The Pilot in the COVID-19 World: Part One

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, including pilots and general aviation. The net effect may be positive in the long run because the desire for isolation has turned many from commercial airlines to GA, with students starting up, instructors becoming busier, and avgas sales increasing. Even aircraft sales are in a positive spike.

However, pilots, like everyone else, must be aware of the effects of social isolation, economic impacts, and a significant decrease in places to fly. The overall rates of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and irritability have increased across the board and the pilot community is not immune. Calls to suicide hotlines are up as well as actual suicides themselves.

What can we do to stay healthy—both mentally and physically--during this pandemic? Discipline is the key. We are trained to be disciplined in the cockpit to do what it takes to make our flights safe. Pilots should be able to adapt this same discipline to their mental and physical health.

Many of these things you have heard before, but it is more important than ever to exert control over one’s habits and routine. Diet is crucial to health and fitness. Being stuck at home more, either working or in self-isolation, tends to make the path to the refrigerator shorter. Processed foods and fast food deliveries are not good for your soul or your immune system. A diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is very important. The preparation may take more time, but it is worth it. If you do not know how to cook, there is no excuse since everything you need to know is on YouTube and other sites.

Keeping your weight down and/or losing weight is crucial. The number one risk factor for complications of a COVID infection is obesity. Obesity generates a host of problems including diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, coronary disease, congestive heart failure, and immune system problems, among others. It is hard to lose weight when stuck at home but that is not an excuse. Just asking yourself on the way to the kitchen, “Am I really hungry or am I feeding my anxiety or boredom?” can help you turn around or choose a less caloric snack.

Exercise is also key to your immune system and of course weight loss. The ideal regime is to get your heart rate into the target zone for 30 consecutive minutes every day. The target zone is roughly 220 minus your age multiplied by 0.7. The key is 30 consecutive minutes. It does not make any difference how you get there but understand heart rate is the end point. So, you could bicycle one day, briskly walk the next, or run the next, use a stair climber the next, or whatever fits your lifestyle. Understand that something like tennis, although good exercise, is not as valuable since the heart rate drops when you stop to serve or for any other interruption. If you are starting a new program, you may not be able to do 30 consecutive minutes so do five on and five off for thirty minutes and advance the number of on minutes, reducing the number of minutes off, over several days.

It is important to schedule exercise in your day. If you don’t, there will always be something that pushes it to the back. During the winter, I force myself to get up early so I can get on an elliptical in my basement. Otherwise, I would never get to it if I tried it at the end of a workday. Which reminds me, you must do something you either enjoy or tolerate. If you enjoy biking and can schedule it, great. But if you are stuck with an elliptical at 0530 and are bored to tears like me, set a TV in front of the machine, and dial up Netflix or whatever to take your mind off the monotony. That is how I tolerate it. By the way, if your heart rate is fast enough, you probably will not be able to read and retain anything except the comics!

Another big advantage of exercise is that it burns up catecholamines. Catecholamines are the adrenaline-like substances in your body that are eliminated by the kidneys. When one is under stress, one will produce more catecholamines than the kidneys can handle, and they will build up in the system. When the levels increase, these chemicals cause anxiety, insomnia, feeling like you want to jump out of your skin, irritability, and panic. Burning up catecholamines is another great effect of vigorous exercise.

Sleep is another crucial factor in mental, physical, and immune health. How much is individual, but most people need five to eight hours a day. Sleeping too much or not being able to get to sleep can be a sign of depression or anxiety. Scheduling that extra hour of sleep can make one more effective during the awake time so there is no net time loss!

What are the reasons people cannot sleep well? Probably number one is noise and light. Foam ear plugs can definitely help but some people do not like the way the plugs feel. Another option is a white noise generator or just tuning the radio to AM static. The white noise blocks out most other noise and is easy to get used to once one tries it for a while. Light can be addressed by blackout shades but in a pinch, aluminum foil in the window works great.

I love dogs but dogs (and cats) do not belong in the bedroom. They always interfere with sleep. My patients always say pets do not wake them up, but in reality, they always do. Pets need their own sleep environment. TVs, computers, and smartphones also do not belong in the bedroom. Studies have shown the screens interfere with falling asleep and the sound left on is a problem. Next time, we will continue with the factors that adversely affect sleep quality and quantity.

Stay tuned for Part Two in September

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Dr. Brent Blue
Senior Aviation Medical Examiner
Dr. Brent Blue is an FAA senior aviation medical examiner and airline transport pilot with more than 9,000 hours of flight time. Through his company,, he introduced pulse oximetry and digital carbon monoxide detection to general aviation in 1995.

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