Real Answers from Real Pilots

Health of a pilot

(Charles) #1

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.


1 Like
(Charles) #3

Thanks Adam, some great insights there!

(Laura Gillespie) #4

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.


(Laura Gillespie) #6

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:

(Tristan West) #7

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.

(Laura Gillespie) #8

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.


(Laura Gillespie) #10

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