I did not go flying last weekend despite the gorgeous weather. Not even last week. It was not for want to do so. It was because I flunked a test.
What test can a pilot at my experience level flunk that could ground me? The FAA’s IMSAFE test, that’s what. The pithy mnemonic stands for:
Illness – Is the pilot suffering from any illness or symptom of an illness which might affect them in flight,
Medication – Is the pilot currently taking any drugs (prescription or over-the-counter),
Stress – Psychological or emotional factors which might affect the pilot’s performance,
Alcohol – What has the pilot consumed within the last 8 to 24 hours,
Fatigue – Has the pilot had sufficient sleep and rest in the recent past, and
Eating – Is the pilot sufficiently nourished?
It seems like a simple test that every pilot can perform, but it only works when we are honest about it (NTSB accident reports reveal that is sometimes not the case).
When I ran the test last week item #1 doomed me. I had a nasty case of the common cold. At first it was a tickle in my throat, then a burning in my ears that carried through each swallow. And then I woke up and I simply could not breathe through my nose, my chest ached and felt like I’d been left for dead by the side of the road. No fever. Just malaise. Ugh.
I had two “really want to go” flying trips and two that were flexible last week. I considered medication. I even went online to AOPA.org’s Online Medications database and looked up the many possible medications that I might take to relieve my symptoms without risking the wrath of the FAA coming down upon me.
The database is extensive (although its disclaimer is quick to tell you it is neither guaranteed nor complete), and pinging it for “cures” to the common cold gave me a few ideas, even as it warned me off a few, too. For instance, who knew that heavily advertised Zyrtec is limited to two (2) weekly doses and a 48-hour waiting period post-dosing before flying? That was useless to me: the drug only works for 24 hours at a time. Nyquil was out, too, requiring a 60-hour wait before flight. The old standby Sudafed was in there, but not so easy to get (it sits behind the pharmacist’s counter these days).
In the end I stuck it out with Vick’s VapoRub, vitamin C and chicken soup. I succumbed to Nyquil a couple of nights, too, just to catch some healing winks.
Oh, and I did not fly, at least until the weekend, when I was beginning to feel better. I tested the air by asking my regular co-pilot to be PIC for me on a short, low-altitude journey. The leg out went fine, but the leg back? As we began to descend back to our home field I heard a crackling, and then one ear went muted. It “hung” at 1,000 feet agl, even as my pilot deftly touched wheels to grass at home. The pressure hurt. Experiment results? Failure. I was not ready to be PIC, in fact I should not have gone up at all, even as a passenger.
One dose of decongestant brought the ear back to sea level and no permanent harm was done. My co-pilot turned-PIC flew off a couple of hours later to cover for me at my last obligation of the week. Sorry guys.
As I type this I am breathing easy and free again without medication, and I’m ready to give flight another try. This time, however, there is no doubt in my mind—IMSAFE today. Are you?