Real Answers from Real Pilots

How do pilots stay awake on late night and overnight flights?

How do commercial airline pilots keep themselves awake when flying very late or overnight flights? I’m considering starting down the path of becoming a commercial pilot, but I have a really hard time staying awake late at night and I’m worried that I might not be able to take a schedule that includes many late flights.

I generally consider myself a morning person and can wake up and be very functional at early hours, but I don’t see how I would ever be able to pilot a flight that required me to fly overnight without sleeping. Does that mean this is a bad career option for me?

Thanks in advance for the input and advice!

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Hello and Welcome! (Not sure what to call you but sorry it won’t be drdubs)

What your asking is a legitimate concern and actually a challenge I face on a regular basis. I too am a morning person and have no issues waking up in the wee hours but as soon as the sun goes down I seriously start fading. So what do we do? There are many techniques pilots have developed to deal with working outside the bodies normal hours of operation (humans are not by nature nocturnal). Caffeine of course is a big one, whether it’s coffee, tea or Coke, you’ll find most pilots pounding one of them. Another common practice is simply keeping occupied. Reading, conversation, etc are all common ways to keep alert. The goal is to stay awake but also still be focused on the task at hand which is flying the plane and not get too distracted. If I know I’m doing a late trip or a redeye I’ll try and stay up late and sleep longer the days prior. I also like to keep the cockpit lights up bright and the temperature cool. A dark, warm cockpit with the drone of the engines is not conducive to keeping awake. I won’t lie it can be difficult and a challenge but humans are incredible adaptive and with some good habits and practices you can overcome your bodies natural rhythm. That and LOTS of caffeine!

Adam

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For me staying awake late at night has been a bit of a learning curve. At first it tired me out more than it does now. Over time I have gotten better about taking day time naps before all-nighters. During the flights themselves I use caffeine (Coca-Cola) when I get tired to give me a bit of a boost. At some point though, I just had to train my body to be able to operate in a reasonable manner while tired.

On the long international flights we have extra crew members that enable us to take breaks and catch a few hours of sleep, but those breaks are only a few hours long. On the domestic red eye flights there are no relief pilots.

Whether this is a good career for you or not is really up to you. I will say that airline pilots work at all hours of the day and night and the schedules are not always consistent. I would suspect that over time you would be able to train your body to function at all hours, but only you can make that call.

Chris

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Thanks, Chris and Adam, for getting back to me so quickly with honest replies. It sounds like I’ll need to be a bit more strategic about my caffeine intake to make this work. I really appreciate your help here and on posts across the site!

David

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FYI David, in line with our conversation I was just assigned this trip for tomorrow evening.

Flt 4 HNL-LAX 2320 Dep - 0740 Arr. If you’re not comfy with Military/24hr clock format that’s 11:20pm departure / 07:40am arrival. Good times!

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“I had a 5am show and finished near midnight”…Wah wah wah poor Eric! Dude did you see my redeye for tomorrow?!? 2320 DEPARTURE 0740 ARRIVAL!?!

You RJ guys are soft! :wink:

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No problem! Keep asking your questions as you think of them.

Chris.

Wow, that sounds like a particularly rough one! On a very practical note, what’s your strategy for making sure you stay awake on that overnight flight when you have only one day of advance notice?

I understand that, ideally, you’d want to try to adjust your body clock for a few days leading up to the flight, but that’s not possible in this situation. Do you just drink caffeine all the way through the flight and sleep when you land?

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David,

What I do is wake up extra early this am so I’m tired enough to take a nap late this afternoon. Beyond that it’s caffeine. Another new technique I discovered by accident (courtesy of my son) is chewing Grenades gum (yes I’m serious). If you’re not familiar with Grenades, it’s REALLY strong mint gum. It’s so potent it blows out my sinuses and actually really keeps me awake. Gotta do whatcha gotta do.

Adam

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Hey Thomas,

Honestly when I was at the Regionals it really wasn’t that bad. First ExpressJet had no redeyes. While there were some early am’s (which I actually prefer) and some late nights that wasn’t the bulk of the flying. What you need to understand is most Majors use their Regional partners to feed their hubs. For example you bring the passengers from Nashville to JFK for the European flights and from Boise to LAX for the Asian flights and those fly all night. Also keep in mind most RJ’s max range is 3-4 hrs so redeyes don’t make sense and you can’t go coast to coast. What’s also important to understand is what seniority affords you the ability to get what’s “popular”. If per chance your preference is different than everyone else’s things really aren’t that bad. When I was at ExpressJet EWR was their junior base. Well I live in NY and that’s where I wanted to be so holding EWR was easy. Most of the new (young guys) liked to sleep in so early am’s went junior. As I said I like the early ones so again I got what I like. All EWR pilots hated going to Mexico, I LOVE it and went every week, make sense?

