If you have travelled across different time zones, you are probably familiar with the discomfort of jet lag. This imbalance occurs because our internal clock (our sleep habits) has a hard time adapting to the new time zone, especially the light-dark cycle. The most common symptoms include fatigue, digestive problems and confusion.
Jet lag can be a more or less annoying inconvenience if you are travelling, but it can be a problem if you are a pilot who is constantly crossing time zones. Being prepared and knowing how to prevent and combat this imbalance can be key to the smooth running of a flight.
One of the keys to understanding jet lag is the destination of our flight. If we travel west we add hours, which lengthens our waking hours, whereas if we travel east we cut hours, which shortens the day. Travelling to the east makes it more difficult to adapt to the new time, as it is easier to stay awake to lengthen the day than to go to sleep earlier to shorten it. On the other hand, travelling North or South is not a problem, as we do not change time zones.
Pre-flight preparation could be, for example, if you are travelling east, getting up early the days before the trip. On the other hand, if you are travelling to the West, it is advisable to go to bed late the days before your trip.
Both of these tips are very useful if it is an occasional trip, but in the case of a pilot who is in constant transit between time zones, constant discipline will be needed.
Stehpens Landells, a pilot and safety specialist with the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), recommends drinking plenty of water during the flight, eating little at sensible times, and avoiding caffeine and other stimulants. Exercise, he says, is also a great companion for preventing and recovering from jet lag.
Mark Vanhoenacker, British Airways pilot and bestselling author, created “the 11am rule”. His rule is that if he can get to his hotel room or bed at 11am, he takes a nap for an hour or two and then adjusts to the schedule. If he arrives later he stays up until bedtime. If he doesn’t feel well he takes a 20-minute nap in the afternoon.
Other pilots prefer to stay in their original time zone. This technique can be useful if the return to your usual time zone is “immediate”, but it is not a good strategy if you have to stay in the new time zone.
These are some of the recommendations for preventing and adapting to jet lag that work for professional pilots, however, there is a different set of tips for different pilots. You can try the methods recommended by expert pilots, but in the end it’s all about finding what works best for you. Years and experience as a pilot – or as a regular Long Range passenger – will always provide the best strategy to combat the annoying time change.
Jet Lag is a factor to take into account in your professional life as a pilot, as it will directly affect your performance. That’s why one of the keys to performing even with jet lag is to be well prepared and trained to reduce the number of variables that affect your driving. So rest, eat healthy, do sport and train yourself!