One of the best parts of flying for a living is seeing the country and the world while somebody else pays the bill. One of the hardest parts of flying for a living is ensuring that your sleep needs are met. Unfortunately, the two issues are tied together.
When flying domestic routes, the biggest issue with sleep usually pertains to the hotel. The air conditioning may not work to your satisfaction; the pillows may not be hard or soft enough; there may be noise outside your room or outside the building that makes it difficult to sleep. The all-time favorite is the middle-of-the-night fire alarm that keeps you out of your room for an extended period of time (this has happened to me twice).
Sometimes, sleep is difficult to come by because of the schedule. Everybody handles the schedule variations differently. I tend to wake up at the same time every day no matter what time I go to bed, which means that if I finish exceptionally late, I have a difficult time sleeping in. Others can sleep anywhere at any time (I do not care for these people!). For cargo pilots, the challenge is being able to sleep during daylight hours when your body is used to being awake, and then staying awake potentially all night to fly.
It’s said that you should just sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry, and there is some truth to this. Short naps, taken whenever the time permits, will help. Learning how to nap effectively can be an art, but ear plugs and sleep masks can do wonders. Putting a blanket or a sheet over your body to mimic your night-time sleep also helps “trick” the body, as does removing your shoes. If you’re in a hotel, going through your entire bed-time routine—brushing your teeth, adjusting the temperature, taking a shower—can go a long way to catching a good sleep. It also helps if you can allow for at least two hours, so that your body can go through an entire REM sleep cycle.
On those nights that you can’t sleep well, be honest about the reason why. There’s no question that sleeping in a different city every night is a challenge, but if the issue is the hotel, try to fix it. Noise is probably the most common issue, followed by climate control. Try to address the issues with the front desk, and if that doesn’t work, move on to the approved process your company has, which may require the use of a fatigue call. Calling in fatigued is not something done lightly, because of the potential cancellations, but if it needs to be done, it needs to be done. The FAA takes fatigue seriously, and if the hotel is routinely one that causes problems, a few fatigue calls usually will generate a quick resolution. If the hotel is indeed the problem and you don’t say anything through approved channels to fix it, the problem won’t go away.
Sleep is a critical part of your health, and nobody knows better than you when you’ve had enough or are lacking. Listen to your body, learn the tricks of the trade, and don’t sacrifice your safety by short-changing your sleep.—Chip Wright