Fitness for Flight


  • In addition to obtaining a medical certificate determining overall fitness for flight, it is an important self-evaluation that every pilot must conduct prior to any flight operation
  • Aircraft accident statistics show that pilots should be conducting preflight checklists on themselves as well as their aircraft for pilot impairment contributes to many more accidents than failures of aircraft systems
  • The IM-SAFE checklist is designed to make you check yourself as any of these factors individually or in combination, significantly degrade decision making and flying abilities:
    • Illness Do I have any symptoms?
    • Medication Have I been taking prescription over-the-counter drugs?
    • Stress Am I under psychological pressure from the job? Do I have money, health, or family problems?
    • Alcohol Have I been drinking within 8 hours? Within 24 hours?
    • Fatigue Am I tired and not adequately rested?
    • Eating/Emotion Have I eaten enough of the proper foods to keep adequately nourished during the entire flight? Is my head in the right place?


  • Even a minor illness suffered in day-to-day living can seriously degrade performance of many piloting tasks vital to safe flight. Illness can produce fever and distracting symptoms that can impair judgment, memory, alertness, and the ability to make calculations
    • Although symptoms from an illness may be under adequate control with a medication, the medication itself may decrease pilot performance
  • Sinus block can seriously damage ears and nasal passage (could lose medical)
  • Pilots should not fly until free from all illness
    • The pilot should contact an Aviation Medical Examiner for any further advice


  • Pilot performance can be seriously degraded by both prescribed and over-the-counter medications, as well as by the medical conditions for which they are taken
  • Many medications, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, strong pain relievers, and cough-suppressant preparations, have primary effects that may impair judgment, memory, alertness, coordination, vision, and the ability to make calculations
  • Others, such as antihistamines, blood pressure drugs, muscle relaxants, and agents to control diarrhea and motion sickness, have side effects that may impair the same critical functions
  • Any medication that depresses the nervous system, such as a sedative, tranquilizer or antihistamine, can make a pilot much more susceptible to hypoxia
  • FAR 91.17 prohibits pilots from performing crew-member duties while using any medication that affects the faculties in any way contrary to safety
    • The safest rule is not to fly as a crew-member while taking any medication, unless approved to do so by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
    • The pilot should contact an Aviation Medical Examiner for any further advice
Instrument Flying Handbook. Figure 1-10, Performance and Stress
Figure 1: Instrument Flying Handbook,
Performance and Stress


  • Stress is the body's response to demands placed upon it
  • Pressures of everyday living can occupy thought process to block out alertness in the cockpit in subtle ways
  • Difficulties, particularly at work, can occupy thought processes enough to markedly decrease alertness
    • Distraction can so interfere with judgment that unwarranted risks are taken, such as flying into deteriorating weather conditions to keep on schedule
    • Stress and fatigue (see below) can be an extremely hazardous combination
  • Initially it can actually provide a heightened awareness and increase in performance
  • It is important that when you reach your limit (which EVERYONE has) that you call it appropriately
  • Continuous additions of stress will result in a decrease in performance which interfere with judgment that result in unwarranted risks being taken
  • Most pilots do not leave stress "on the ground" and therefore, when more than usual difficulties are being experienced, a pilot should consider delaying flight until these difficulties are satisfactorily resolved
  • Additionally, some in flight occurrences can add to the stress creating an even worse problem
  • Stress and fatigue can be a deadly combination
  • Indicators of excessive stress often show as:
    • Emotional: denial, suspicion, paranoia, agitation, restlessness, or defensiveness
    • Physical: results in acute fatigue
    • Behavioral: sensitivity to criticism, tendency to be argumentative, arrogance, and hostility
  • Techniques that can help reduce stress:
    1. Become knowledgeable about stress
    2. Take a realistic self-assessment (See the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge)
    3. Take a systematic approach to problem solving
    4. Develop a lifestyle that will buffer against the effects of stress
    5. Practice behavior management techniques
    6. Establish and maintain a strong support network
  • Good flight deck stress management begins with good life stress management:
    • Avoid situations that distract from flying the aircraft
    • Reduce flight deck workload to reduce stress levels
    • If a problem occurs, remain calm
    • Become thoroughly familiar with the aircraft, its operation, and emergency procedures
    • Know and respect personal limits
    • If flying adds stress, either stop flying or seek professional help to manage stress within acceptable limits


  • Extensive research has provided a number of facts about the hazards of alcohol consumption and flying:
    • As little as one ounce of liquor, one bottle of beer or four ounces of wine can impair flying skills, with the alcohol consumed in these drinks being detectable in the breath and blood for at least 3 hours
    • Even after the body completely metabolizes a moderate amount of alcohol, a pilot can still be severely impaired for many hours by hangover
    • There is no way of increasing the destruction of alcohol or alleviating a hangover
    • Alcohol renders a pilot much more susceptible to disorientation and hypoxia
  • A consistently high alcohol related fatal aircraft accident rate serves to emphasize that alcohol and flying are a potentially lethal combination
  • FAR 91.17 prohibits pilots from performing crew-member duties:
    • For at least 8 hrs after last drink ("bottle to throttle")
    • While under the influence of alcohol (possibly greater than 8 hours)
    • While having an alcoholic concentration of 0.04 or greater in the blood or breath specimen
      • Concentration means grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood or grams per 210 liters of breath
    • Therefore, an excellent rule is to allow at least 12 to 24 hours between "bottle and throttle," depending on the amount of alcoholic beverage consumed
  • Except in an emergency, no pilot of a civil aircraft may allow a person who appears to be intoxicated or who demonstrates by manner or physical indications that the individual is under the influence of drugs (except a medical patient under proper care) to be carried in that aircraft
  • A crew member shall:
    • On request of a law enforcement officer, submit to a test to indicate alcohol concentration in the blood or breath
    • Furnish to the FAA or Administrator, upon their request, the results or authorize its release of tests taken within 4 hours after acting or attempting to act as a crew member
      • Any test information obtained by the Administrator under paragraph (c) or (d) of this section may be evaluated in determining a person's qualifications for any airman certificate or possible violations of this chapter and may be used as evidence in any legal proceeding under section 602, 609, or 901 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958
  • Under 14 CFR 61.15, all pilots must send a Notification Letter (MS Word) to FAA’s Security and Investigations Division within 60 calendar days of the effective date of an alcohol-related conviction or administrative action


