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Push on Through

Written by The Fuckin' Pilot

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Originally printed in issue #47 (October 2013) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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“Dude, I am so goddam tired I can’t see straight! I looked at the clock when I got home and just about shit! I’ll tell you one thing, I fucking hope my students pull!”

Anyone who works in the sport has done it. Probably every weekend that they’ve been skydiving. Every single professional jumper or jump pilot has boarded an airplane so tired, so completely wrecked that if they sat on a couch for five minutes they would be out for 12 straight. Right now, there’s somebody between loads reading this article in an attempt to not pass the fuck out. We all know why we do it, and we all know that we will continue to work while exhausted because it’s flat out expected of us. But just what is it we are risking while jumping or flying fatigued, and just how much does it really affect us?

Well, here’s what both Harvard and Berkeley have to say on the subject: “There is a potentially very dangerous side effect of pulling an all-nighter … short term euphoria and impaired judgment.”

After missing a night’s sleep, the mesolimbic pathway (the neural circuit that controls pleasure and reward) is seriously stimulated. The process is driven by a chemical called dopamine. Yes that’s right, the same stuff that gets kicked into overdrive when you drop that tab of Ecstasy/Molly/MDMA. The higher dopamine levels that result from your sleepless night may mean you enjoy a boost in motivation, positivity and even an increase in sex drive. Now you may think that sounds good, and perhaps during activities not involving screaming toward the ground at 120+ you might be right, but for us, unfortunately you’d be wrong. Not only are these feelings brief at best, but the dopamine surge also encourages addiction and impulsive behavior. The regions of the brain responsible for planning and evaluating decisions simply shut the hell down once deprived of sleep, meaning that you’re inclined to be overly optimistic and happy to take huge risks. On top of that, the alcohol and or drugs you enjoyed the night before can dramatically increase these effects.

On top of acting in a way that isn’t necessarily appropriate for the situation, you could find yourself feeling as though you’re in the middle of an acid flashback! Beginning to hallucinate is among the more common symptoms of sleep deprivation. A hallucination is the perception of something that is not really present in the environment, and when it comes to anything aviation based, you can imagine how truly, horribly fucked up things can get!

I have personally fallen prey to this more times that I can recall (mostly because I was mentally fried) both while jumping and while flying, but there was one instance where I finally drew a line for myself in the hopes that I’d never experience it again.

Load one had fired up at 8 a.m. It was the first load on the second day of the boogie, and I’d flown the entire first day for a total of 13 hours in the seat without a shut-down. I was tired, but I wasn’t destroyed, so as I hit the halfway point of the day, the fatigue that I was feeling wasn’t over the top. It was at around load 20 that I was ready to be done with it all and go home. On load 22 I got the horrible radio call that reminded me we were flying night loads as well. I finally shut down the plane from load 26 as the sun was starting to dip below the horizon, and I was seriously worn.

I had enough time to drink a couple of Red Bulls, eat my first real meal of the day, and stretch just a little before it was time for me to give the pilot briefing on night jumps. There were going to be three or four loads maximum. I could do this. Push on!

On the sixth night load I asked manifest to start sending me an observer on each load to keep me company. On the ninth load the drop zone manager radioed up, slurring his words from enjoying the liquid party favors, saying, “Hey maaaan, they wanna, they wanna keep jumping!” As I contemplated the brutality of continuing the torture I glanced down for a look at my watch. It was just past midnight, and I couldn’t quite remember how the day had started. As I thought about it more, I couldn’t remember any of the jump runs I’d made that night, and even had to turn around just to see if my current load had jumped or not! When I keyed up the microphone I actually had to concentrate hard just to think of what to say.

“Look … None of these gauges make sense. I don’t know if I’m going up or down right now, and if I survive this flight and they still want to jump, you fly the fucking plane, cause I’m DONE!”

I didn’t even tie down the plane or put the control locks in. I walked away not caring about anything. I didn’t care if I had a job to come back to, I didn’t care if the plane blew away, I didn’t care about much of anything. Looking back I don’t remember driving home, setting an alarm, or honestly even waking up the next morning to go back.

It was an experience I learned a whole lot from, and one that I have never and will ever repeat! Studies have actually shown that people who drive after being awake for 17-19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent. That’s legally drunk in the U.S., and after my experience, it’s a comparison that I can vouch for.

The truth is, jumpers are always going to jump tired, and pilots are always going to fly tired. The trick as I see it is in knowing the difference between being tired and being so exhausted that you’re impaired. Know your limit, just like with drinking, and don’t fucking cross it. Be the one who says, “I’m down,” and stays safe, instead of being an idiot like I was and deciding you can muscle through. The consequences just really aren’t worth it!

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