Now when it comes to the Majors the overnight flights again aren’t necessarily junior either. Due to the available slots and time zones most of your European or Asian/South Pacific trips will be redeyes or overnights. Again good trips and schedules are a subjective thing. Seniority again allows you to get what the majority considers “good”. What’s that? HOLIDAYS. Most EVERYBODY wants Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving off. Even if you’re not religious chances are if you’ve got kids it’s when they’re off from school. The short answer is I wouldn’t plan on being off for any Major holidays for a while. Unless of course you convert to Judaism. I’ve never had trouble getting Purim or Yom Kippur off :wink:

Adam

Thomas,

While the junior pilots certainly get the less desirable trips, all pilots are covered by FAA rules that mandate certain criteria for rest. The FAA introduced new rules a few years back that have made that criteria even better than before. There are no 18 hour days, triple shifts, or anything crazy like you hear about from the medical community.

As your seniority improves you will be able to hold better trips, which generally means longer flights. At United trips with longer flights tend to have longer overnights, so yes things improve as you get more senior.

As to holidays, you should plan on working most of them for the first several years at an airline. That being said, when I was with ExpressJet I was able to bid trips that had long overnights in my home city over Christmas, so while I was technically “at work” I was really home for Christmas. This year will be my 10th Christmas with United, I think I have had six of my Christmases off.

Chris

Thomas,

I do not personally know anybody who has gone to fly for the foreign carriers, with the exception of my uncle. He described it as a very tough environment where pilots are not protected like they are in the US. He was rather happy to return to his job stateside.

In the US we are pretty well protected on the fatigue front now. Sure, there are sometimes long and hard days, but the new FAA rules have made it a lot better than it was even when I got hired.

Chris

Thomas,

I have a number of friends flying for foreign carriers in the Middle East and Asia (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Hainan and Tianjin). Some are very happy, others not so much. As far as rest and work rules in general go there are a few potential problems there, the biggest is enforcement. While I’ve never been a huge fan of the pilot’s union, this is one area we’re they’re tremendously beneficial. China for example actually has stricter rest rules than the US does. Problem is if the company violates them you really have no recourse and since the contracts are terribly one sided they can basically fire you for anything including saying you’re too tired. As for the Middle East the airlines are all gov’t run and when I say gov’t that generally means kingdom. While I haven’t heard rest being a big complaint in the Middle East, again if the company works you too hard you really have no recourse. Actually the biggest complaints I’ve heard from my friends in the desert is that a) you’re living in the desert and b) it ain’t the good old US of A and many of the freedoms we take for granted could land you in prison, fired or both. On the flip side the pay is fantastic and as an ex-pat you’re paying minimal taxes so you keep what you make. Virtually every pilot I know who has gone out there has either returned or plans to after a few years. But everyone is different and again some really enjoy the uniqueness of the experience. Your call?

Adam

Thomas my friend,

You may have heard me (or someone else) on this forum say “Seniority is Everything” in the airline industry and it’s true. The word is seniority which is not to be confused with experience. You could be a SENIOR A380 Capt at Emirates, a 747 Capt at Cathay or a Space Shuttle commander for NASA, while you may have a lifetime of experience, when you leave that company and get hired by ANY US carrier you are a day 1 FO making the same salary as the guy or gal next to you in class who flew an RJ the week before. Seniority is solely based on your date of hire at THAT airline. What, where and how long you flew before then is completely irrelevant.

I know pilots who were overseas 6 mos and others who plan to stay there forever. It comes down to what’s important to you. That said the majority of pilots I know usually do 3-5 yrs.

Adam

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Absolutely. Most pilots get to a major and stay planted there unless something rather unfortunate uproots them. With any kind of luck I will work for United for forty years before I retire.

Chris

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Flying for a Major, the best way I found to manage sleep with an impending Red Eye was to try to stay up late the night before, sleep as long as I could the day of and try like heck to get a two hour nap in the late afternoon/early evening. From what I’ve read, if you nap, you either want to shoot for no more than 30 minutes or no less than 2 hours. You enter REM sleep (the most restful sleep) 45 minutes in and it lasts about 45 minutes. If you wake up during REM sleep, you will mostly likely wake up tired and more fatigued than when you laid down. Also a 30 minute nap has the same effect as two hours sleep at night. Coffee and Coke Zero were my saviors too. Energy drinks work but you have to manage the ‘come down crash’ after. Studies have shown that a strong mint, think altoids, help keep you stimulated too.

Fly Safe!

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Ja,
thanks you two. The circadian rhythm issue is certainly the deciding factor for a lot of people including me who hate irregular working hours. Thank you so much for the share. I will not continue to chase this career path then.