impairment in a person’s ability to carry out tasks that require manual dexterity, concentration, and higher-order intellectual processing. Fatigue may happen acutely, which is to say in a relatively short time (hours) after some significant physical or mental activity.

Or, it may occur gradually over several days or weeks. Typically, this situation occurs with someone who does not get sufficient sleep over a prolonged period of time (as with sleep apnea, jet lag, or shift work) or someone who is involved in ongoing physical or mental activity with insufficient rest.


General aviation pilots are typically not exposed to the same occupational stresses as commercial pilots (i.e., long duty days, circadian disruptions from night flying or time zone changes, or scheduling changes). Nevertheless, they will still develop fatigue from a variety

In a variety of studies, fatigued individuals consistently underreported how tired they really were, as measured by physiologic parameters. A tired individual truly does not realize the extent of actual impairment. No degree of experience, motivation, medication, coffee, or will-power can overcome fatigue.


Obtaining adequate sleep is the best way to prevent or resolve fatigue. Sleep provides the body with a period of rest and recuperation. Insufficient sleep will result in significant physical and psychological problems. On average, a healthy adult does best with eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, but significant personal variations occur. For example, increasing sleep difficulties occur as we age, with significant shortening of nighttime sleep. A variety of medical conditions can influence the quality and duration

of sleep. To name a few: sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, certain medications, depression, stress, insomnia, and chronic pain. Some of the more common social or behavioral issues are late-night activities, excessive alcohol or caffeine use, travel, interpersonal strife, uncomfortable or unfamiliar surroundings, and shift work.


No one is immune from fatigue. Yet, in our society, establishing widespread preventive measures

to combat fatigue is often a very difficult goal to achieve. Individuals, as well as organizations, often ignore the problem until an accident occurs. Even then, implementing lasting change is not guaranteed. Lifestyle changes are not easy for individuals, particularly if that person isn’t in complete control of the condition. For example, commercial pilots must contend with shift work and circadian rhythm disruption. Often, they also choose to commute long distances to work, so that by the time a work cycle starts they have already traveled for several hours. While a general aviation pilot may not have to deal with this, a busy lifestyle or other issues may lead to fatigue. Therefore, general aviation pilots must make every effort to modify personal lifestyle factors that cause fatigue of other causes.

Given the single-pilot operation and relatively higher workload, they would be just as much at risk (possibly even more) to be involved in an accident than a commercial crew. Any fatigued person will exhibit the same problems: sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, apathy, feeling of isolation, annoyance, increased reaction time to stimulus, slowing of higher-level mental functioning, decreased vigilance, memory problems, task fixation, and increased errors while performing tasks.

None of these are good things to have happen to a pilot, much less if there is no one else in the aircraft to help out.

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