KCRG-TV: Fighting Pilot Fatigue

Saturday, February 20, 2010

By Jami Brinton

To view video, go to http://www.kcrg.com/news/local/84803262.html.

Worst case scenario: fatigue can contribute to catastrophic crashes like this one in Buffalo, New York last year. All 49 people aboard died, plus one man on the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board said one of the pilots was likely fatigued and should've been able to prevent the crash.

The University of Iowa is just beginning a $120,000 project funded by NASA to hopefully prevent pilot fatigue.

Researchers inside the U-I’s Operator Performance Laboratory Flight Ops center at the Iowa City Municipal Airport are focused on fighting pilot fatigue.

Dr. Thomas Schnell – a pilot himself – is leading the charge to figure at when a pilot becomes fatigued.

Better aircraft technology means pilots frequently have down time.

“So right now you can see that the crew isn't really doing anything,” explained Dr. Schnell, an associate professor of industrial engineering, while directing two student pilots taking a mock-flight to Chicago. “The auto pilot takes care of business so-to-speak. This is a place where you can get really fatigued because there’s not much to do."

So, sometimes pilots can drift off which could lead to inadequate preparation for landing or deviating from the flight path

Fatigue isn't only a problem while in the sky; it can start long before the pilot arrives at work.

"They may have to travel across the country,” said Dr. Schnell. “Travel up to 1,000 miles to get to their place of work. Of course, when they get there there’s already fatigue that came from the trip itself."

Delays caused by mechanical malfunctions and weather as well as inadequate sleep can contribute to tiredness, too.

For the next two years, Schnell will try to identify when a pilot is tired while flying.

“We want to catch the problem become it comes at all,” said Dr. Schnell.

Part of the study will monitor a pilot's eye movement, specifically watching blinking frequency, eye aperture, and changes in what the pilot looks at during the flight.

Researchers will also monitor heart rates and brain waves.

Dr. Schnell has already come up with one suggested way pilots could fight fatigue: let them take a short nap in the cockpit.

To do this, Dr. Schnell recommends deploying new technology in the second pilot in the aircraft that would not allow him to also fall asleep.

It's an unusual approach that Dr. Schnell believes could help.

Dr. Schnell believes another way to reduce pilot fatigue - especially for those small, commuter airline pilots - is pay them more. He said those pilots often sleep in airports to save money and discount airline fares are only contributing to that problem.