  • Fatigue continues to be one of the most treacherous hazards to flight safety, as it may not be apparent to a pilot until serious errors are made
  • There are no real ways to measure your level of fatigue
  • Fatigue produces a decline in a variety of measures of performance similar to the effects of alcohol intoxication and other substances which affect mentation
  • High level mental activities such as complex decision making and planning suffer most, whereas simple well-practiced skills are less sensitive to fatigue
  • Described as either acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term)
    • Acute Fatigue:
      • Normal occurrence of everyday living
      • The tiredness felt from physical/mental strain, emotional pressure, immobility/monotony, lack of sleep
      • Coordination and alertness can be GREATLY reduced
      • Adequate rest, regular exercise, and proper nutrition prevent acute fatigue
      • Signs of acute fatigue:
        • Misplacing items during the preflight
        • Leaving material (pencils, charts in the planning area
        • Missing radio calls
        • Answering calls improperly (read-backs)
        • Improper tuning of frequencies
      • Acute fatigue is prevented by adequate rest and sleep, as well as by regular exercise and proper nutrition
    • Chronic:
      • Occurs when there is not enough time for full recovery between periods of acute fatigue
      • Performance continues to fall off, and judgment becomes impaired so that unwarranted risks may be taken
      • The underlying cause is generally not rest-related and may have deeper points of origin
      • Chronic fatigue is a combination of both physiological problems and psychological issues
        • Can be caused by financial, home life, or job related stress
      • Recovery from chronic fatigue requires a prolonged period of rest
  • Circadian Rhythms:
    • Sleep is the body's mechanism of restoring the fatigued brain to peak energy and performance
    • Sleep architecture is complex, and consists of different stages of activity (REM and non-REM sleep)
    • Sleep needs are genetically determined; most people require 8 to 8 14 hours sleep/night
    • Circadian ("about-a-day") rhythms govern all activities of the body, and are synchronized with daytime light exposure and activity levels
    • Sleep induction, maintenance, and termination are tied to circadian rhythms
      • The effect of the alerting circadian rhythm is to boost the brain's alertness during the day while fatigue accumulates, and induce and maintain sleep at night while the brain recovers
    • Shifts in time zones will disrupt circadian rhythms, and require a varying time to resynchronize
      • During this disruption, fatigue levels will be unpredictable, sleep efficiency will be reduced, and performance will degrade unpredictably
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA):
    • OSA is now recognized as an important preventable factor identified in transportation accidents
    • OSA interrupts the normal restorative sleep necessary for normal functioning and is associated with chronic illnesses such as hypertension, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes
    • Symptoms include snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, intermittent prolonged breathing pauses while sleeping, memory impairment and lack of concentration
    • There are many available treatments which can reverse the day time symptoms, reduce the chance of an accident and most treatments are acceptable for medical certification upon demonstrating effective treatment
    • If you have any symptoms described above, or neck size over 17 inches in men or 16 inches in women, or a body mass index greater than 30 you should be evaluated for sleep apnea by a sleep medicine specialist ( bmi/adult_bmi/english_bmi_calculator/bmi_calculator.html)
    • With treatment you can avoid or delay the onset of these chronic illnesses and prolong a quality life


  • Similar to stress type indications
  • Upsetting events such a serious argument, a death, a break-up, job loss, or financial catastrophe can lead to risks which render a pilot unable to fly an aircraft safely
  • The emotions of anger, depression, and anxiety from such events not only decrease alertness but also may lead to taking risks that border on self-destruction
  • Pilots experiencing an emotionally upsetting event should not fly until satisfactorily recovered from it
FAA/Industry Training Standards Personal and Weather Risk Assessment Guide. Appendix B, Personal Minimums Checklist Page 1
Figure 2: FAA/Industry Training Standards Personal and Weather Risk Assessment Guide,
Appendix B, Personal Minimums Checklist Page 1
FAA/Industry Training Standards Personal and Weather Risk Assessment Guide. Appendix B, Personal Minimums Checklist Page 2
Figure 3: FAA/Industry Training Standards Personal and Weather Risk Assessment Guide,
Appendix B, Personal Minimums Checklist Page 2

Case Studies:

  • NTSB Identification: MIA94FA148: The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot's impairment of judgment and performance due to alcohol and drugs, which led to his improper planning/decision, and his failure to maintain adequate airspeed during a maneuver
  • NTSB Identification: CEN12FA571: The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The student pilot’s impairment from alcohol, marijuana, and hypoxia, which adversely affected his ability to maintain control of the airplane


  • These Physiological and psychological factors can affect a pilot and compromise the safety of a flight
  • This is the first link in the chain of events that, if ignored, could lead to a mishap
  • Aircraft accident statistics show that pilots should be conducting preflight checklists on themselves as well as their aircraft for pilot impairment contributes to many more accidents than failures of aircraft systems
  • The IM SAFE checklist is your last line of defense in determining if you are mentally and physically fit to conduct the flight