In-flight food and beverage service for ag pilots differs a bit from other commercial operators. It is a self-serve affair and usually consists of the contents of a lunch pail and thermos of coffee versus a choice of steak fillet or trout almandine for the flight crew up front. But given the limitations of single-seat aircraft operation, while the elegance of meal delivery is questionable, the nutrition should be a high standard.
Our bodies are similar in a way to the aircraft we fly, both requiring professional care and servicing at regular intervals. But sometimes, when the action gets hot and heavy, we tend to forget the critical importance of nutrition, hydration, sleep, and other important safety-related factors. In short, everything we do and how well we do it is directly related to how well we care for ourselves.
You Are What You Eat
This proverbial saying implies that to be fit and healthy; you need to eat good food. We need to watch both the quantity and quality of food and liquids we take in, as well as ensure that both are consumed on a regular basis. There is also the issue of medications, either prescribed or over the counter, where any side effects that may affect our ability to fly safely should be well known. Last but not least are the use of alcohol and/or recreational drugs, which can have severe consequences if not handled safely.
It is quite amazing that the human body can withstand a wide variety of external stressors such as noise, temperature, and vibration, and in the ag flying business, there are a lot of them. When I shifted to radial engines from horizontally opposed piston engines, I felt noticeably more fatigued at the end of the day because of the significant increase in vibration and noise levels.
What’s on the Menu Today
We are taught in school that a properly balanced diet requires that we eat items from each of the main food groups, usually depicted in the form of a pyramid where what and how many servings we should eat are suggested. All is fine and good, but sticking to all the recommendations can get challenging without a full-time nutritionist onboard.
For me, this is an example of having sufficient knowledge to make reasonable choices. Instead of ingesting a lot of refined sugar via chocolate bars, donuts and soft drinks that can cause low blood sugar levels resulting in irritability, weakness, and difficulty in concentrating – not something you want to happen while zipping down a field at spray height – add some fruit or vegetables to the menu as a substitute. If you must eat on the run, choose a granola bar instead of getting a ‘sugar fix’ from foods high in sugar.
In short, this means that balanced meals taken regularly throughout the day will allow your body and brain to function optimally.
How Dry I Am
In addition to eating nutritiously, you also require sufficient water to function efficiently. Lack of water can lead to dehydration — a condition when you don’t have enough water in your body to carry out normal functions. Even mild dehydration can drain your energy and make you tired.
The Mayo Clinic guidelines are that most healthy people can stay hydrated by drinking water and other fluids whenever they feel thirsty. You also don’t need to rely on water alone as many fruits and vegetables, such as watermelon and spinach, are almost 100% water by weight. In addition, beverages such as milk, juice, and herbal teas are composed primarily of water. Even caffeinated drinks — such as coffee and soda — can contribute to your daily water intake.
How do you know if you are drinking enough? You are probably doing fine if you rarely feel thirsty, and when you need a bathroom break, your urine is colorless or light yellow. It’s a good idea to drink a glass of water with each meal and between meals, and of course whenever you feel thirsty.
Plan What You Do, Do What You Plan
A bit of planning can be of great help in keeping everything in balance. Make a list of ‘good foods’ before you go to the grocery store so you can make good choices in planning meals. And always keep a good supply of water on hand to keep the body well hydrated.
Alcohol and Accidents
It is not surprising when you look at industrial accident reports that alcohol is often cited as a contributing factor. The same is true when you look at aviation accidents and incident reports where there have been fatalities. The problem with using alcohol or any recreational drug is not only do they have immediate effects on performance but also that the effects remain after consumption no matter what you do. No amount of coffee, breathing pure oxygen, or exercise will change this fact.
The Effects of Noise
Noise in and around aircraft, in general, is always an issue, but in ag flying, it is a matter which needs to be actively addressed. Fatigue and stress are the immediate results of noise in the short term, whether from prop, engine or fuselage wind noise. In the long run, excessive noise can result in permanent hearing loss. Wearing a properly fitted helmet and earplugs can considerably reduce noise intensity, and noise-canceling helmet headsets result in remarkably low sound levels. I remember the first time I used an ANC (active noise cancellation) headset; it was so quiet that I kept checking the engine instruments repeatedly to ensure all was well!
I once heard the quip that ag airplanes are simply tractors with wings, focusing on performance while making for spartan accommodations in the cockpit. The nature of the business is that ag aircraft operations can often come with a lot of vibration from both engine and aerodynamic considerations, resulting in fatigue and stress. There is not much you can do about it except be aware of its possible effects on your body and your concentration level.
Awareness is the Golden Key
In addition to the demanding nature of ag flying that is very unforgiving of lapses in performance, ag pilots are subject to various issues that, if not kept in check, can make for a bad day at the office. A key ingredient in keeping things running smoothly and safely is always being aware of how you feel physically and mentally. If you don’t feel up to par, don’t fly. Walk away, get some rest, and then have another look at the trip. The field will surely be there when you get back.