Monday, April 5, 2010

Fatigue is tiring

I work night shift mostly, it seems that one should be able to sleep when you are tired but that doesn't seem to work for me.
My job is that of a long haul airline pilot. I try not to spread that around as most of my career people have wanted to hear about all the horror stories that I have and mostly it is a job that is really quite mundane, "Hours and hours of sheer boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror" is the old gag line, it's not really true.

Statistically, the most dangerous part of my job is the ride to and from the airport. It is a great job and some of the other pilots, men and women, adapt well to the "overseas" flying, I don't. I enjoy the dynamic aspect of the job, thinking in 3 dimensions and considering energy management of planning the flight to optimize the efficiency of the several hundreds of thousand pounds (kilograms actually, we use metric measures now).

En route, the job becomes rather mundane, monitoring radios/ACARS(a fancy fax machine)/ checking the flight plan/ monitoring systems/ recording time and fuel at waypoints that are usually about 40-60 minutes apart/ interfacing with the cabin crew (since 9/11 we are no longer able to have "guests" on the flight deck, it used to be a real pleasure to have someone come up and ask the myriad of questions that they always had, or have a young person come up and show them the lights and controls that encompass us as we work).

On most airliners today, the crew requirement is for two pilots, on the long haul we operate with up to four. On a four crew operation we all are present on the flight deck (the term cockpit left the jargon many years ago) for the first part of the flight until we are established in the cruise portion and then again from the start of the initial descent from cruise until we complete the flight at the gate. The more eyes and ears the better.

During the cruise portion of the flight on the long haul flights we can take a break, two pilots are required to remain in the flight deck, except for short periods when one can leave for physiological reasons (pee break). The cruise time is divided into two or four breaks and we can leave the flight deck and have a "rest". The modern long haul aircraft are equipped with crew rest facilities. These range from a curtain around the business class seat, usually placed in the least desirable location in the cabin, next to the lavatory and the galley, as the revenue passengers don't care to be disturbed by the continual banging of the lav. door that vibrates the seats adjacent to them or the rattling and banging of the galley doors and equipment as the flight attendants (don't call them "stewardess/stewards unless you are willing to face the wrath of a large deity).

The flight attendants are generally great but there is an undercurrent of animosity that has permeated the work place, by only a few, but it is omnipresent, due to the jealousy of the facility and length of our breaks. On the longer flights you can find them in the economy seats or occasionally lying on a mound of blankets on the floor of the galley on some aircraft that are not on the very long haul, the longer haul aircraft do have cabin crew rest facilities with bunks.

The flight deck crew on the aircraft I am presently on (the very long haul/ultra long haul) is a modern wonder. The rest facility is ensconced in essentially the overhead bins, that may sound crazy but the aircraft is a single deck design but has enough room to place a small area for two seats (with entertainment systems just like the passengers) and two lay flat bunks separated by a petition but essentially two coffins with reading lights, side by side, no room to stand up but it is quite comfortable and the best part is that it is away from the banging doors and clattering trays and galley carts.

It sounds like a wonderful place to rest. It's not. The low frequency vibration of the craft keeps you in a continual state of tension even when you do get to sleep, your brain is saying "watch out, you might get tossed out of bed" by the subtle clues that are telling it you are not completely secure here and your muscles never relax completely, taught, waiting for that next jostle. The noise of the engines and believe it or not the wind noise across the skin of the ship is insidious, omnipresent and fatiguing, your ears never being more than a foot or so from the inner cabin wall.

Then you get to the hotel. The lay-overs in exotic destinations: Australia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, Frankfurt, What a dream job. The layovers are generally 24 hours as you take the next flight out the following day, just the exact wrong amount of time for a proper rest. You've worked the flight over, onboard crew rest aside, and arrive exhausted. If you sleep for 8 hours, you awaken to the local clock being early evening and have a 12-16 hour void to fill, usually in the downtown areas we stay not much to do at 2 am, and then you are ready for another sleep but its time to strap on the plane again and get to work. Consequently, the norm is to grab a short nap, 2-3 hours, and meet with the other crew members, usually just the "front end" as the days of crew fraternization are pretty much a thing of the past. You plan a long walk, got to get the kinks out from the up to 16 hour flight you came in on and a meal. Usually eating dinner at about 8 am body clock time, the legendary alcohol consumption of the past has pretty much ceased in the last decade, the consequences of the third beer, even after a good sleep still puts you in jeopardy of the zero tolerance for any blood alcohol measured by the random checks (and this is a good thing, incidentally you can have a small trace of blood alcohol from body generated sources due to some physical disorders and there have been pilots caught up by this very thing)

The subsequent sleep, after another long walk after a too big dinner/breakfast, is welcome respite. Usually for about 2-3 hours, then the body clock kicks in and says "it's 3 pm, what are you doing?" Your melatonin levels are out of whack because you have been chasing the sun all flight or walking around in the daylight in spite of it being night time at home.

You lay awake, now middle of the night at the destination but midday for your circadian rhythm desperately trying to rest for the next 10-16 hour flight, usually falling asleep minutes before the wake up call that starts the whole circadian jostle again, daylight induces the body to adjust to the local clock and then the night shift home again, arriving usually before noon, planned that way by the airline so the passengers can make ongoing connections to the final destination.

The drive home is usually the most dangerous activity I do. Tired and feeling ill usually, fatigue is insidious, your brain is in neutral and you are not really there. I usually can't sleep when I get in the door and if I do, it sets up the long night of not sleeping, then as you adjust to the home clock again, your brain stays behind.

I have found I mustn't use power tools or try anything requiring much concentration for at least two days after I am back. Golf handicaps soar, the drill usually doesn't stop until it is biting the flesh, well you get my drift.

I have been off work for a month now and am finally getting a full night's sleep, something which I haven't enjoyed for the most part of the last 6 years. It's refreshing to not have the fog of fatigue hanging over your every thought and deed.

I bid off the overseas last fall but will not be trained on the new to me, domestic airplane until at least this coming September, I had taken the overseas job to facilitate the balloon girl and having time to spend with her, she takes a lot out of you and I felt I had to be there for her, but being there fatigued, I couldn't do the other things I needed to do.

I am looking forward to returning to work as soon as I get the OK from the medical staff

(concussion see last paragraph)

but do not look forward to the fatigue, September won't come soon enough for me.


Kass said...

So much for the fantasy of a pilot's exciting life....

AJ said...

One thing I did learn, the ceiling in the 5 star hotel in Hong Kong looks identical to the 2 star in Yellowknife when you stare at it at 3:30 am. And neither are as nice as the one at home.