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How to recover from flying as the world recovers from Covid-19 | Opinion

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I’ve worked at long- and short-haul low-cost carriers during my career. This means tight scheduling, maximum efficiency and high demands – both physically and mentally. I’ve had to deal with high levels of stress, circadian disruption (jet- and shift-lag) and a fair deal of sleep deprivation.

While I’ve been able to manage it somewhat successfully, it took me a long time before I actually understood what real fatigue management should look like. To put it another way, you don’t have to go through your career with hormonal imbalances, poor moods, constant jet lag and a rapidly expanding waistline. 

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Whilst most operator manuals state that the responsibility for the “optimal use of rest periods” lies with the crewmember, very few know what “optimal” is. In today’s fast-paced, around-the-clock operations, the old mantra of “eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired” doesn’t quite cut it. We need to know more, both about general and individual fatigue management!

Due to the coronavirus pandemic we now have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to recover from accumulated fatigue, and become more resilient for the future.

We all know (or should know) about the “optimal stress response curve”. In a nutshell, the curve says that performance increases with greater physiological or mental stress – but only up to a point.

What a lot of people doesn’t know however, is how accumulated stress – better known as fatigue – affects it. You know, the tiredness you feel after a 98h block-hours, sleep-deprived, constantly overcast winter month when you’d rather just go to sleep for a week than pilot an aircraft…

What happens in these occasions is that the curve becomes narrower. This means your “optimal stress-window” becomes smaller, and the edges of the curve becomes steeper. Leading to you having a harder time to stay optimally alert, as well as suffering faster and greater performance losses if (when) you lose focus.

You’ll also have a greater risk of both overload as well as underload. Either of these scenarios can lead to serious mistakes being made. A lot of the time this can be quite insidious too: although your pre-departure set-up may engender the optimal level of stress, as you start relaxing at the holding point, errors can creep in – for instance mistaking a line-up clearance for a take-off clearance.

This brings me to why this pandemic might have some hidden benefits. You’ve probably found yourself in a position with significantly reduced workload. This allows you to have a break from circadian disruption, sleep deprivation and stress, potentially even allowing you to improve other lifestyle factors as well. This means you have a chance to change the profile of the curve, giving you a greater area of optimal stress! Whilst most of this might come quite automatically, here are three things you should focus on:

Sleep: Aim for around 7-9h per night, with similar bed- and wake-up times every day.

Nutrition: There’s no need to go full keto/paleo/vegan or whatever fancy diet you last heard of, but focus on reducing stimulants (caffeine and nicotine, for instance) and highly processed foods.

Exercise: This is the perfect time to start with some light exercise focused on recovery; short walks in nature, hiking, bicycle rides, slow jogs on the beach. Focus on enjoyment and tranquility!

If you’ve already worked on your recovery, you’ve probably noticed some changes in mood, sleep requirement and general well-being by now. This puts you in a perfect position to step it up a notch: it’s time to focus on going from fit to fly, to fitter to fly.

Remember that accumulated stress we talked about earlier? Well, it isn’t just external factors that cause it – depending on your health status, your own body can be a stressor in itself. At this point we want to focus on reducing those internal stressors. This means getting in better physical and mental shape. Luckily, since your stress levels are lower than normal (if you’re not flying at the moment), this will actually be easier done than said. Exercise and dieting can be stressors in themselves, but since you’re fitter to deal with it, you’re likely to see faster results!

Your gradual increase might look something like this:

Sleep: More fine tuning of timing and a focus on increased sleep hygiene: no blue light/screens before bed, temperature control, new bed linen, noise control/management.

Nutrition: More focus on body re-composition (reducing fat and increasing muscle mass), meal timing and further reduction/elimination of harmful stimulants and processed food.

Exercise: Gradually more demanding workouts, incorporating both cardio and strength training. Focused on enjoyment and maybe the occasional “I think I’m gonna die” moments.

As your physical and mental wellbeing improves, you’ll be able to better face the challenges of fatigue in the future. Whilst the degree (and type) of change will depend on your starting point, you’re very likely to experience more restorative sleep, more energy, better hunger control and possibly even some improvement in blood markers and hormonal levels. All which will lead to you being fit to fly for a long time!

More advice can be found on the fitforflight.org website. 

If you are a commercial pilot and fancy writing for FlightGlobal then we would love to hear from you. Just send us a brief outline of what you’d like to cover and we will get back in touch. We are happy to use your contributions anonymously where necessary. Email: dominic.perry@flightglobal.com



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