Checklist: Your Physical Flight Readiness

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With more flight experience comes more confidence. However, sometimes an unfortunate byproduct of confidence after logging hundreds or thousands of flight hours is laziness and cockiness, both of which can get you into trouble.

To ensure you don’t suffer from the “It won’t happen to me” syndrome, the following is a checklist from what may be the first acronym you ever learned as a pilot, but completely forgot about.

The infamous “I’M SAFE” checklist is certainly a phrase that may sound familiar, but remembering what each letter stands for may throw you for a loop. 

Whether it’s your first-time hearing this acronym, or your first time in ages, the following checklist serves as a reminder that your airworthiness at the most fundamental level is more important than the airworthiness of any sophisticated business jet.

Just because you hold an unexpired first-class medical certificate does not mean you can fly if you are feeling ill. Even a cold, allergies and other common illnesses are enough to cause problems that are easy to overlook. For example, when coughing and sneezing subside after a non-serious illness, a pilot may still have trouble performing the Valsalva maneuver, the breathing technique used to equalize the pressure inside one’s ears. A minor illness on the ground does not necessarily translate into a minor illness in the air, where a pilot truly needs to be on top of everything.

This goes hand in hand with illness. It is always a good idea to discuss the safety and legality of certain medications with a local Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). Pilots need to be aware of any short-term or long-term effects of medication that can impair their ability to fly. Even after a medication has been stopped, its effects may remain in the body for some time. A common question is how long a pilot should wait after taking a medication to fly. Though this answer may vary depending on the medication, the FAA recommends waiting until at least five dosage periods have passed. 

Stress truly can affect your physical health like any other illness. Within this category, there are three types of stress pilots should be aware of:

  • Physiological Stress – This is the physical component of stress. Examples include being out of shape, having a poor diet, or even exercising too much! Switching time zones too frequently is another source that can contribute to this type of stress.
  • Environmental Stress – Perhaps you’re pre-flighting your aircraft in Las Vegas and it’s over 110 deg. outside, or maybe you flew into Lake Tahoe and aren’t acclimated to the high altitude. These are examples of environmental stress.
  • Psychological Stress – This is what usually comes to mind when people hear the word “stress.” Worries about money and significant others are classic examples. Issues people deal with in their personal lives can easily leak into their professional lives, and when one’s professional life has others’ lives in their hands, it must be taken very seriously.

It’s important to remember a small amount of stress can be a good thing to keep pilots on their toes, but there is certainly a level of it that makes people unfit to fly.

Probably the most obvious part of this checklist. If you are hungover, don’t fly. Even if you had a sip of alcohol within eight hours of flying, don’t fly. “8 hours from bottle to throttle,” is not just a catchy phrase, it is a regulation that is taken very seriously.

Sleep is essential to function properly, however much like stress, everyone has different tolerances. Some people can function perfectly with 4 hr. of sleep, while others require 10 hr. per night. This section is one that really requires a pilot to self-evaluate, as there is no minimum requirement that sets a hard boundary, unlike the bottle to throttle rule. This is also an area that has been under much scrutiny for commercial pilot employers, who have been criticized for stretching their pilots too thin. Regardless, if you are fatigued, your performance will be affected, don’t be afraid to speak up if this is the case.

A safe pilot must have the ability to see themselves objectively. Everyone has days where they are irritable, impatient, angry, or sad, and it is acceptable to acknowledge this as being a valid reason to not fly. Just like everything else listed above, our emotions and the power of the mind can derail any safe operation.

If any one of these items is not fulfilled, don’t go flying. It doesn’t matter how much you’re getting paid or who the flight is for, it will pass. Even though some of these items may be challenging to judge, they should be treated with the same seriousness as the minimums on an ILS.

For those who may not have thought about this checklist in a while, hopefully, this represents more than just a distant memory. The acronym may be cheesy, but its importance is immeasurable.