IMSAFE: Are you fit to fly today?

You may be familiar with the IMSAFE checklist, but don’t forget these lesser-known factors for each letter.


Every important aircraft system has checklists for normal, abnormal, and emergency operations, and as the system most integral for flight, the pilot is no exception. You’re likely familiar with, and may even use the IMSAFE checklist, and yet, hazardous attitudes toward go/no-go decisions remain a contributing factor in accidents where the pilot was too fatigued, too distracted, or too ill to safely perform all flight duties.

Take a moment to reevaluate how you approach the IMSAFE checklist (or other personal fit-to-fly checklist), and consider new, lesser-thought-of factors for each letter of the mnemonic the next time you run through the checklist.

Illness

Of course, if you’re very sick, you know it. Flu? Vomiting? Definitely don’t fly. But it is far too easy to dismiss other, smaller signs of illness that may impact a flight. After all, you might go into a ground-based job with a headache or a small cough, right? So, why miss a flight with the same symptoms?

Well, because conditions that seem small on the ground can easily worsen in flight. A headache could be a sign of sinus problems that will amplify as you gain altitude. A cough could make the battle against hypoxia even more difficult. Are your allergies acting up? Do you feel unnecessarily hot or cold or weak or sweaty? Take time to reevaluate before you take to the air. That doesn’t mean cancel your flight every time you sneeze--rather, be brutally honest with yourself and your condition. Often, if you’re taking over-the-counter medication for it, you shouldn’t be flying in the first place. Which brings us to the “M” of the acronym:

Medications

You know already to get any new prescription medication checked out by your AME, along with the condition requiring it. But, similar to illness, don’t assume you’re good to go if you have the major medications covered. Over-the-counter medication can cause problems with in-flight decision-making capabilities as well, even seemingly innocuous drugs such as Benadryl. Check with the appropriate authority to ensure whatever you’re taking will not inhibit your ability to fly, but also be aware that if you have to take something at all, you may have already glossed over something important in the “I” of “IMSAFE.”

For those already taking medication, remember:

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Stress

When we talk about stress, we usually focus in on the physiological and psychological aspects: factors such as major life events, troubles at home, long-term fatigue, or illnesses. But a third factor, environmental stress, also can come into play in the cockpit. Take a moment before you begin flight duty and ensure you are as comfortable as you can be. This may mean adjusting the temperature, taking a moment to grab a drink of water or coffee before taxiing out, or adjusting your seat. Sound small? Perhaps! But you want as few distractions as possible during the upcoming critical phases of flight.

As for the psychological and physiological, you likely know that major stressors aren’t going to be resolved with a good meal and a full night’s rest. But by keeping a consistent sleep routine, appropriate exercise, healthy meals, and enjoyable hobbies in between your flight duties, you’ll more easily reduce your stress in the long-term. Take a moment to evaluate your weekly and monthly schedule and ensure you’re making time for the things you need to keep your stress low.

Alcohol

Alcohol use is perhaps the easiest factor on the IMSAFE checklist to control. The FAA, at minimum, says no alcohol eight hours before a flight. Many operators have more stringent guidelines, but the recommended time is 24 hours. Alcohol’s effects can persist long after the 8-hour limit, and even if you’re no longer feeling the immediate effects of a drink, hangovers can be dangerous in the cockpit, often resulting in flu-like symptoms. Don’t let alcohol even be a question--make the decision 24 hours before any known flight not to drink, follow your company’s regulations about when you can drink off-duty, and decline any surprise assignments within 24 hours of drinking.

Fatigue

The FAA and your operator will have their own requirements for rest and sleep, but what matters most in making a go/no-go decision is that you know yourself. Some people function very well on only six hours of sleep. Others require eight or nine. Just as with reducing stress and avoiding alcohol, the big fatigue decisions will often be made long before it’s time to make the overall go/no-go decision. Know how much time you’ll need to set aside before a flight for every factor: pre-flight considerations, transport to the airport, your routine when you wake up, and a good night’s rest, then go to bed with a little extra time to spare whenever possible. You’ll wake up refreshed more often, and you won’t be in a huge, stressful hurry for your flight the next day.

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Emotion

It is vital to take stock of emotions that are actively, obviously affecting you, especially those that are in reaction to major life events. But before every flight, even if you don’t think you’re experiencing anything major, consider how you’re feeling that day. Are you annoyed? Impatient? Feeling pessimistic? Or perhaps you’re happy, maybe bordering on overconfident?

While you certainly don’t want to call off a flight for every little change in your mood, self-awareness can help reduce the potential negative impact of certain emotions. For example, awareness that you’re feeling impatient can help you take a step back, slow down, and avoid cutting corners to get somewhere faster. Make an effort before each flight to assess the potential impacts of your feelings and mentally prepare for them.

If your schedule, your current lifestyle, or other factors are regularly causing you to gloss over aspects of your personal pre-flight check, then be proactive, don’t wait to make a change until something forces you into it. Take a good look at your routines and habits to ensure your rest, food, exercise, and relationships are all working toward removing complacency in completing the IMSAFE checklist and elevating the margin of safety.

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