President’s Corner 1Q 2022
I’M SAFE…or Am I?
All pilots are familiar with the I’M SAFE personal checklist published by the FAA. The Personal Minimums checklist published by the FAA also incorporates all elements of I’M SAFE. It uses the acronym, PAVE, as a tool remind us to evaluate the:
factors before every flight.
But how many pilots truly apply this before every flight? We are very good at assessing the Aircraft and enVironment by using checklists, rigorously, to determine that the aircraft and all its components are functioning well and we get a weather briefing to determine if this flight is a “go” or ”no-go”.
Do you do an honest assessment of your own personal fitness and external factors that may affect your ability to fly at an optimum level? The Pilot is the one aviation safety chain component that is most likely to fail, not the aircraft. What is more concerning is that the pilot can fail in subtle ways, and does so often, rather than the dichotomous nature of aircraft engines or avionics. We don’t have a red light/green light warning system that tells us if we are performing as expected. Why not use a checklist before every flight to assess the most likely component of the aviation safety chain to fail? Pilots must make that judgement in an honest, consistent, and thorough matter.
Pilots have some fantastic personal characteristics that make us very good in the air. We are confident problem-solvers with some narcissism and obsessive-compulsive features. Unfortunately, these same characteristics may interfere with our self-assessment of our fitness to fly and our willingness to ask for help or to postpone a flight if we are not truly functioning at the level we expect. This is complicated by External factors we may not recognize, as challenges we need help with or are outside of our control.
Let’s look at the components of the I’M SAFE checklist and perhaps expand your view of the scope of the human element in the aviation safety chain. The checklist originally came from the FAA’s Airman Information Manual (Chapter 8), and updated versions are found in FAA Pilot Operating Handbooks. To expand on the title of the checklist, let’s break down each of the categories for I’M SAFE:
We often think of common acute illnesses such as colds, GI upset, coughs and the like. These certainly can compromise safe flying, but what about more chronic conditions such as back pain, headaches, cataracts, lung disease due to smoking (and the relative hypoxia smokers have), and muscle inflammation or injury, to name a few? Certainly diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, and more recently, persistent COVID symptoms come to mind. Each of these can compromise cognition, comfort, physiology and performance. Ultimately, safety is undermined if these conditions are not recognized and treated appropriately so they are not a factor when we are flying.
At AMAS, we frequently get asked “Can I take this medication and fly?” The more important question is why are you taking the medication? and does the underlying condition make you unsafe to fly regardless of the medication? Some medications are fine to take, such as medications to control blood pressure or lower cholesterol. Any medication that causes sleepiness or impaired cognitive function is disqualifying while taking it and for an observation period afterwards while it clears your system. Certainly “scheduled” or “controlled” drugs, such as narcotics and prescription sleeping medications, are disqualifying. Marijuana, both medical and recreational, in any form, is prohibited for all aviation professionals and recreational flyers. See, the AMAS Medication Database for the FAA’s policies on hundreds of medications.
This important part looks at the mental aspects, perhaps the most critical, of a pilot’s ability to have good aeronautical decision making. Stress can be due to acute factors, such as time pressures (“get-there-itis”), job pressures, training events, domestic disharmony, financial challenges, care for sick and ailing loved ones, and many others. More chronic conditions include depression, anxiety, and PTSD. These can disturb sleep, cognition and fast, accurate decision making. Multiple studies now show that stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness practice, meditation, or prayer, in addition to exercise and sleep, as I wrote about last quarter, can reduce chronic stress and its complications. Recent studies show how such practices can increase the volume of sections of the brain related to positive emotions.
The FAR’s contain specific limits on the duration between last alcohol consumption and flying as well as the amount of alcohol in the blood. However, these are absolute minimums, and by no means reflect safe or wise fitness to fly decisions. Even if the blood alcohol level is zero, the substance can have residual effect due to compromised sleep, exacerbated physical and mental health as well as cognitive function. In addition to alcohol, illicit substances have a similar effect and long-term consequences. See, NTSB Safety Studies 14/01 and 20/01. For pilots with concerns about substance abuse and dependence, the HIMS program has provided a pathway for over 45 years, of pilots to be successfully treated and returned to flying.
Much has been written about fatigue, but perhaps the most important point is that each one of us is the worse judge of our own level of fatigue. An 18-hour day results in strain of cognitive abilities, similar to having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05% mg or higher. There are several types of fatigue, and all are equally dangerous. Acute fatigue results from sleep deprivation, even if it’s modest, over the previous several days. Chronic fatigue results from conditions such as sleep apnea, pain syndromes interfering with sleep, poor sleep environments, stress and many other reasons. Circadian fatigue is related to time zone shifts or working on the back side of the clock. Medical/toxicological causes or fatigue result from illness or substances interfering with sound sleep. The only cure for fatigue in the long-term is sleep.
The FAA previously used “emotions” for this category, but since that has been incorporated into Stress, this important topic has been recognized. Maintaining stable blood sugar levels by eating complex carbohydrates and proteins in small steady amounts reduces the physiologic and psychological effects of hypoglycemia while preventing spikes in glucose levels. Hydration is important for optimal physiological and mental function. If thirst is present, an individual is already about one liter deficient in fluid intake. For aircraft without food prep areas and relief facilities, pilots tend to restrict food and fluid intake. While this may not be serious on short duration flights with adequate nutrition and hydration before takeoff, this strategy will compromise performance in longer duration flights. For my glider flights of 3-6 hours duration, I will have approximately 6 liters of fluid and 1000+ calories of nutrition to improve my performance when returning for a critical phase of flight, the landing.
We are all interested in flying safely and performing at optimum levels, both for the aircraft and the pilot. Let’s rigorously and consistently apply good aeronautical decision-making using checklists, both for the aircraft and the pilot. Remember that the pilot can fail in subtle and incremental ways. An honest assessment of our capabilities will ensure that I’M SAFE.
Fly safely and stay healthy,