I recently had the opportunity to work at a high school career fair, and it was fun to hear what the kids’ first questions were. The most common one was “Why do this?” That’s pretty easy to answer, as the job is fun and provides great travel opportunities. But the most interesting question by far came from a young lady who asked me if the job had any health risks or hazards, which caught me off guard because it isn’t something I’d expect a high schooler to be overly concerned with.
That said, I was honest with her, and it also got me thinking about those very risks. As I explained to her, there are two that immediately come to mind: exposure to high-altitude radiation, which gives pilots an elevated risk of skin cancer, and the effect of numerous sleep disruptions. More airplanes than ever are being equipped with window shades that allow for an FAA-approved means of blocking the sun while keeping the cockpit cool. In airplanes not so equipped, pilots have learned how to fashion window shades using checklists, folders, flight plans, sandwich wrappers, you name it. Some pilots—not many, but a few—also use sunscreen to lower the risk of potential cancer.
Sleep disruption is a major health issue. Cargo pilots are obviously exposed to this to a greater degree than others, but we all have to deal with time zone changes at some point. Long-haul and ultra-long-haul pilots get the benefit of relief pilots and crew bunk rooms to allow for an adequate amount of rest. The rest of us are forced to use more conventional strategies, starting with trying to stay on the same time zone as much as possible, but this is easier said than done. I’m based on the East Coast, and I find that one night on the West Coast isn’t that hard for me to cope with, but if I have to spend two nights in the Pacific or Mountain Time Zones, I have a much harder time getting reacclimated to my regular sleep hours, no matter how hard I try to stay on Eastern time. Throw in the occasional hotel fire alarm or miscellaneous hotel noise, and sleep becomes a precious commodity.
Diet and exercise are two other major issues. Today, airport food options are better than they used to be, but fast food on the run is still fast food on the run, and a deliberate decision needs to be made to make sure you’re eating well and not just eating yummy. Diet goes together with sleep because it can be tempting to eat a late meal, which only compounds the sleep issue while adding to potential weight control problems.
Exercise must be deliberate and often planned in advance. Some hotel fitness centers are great, and some are…not so much. Resourceful pilots can often find a local gym to use for a per-use fee (some hotels prearrange this), and others take advantage of outdoor opportunities. I personally like to walk as much as possible, and I don’t mind taking the stairs. In fact, some folks will run stair wells in hotels as a form of exercise. Even simple steps like walking versus using moving walkways can help. Others will focus on getting their cardio work in while traveling, and focus on weights or strength training in their regular gyms, where the equipment is known and predictable.
Piloting, unfortunately, is often a sedentary lifestyle, and it’s easy to find yourself gaining weight and taking the easy way out. Make it a priority to keep in shape, to watch your diet, and to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Your livelihood and your medical depend on it.