Health of a pilot

Hey Everyone,

I know that being a pilot has a lot of responsibilities not only to themselves but also the souls behind him while in the air. One of the main elements of being responsible as a pilot is to be healthy, however, due to the nature of the career, pilots can have an irregular schedule thus affecting his/her resting period and so on. So I have a few questions regarding how do you maintain your health.

  1. Does staying in the air for a substantial amount of time actually affect your health?

  2. Since a sufficient amount of sleep is a priority for pilots, how do pilots adjust to different time zones to get better sleep?

  3. How do pilots stay in “pilot shape”, do they discipline themselves physically or psychologically in order to get ready for the amount of work that is required from a pilot?


Hi Charles,

Really good questions and yes health is essential to your career as a pilot. Not only are you required to maintain a First Class medical which at means an exam every 6 mos at my age (12mos if you’re under 40), it’s also a responsibility as you may have 300+ people counting on you not to keel over. So let’s go…

  1. Yes. There have been many studies done on the effects of extended periods of time spent at altitude. Increased exposure to UV rays, breathing dry air and simply not moving for 6+ hrs at a time are things that just aren’t good for the human body. That’s said there are mitigations. It’s very important to stay hydrated and most pilots consume large amounts of fluids throughout the flight (or should). Many either bring sunshades for the windows or apply sunblock to help with the rays. Finally it’s important to get up and at least walk around some. Fortunately most larger aircraft have cockpits large enough for you to get up and stretch etc. All good practices.

  2. Pilots have many strategies for dealing with time zones. Some take melatonin, some try and stay up and acclimate to the new zone. There are many. Personally I just listen to my body and when I’m tired I sleep. Fortunately on the long haul flights (where we require an augmented crew) we actually have bunks where you can actually get some good rest.

  3. “Pilot shape” is a relative term. If you look around the airport I sure you’ll see a variety of pilots in a variety of shapes (from fit to obese). Again it’s up to the individual. It can be challenging sometimes particularly when it comes to meals and working out but it’s really important if you want to keep flying till 65. With some discipline and creativity it’s generally not that bad.


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Thanks Adam, some great insights there!

I’d like to ask what happens when a pilot, who has had a long and successful career, suddenly discovers he’s seriously ill. Here’s the scenario, and I’m throwing out all the details I know because I don’t know what’s relevant:

Captain for a major airline, age 59, degree in aviation, flying longer than he’s been driving, decent seniority though not as good as it should be due to mergers, has recently been diagnosed with follicular lymphoma (a type of non-Hogkins lymphoma).

Follicular lymphoma, as I understand it, is chronic but it responds well to treatment, if it’s treated initially at all. Doctors may choose a watch-and-wait approach at the start. If chemo and/or radiation is warranted, this type of cancer goes into remission and could very likely stay that way for years. Eventually, though, it does return, at which point it can be treated again. Of course, at that point you’re balancing the cancer vs. the toxicity of the treatments.

I realize you all aren’t AMEs and can only answer very generally, but as pilots who may one day be confronted with something like this, what does a diagnosis like this mean to you? Is it career-ending? My time spent lurking here has taught me enough that I wince at that aviation degree now.

Thank you so much for listening.


These questions are really outside of our wheel house and would need to be addressed to a medical examiner.


I totally understand. I’m just not in this profession at all and thought maybe you could give me some insight. I don’t want you to step outside your purview, though. Thanks anyway. :slight_smile:

I would assume that his first class medical would be pulled, but if he still has a current CFI he could still instruct anyone who can act as PIC, i.e. instrument (if CFII)/commercial students, flight reviews, IPCs, etc. even without a medical.

Thanks for your response, Tristan. I did suggest that as a possible alternative, and my friend looked at me in shock. I didn’t understand why because I’m a teacher, and I happen to think that instructing is a valuable and honorable vocation. Then he said that in this profession, one becomes an instructor right out of flight school. I didn’t understand that either as it seemed counter-intuitive. I figured the seasoned pilots would be the instructors, not the newbies. I’ve come to understand the system a lot better reading around the discussions here. I guess, to him, it seems like a loss of everything he’s gained.

Thanks again. :slight_smile:


As Chris said none of us are AMEs but I have been doing this a while and sadly know more than a few pilots who’ve gotten sick. You give some pretty specific info my answer will be much more generic. In short if there’s ever ANY question as to the pilot’s “fitness to fly” that pilot will not be. That can pertain to the illness and/or the effects of treatment and meds. In most cases the pilot will lose their medical and depending on the airline and the pilot’s own planning, the pilot will go on some sort of sick leave, VEBA, etc. That of course is based on the premise there’s a chance they can recover and get there medical back. If not then they’re probably going to take an early retirement or find some other job in aviation. If however there is a chance of recovery and they do, they’re welcome to reapply and with sufficient support from their physicians, can get their medical back and return to flying.

Again this is very generic but hopefully gives you some insight.


Thank you, Adam. A generic response, yes, but still very helpful; I really appreciate your taking the time to respond. :slight_smile:

Something I’ve been generally wondering:

What happens to a pilot’s seniority if they have to take a year or so off for medical treatment? Where are they when (hopefully) they’re ready to come back? Is their place in the seniority line more or less where it was when they left, or have they lost ground as working pilots surpass them and will therefore have less attractive schedules, etc?



Different airlines rules may vary but the short answer is pilots out on medical retain their seniority. There may be some point (after years perhaps) they stay getting bypassed but that’s rare.


Thanks, Adam! :slight_smile:


I have been out on medical leave a few times over the years, my seniority continues right along the same lines as if I were there. A seniority number is sacred at the airlines, nothing can change one’s order on the list.


Great to know. Thanks, Chris!

Hi Chris (and anyone else), following up on your reply, another question occurs to me:

If a pilot is out on an extended medical leave, is there a point at which the FAA (or the pilot’s airline) requires retraining or a refresher of some kind? If so, where is that point? After a six-month leave? A year? Longer? Or is that sort of thing left up to the individual pilot as they feel the need? Based on what I’ve heard Adam say about a pilot’s fitness to fly being paramount, I’m guessing it’s probably not left up to the individual to determine, but how then is that fitness assessed? The docs can sign off on the physical readiness, but what about the skills?



First and foremost all airline pilots must remain “current” which means a minimum of 3 takeoffs and landings within the last 90 days. Beyond that it really depends on the airline’s arrangement with the FAA.

Most airlines require recurrent training every 12mos but some are on a 9mos cycle. Regardless if you’re still legal within the prescribed cycle then you’re good, if not you’ll simply require recurrent. Beyond that you will require requal training.



Ninety days. After that a pilot will need to go back to the simulator for more practice landings. After six months it becomes a bit longer and after twelve months, that pilot will require full retraining.


Sorry, did you mean to type “two months” at the end? At what point is full retraining required? And does that mean going through the whole ATP (or equivalent) program again?

I’m not sure what Chris meant but no a pilot never has to go through all their training due to an illness or lapse of currency. If however a pilot has a VERY bad day at work by doing something reckless/negligent, or maybe attempts to operate “under the influence”, the FAA can strip them off their licenses in which case they would have to try and get them restored by going through all their training.

Pilot licenses and ratings are good for life. Again it’s a matter of currency and the amount of retraining required due to letting it lapse.