FIGHTING FLIGHT LINE FATIGUE - RANDOLPH AFB TACKLES PROBLEM HEAD-ON
By BRIAN MCGLOIN and TIM BARELA, 502nd Air Base Wing OL-B public affairs office and Torch Magazine
/ Published August 04, 2011
RANDOLPH AFB, Texas -- On Aug. 18, 1993, a DC-8 commercial aircraft from the Unites States crashed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The impact and ensuing fire destroyed the plane, and the three crewmembers suffered serious injuries. The probable cause? Crew fatigue, according to mishap investigators.
Fatigue is a killer, said experts from the 359th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. To help base members stay sharp and safe, the 359th AMDS is offering classes to illustrate fatigue countermeasures, which are especially helpful to shift and overnight workers, along with aircrew members.
"The class is where we talk to base personnel about different issues with their sleep," said 1st Lt. Amanda Burnette, 359th AMDS logistics element chief, aerospace and operational physiology. "Fatigue continues to be a huge issue with many occupations, including our flyers."
In the case cited above, the National Transportation Safety Board report said, "The airplane collided with terrain approximately one-fourth mile from the approach end of the runway after the captain lost control of the aircraft. The flight crew had experienced a disruption of circadian rhythms and sleep loss; had been on duty about 18 hours; and had flown approximately nine hours.
"The captain did not recognize the deteriorating flight path and airspeed conditions due to preoccupation with locating a strobe light on the ground. ... Repeated callouts by the flight engineer stating slow airspeed conditions went unheeded by the captain. ... Probable cause (of the crash was) the impaired judgment, decision-making and flying abilities of the captain and flight crew due to the effects of fatigue; the captain's failure to properly assess the conditions for landing and maintaining vigilant situational awareness of the airplane while maneuvering onto final approach; his failure to prevent the loss of airspeed and avoid a stall while in the steep bank turn; and his failure to execute immediate action to recover from a stall. Also contributing was inadequate crew resource management training."
These are the kinds of disasters that can occur when sleep patterns are interrupted and crews suffer from cumulative sleep loss, according to Air Education and Training Command flight safety experts. That's why fatigue countermeasures education, like the class at Randolph, is so crucial.
"The class will teach about sleep and fatigue in general, specific sleep disorders that people may or may not have, and techniques the average person can employ to aid in sleep," Burnette said. "Humans are meant to be asleep when it's dark and awake when it's light. When something changes that natural schedule, problems can arise."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said shift and night workers often are tired and sleepy because of how their work schedules force them to deviate from natural biological rhythms, also known as circadian rhythm. Being unnecessarily tired makes it difficult to concentrate, which increase the possibility of mistakes. The stress of shiftwork also can exasperate health conditions, such as heart disease or digestive disorders, the CDC added.
To help Randolph Airmen -- active duty and civilians -- the base countermeasures class teaches simple techniques they can use to prevent fatigue, such as having a routine before going to bed and a proper sleep environment. The classes also examine things like exercise, which helps keep the mind and body in balance.
"People don't always realize how important exercise is for sleep," Burnette said. "There are simple things you can do to sleep better and fall asleep faster."
She said humans are bad at judging levels of fatigue, partially because higher-level reasoning is affected first when one is fatigued.
"Cognitive ability is the first to suffer," she said. "Shiftwork at night may set you up for problems, but even a hectic home life could cause you to lose out on sleep."
Burnette added, sleep loss can accumulate over time and reach dangerous levels.
"Sleep can't be banked," she said.
The lieutenant acknowledges, however, that it's not likely someone who works a shift that goes against their circadian rhythm can simply make a schedule change. But all hope isn't lost for those in less than ideal work schedules. She said the amount and quality of sleep is more important than the time one is asleep.
"Determining individual sleep requirements is not easy since there is wide variability in sleep needs. Individual requirements range from about four to 10 hours." say authors John and Lynn Caldwell in their book A Guide to Staying Awake at the Stick, about fatigue prevention in military and civilian aviation. "Unless you know for a fact that eight hours is more than you need, the safe approach is to make sure you get a minimum of eight full hours each day, even if work demands mean you have to split this requirement into more than one consolidated period."
The classes at Randolph, which are held on the second Thursday of every month at 1 p.m. in Bldg. 747, are a good start to figuring out each individual's needs.
"As of right now, people can just show up," Burnette said about class enrollment. "They don't need anything, other than their bright, shining faces."