My first in-flight brush with mental fatigue happened quick as a big league fastball. While finishing up another long day of soaring rides and lessons, thoughts of iced tea and warm food on that last flight were distractions I’d successfully set aside. Then rolling to the tie downs I dragged a wingtip before full stop, something I always try to never do. Aw heck, glad this one’s finally over.
Just as I was reaching to turn off the radio they called from the office to ask if I’d be okay with just one more double deluxe ride. That may have been the first time I felt less than entirely eager for any excuse to get back up in the air, but it wasn’t the first time I told a fib.
“Sure,” I replied. They were newlyweds after all, so there wasn’t much choice.
On breathless summer evenings in Vermont, the only way to keep a loaded 2-32 in the air more than a few minutes is to stay on tow forever, so that’s what we did. Ten miles out, over Mt. Mansfield, the state’s highest peak, I released and turned straight into what little wind there was, even at that height. A slanted shadow of broad stratus we’d seen approaching for hours was just then reaching us and I privately welcomed the shade. Then two beats into our separation turn we entered smooth clammy sink and began to fall.
Swing and a miss.
We were angling away from the most formidable obstacle for seventy miles, with it between us and our airport. I could/should have immediately fixed that with a quick reversal and dive back across the ridge while still high enough, but declined, to avoid startling the honeymooners. (Though they may have loved such a surprise, no one wished them to lose their champagne…)
Strike two, called.
A simple 270 at 30 degree bank, but completing it seemed to take several minutes. By the time we faced the mountain again it stood well above us. Only eleven air miles from home and a minute off tow, we’d sunk below line of sight and out of radio range! There would be no more direct sunlight until tomorrow, and even here 4000 feet up, zero ridge lift. Green fields were everywhere, lumpy but landable, while typical of New England geography, the only real airport within glide range lay two counties removed from our own. I fully expected things would turn out fine one way or another but chose to come clean ahead of time just in case, said I’d made a mistake and might have to land somewhere other than where we started.
No. Actually it was one of the few smart things I did on that flight. Faced with an unhittable pitch, all I could do was foul it off and wait for the next one.
It’s terribly important for passengers in any aircraft to have genuine confidence in their pilot. Even where a situation is perfectly safe and aircraft in good order, doubts about the pilot can make anything – everything – scary. My knowing the newlyweds were safe didn’t help them feel better. They needed more. Would their lasting memories of this day be marred by a fool who frightened them crazy and blew their reservations for a honeymoon suite, or enriched by the crafty captain who saved their wedding night with steady proficiency? Besides, if we did have to land off base, declaring that possibility well beforehand should seem less inept than doing so only after it became obvious even to them… right? And even if their certainty of my incompetence was terminal they still had no one else to get them back on the ground, and needed to at least hope I could accomplish that task safely!
The bride screamed a little, but her doughty groom soothed and assured as if he’d already mastered the art. My gratitude for that was immense as my embarrassment, and I tried to express both with some kind of jovial quip. Whatever I said seemed innocuous enough — until we all heard it. Then something about its content or tone plopped in the back like a P-bomb jettisoned from wave sink. The silence back there was so powerful it seemed to absorb even the infernal white noise of our 2-32’s canopy. Censury depredation.
“Wow,” I croaked, “bad humor as a noise suppressant, who knew?”
Foul Tip, off the very end of the bat, and still stings even today.
More silence. Shut up and fly, I told myself. No one was listening anyway, least of all me. My voice, however, spewed on undeterred like air from a leaky valve stem into the nuptial vacuum behind. For me a coping mechanism, for them a lunatic ranting to himself on the subway. Except this particular loony happened to be driving it and seemed waaay off the tracks.
I almost tried the one about me up front being the first to die, but that never goes over well, so I decided to improvise. “Which would you rather have, a good pilot who’s a lousy comic or a bad pilot who can make even that hilarious?” Sure, it bombed too, but stack of Talmuds, years later I heard the same line get laughs on TV! (You don’t need to believe that part, but it’s true anyway.)
Gliding along beside one forested hill after another provided trivial subject matter to sustain and pasteurize my habitual flow of BS. At that point the honeymooners saw themselves as hostages, resigned to waiting this out.
We still had miles to go, out of the way around yet another range, for a straight shot at our airport. I almost started crooning the old tune “Silence Is Golden”, but knew better by then and held it in. That was the other smart thing.
Ball three, full count.
When eventually we rounded the end of a long low spur into our home valley I feigned astonishment, “Hey, we found it!” pointing, “Right there, straight ahead.” From aft came the faintest, slowest applause, painfully, picturesquely sarcastic.
As it worked out, they’d already gotten the longest possible tour of our local hills, from an unusual perspective, and somewhat more than the 45 minutes they paid for. Yet as we glided lower across the valley, faint vestiges of buoyancy, plus a yearning for some form of vindication, caused me to suggest that all we’d need was one little stroke of luck to keep us aloft until the sun dropped below cloudbase for a rosy finale. (I knew there was no chance this late, but they didn’t.) They were sure to decline…
And did, thank Gaia, opting instead to be down and away from me as soon as humanly possible. My sentiments were similar at that point, except perhaps in degree of intensity. I was too tired to care anymore and they, we should hope, were not.
Ball four. Take your base, lucky putz.
All to illustrate that mental fatigue is a hazard insidious as any other. This whole episode hinged on a single too-casual preflight decision followed by failure to respond to sink aggressively and soon. Fact is, I was slower-witted and less imaginative before takeoff than I’d been before the prior landing… That’s not something you can make up in flight; once you’re committed you have to perform despite the handicap.
Most student pilots, and many rookies too, have about an hour of quality brain time before soaring’s complex and disorienting environment exhausts them mentally. More experienced pilots may take that long just settling in for an all-day flight. But even marathoners are subject to fatigue, and marathoner or not, so are YOU.
The solution to mental fatigue is simple, if not always convenient: take a nap. Just be sure you land first.