A Guide to SoaringRx – Essays on Pilot Physiology

Pilots often learn every nuance of their aircraft's systems – yet seldom learn the nuances of their own body's systems.

This is an important factor increasing crash risk.

The two most important pilot-malfunctions of the human body are fatigue and confusion.

These are signals that your body sends to clue you in that something is wrong.

No malfunction – of machine or body – comes labeled with the cause.

Any unexpected change in aircraft status or body/mind status should inspire us to think carefully about what could cause this.

So if you feel fatigued, or slightly vague in your thinking, ask yourself what could have caused this?

Clues You Can Use to detect your own malfunction (click here for an html version)

This was written way, way back in 2000 – but the human body has not had any design changes for much longer than that, so it will always be current.

This article was written using the simple fact that we always begin by noticing that something's not quite as usual, and must sort out what the cause may be.

Mistakesan article by Key Dismukes on errors of omission.

The most important cause of unintended mistakes of omission may involve what's called prospective memory.

Most things we do in life, especially in piloting, involve a string of actions or decisions that we hold in mind while we do them. This string is called prospective memory because we're remembering things we cannot do immediately, but must do at the right time in the future. The checklist is a formal embodiment of prospective memory. Any distraction can pop an item out of our prospective to-do list, causing an unconscious error of omission.

The late Key Dismukes was a soaring pilot who had a distinguished career as a top researcher in aviation physiology, who published several technical papers on prospective memory.


SoaringRx: Essays published in Soaring magazine

These were written monthly from April, 2011 through March, 2016, then sporadically since.

Here is a topical organization:


1.             Fatigue

2.             Dehydration

3.             Breathing and Oxygen

4.             Cold

5.             Vision

6.             Perception and Distortion of Reality (including illusions)

7.             Brain function

8.             Emotion

9.             Judgment

10.          Risk

11.          Invisible turbulence

12.          Pregnancy

13.          The Heart and Arteries

14.          The Vestibular System: Balance and Dizziness

15.          General Topics

16.          Diet and Health

17.          Bad Drugs for Pilots

18.          Aging and Disease



  Mental Fatigue – Social and personal pressure, tedium, and stress create mental fatigue, which makes us error-prone and affects judgment.

  Motion-induced drowsiness. This explains why we get drowsy from motion, and adds a general discussion of fatigue and a checklist of causes of fatigue.

  Motion sickness This is a thorough review (including drowsiness). There's nice graph of sensitivity to seasickness. More than 90% of people vomit when exposed to cycles of every 5 seconds accelerations of more than 0.3 g. (How many consecutive wing-overs can you do without barfing?)

 Jet Lag and Night Shifts Make Us Bad Pilots – Why disturbing our circadian rhythms impair our brain, and how to manage these rhythms.



  Dehydration without Thirst – When we lose both salt and water – due to sweating or cooling off – we lose blood volume but do not have thirst in proportion to this loss. This affects g-tolerance and thinking quality.

  Cold Diuresis – This essay goes into more detail about how we become short of blood volume when we cool off, and why planning to manage liquid excretion is useful.

  Thirst and the Drinking Pilot – This is a detailed explanation of how thirst happens, and why we should respond to it with alacrity, and carry fluid in the cockpit.


Breathing and Oxygen

  Hypoxia, Hyperventilation, and Supplemental Oxygen Systems this is a comprehensive review for the educable layman of the physiology of breathing at altitude, for pilots.

  Low-Altitude Hypoxia – A brief review of the reasons for using oxygen at altitudes well below what's required by regulation.

  Altitude and Brain Mush – self-administered CO poisoning and other reasons that the brain may not work as well as labeled at relatively low altitudes. This essay argues for use of oxygen when low, and explains why hypoxia is a great, unrecognized risk for smokers.

  Breathing at High Altitude – A detailed explanation of the reasons for feeling short of breath, especially at altitude.

  How Oxygenation Works – A detailed explanation of how oxygen gets from the air we breathe into our brain.

  Does Your Pulse Oximeter Mean What it Says? – A detailed explanation of the ways in which a pulse oximeter can give incorrect numbers, and what to do about this. The list of oximeters is dated, of course; but the principles are correct.

Return to contents list



  Some Effects of Cold This essay is a summary of the body's response to cooling off.

  What Shivering Means – The higher we fly, the cooler the temp. Mild hypothermia is common in soaring, and shivering is a danger signal that means descend now! This essay explains why this is true.

  Cold: Discomfort or Danger? – This is a comprehensive review of our response to cold, the types of injury or impairment it can cause, and what to do to prevent or to respond to it.

Return to contents list



  Seeing, Yet Blind – The severe limitations to the See and Avoid mandate. Why we are invisible to each other most of the time.

  Why Wear Sunglasses? – This essay reviews the damage UV light can do to the eye, and more importantly what it takes to do damage; and what sunglasses to search for and use.

  Optical Age Spots – Macular degeneration: How it works, what to do about it.

  Choosing Spectacles for the Aging Eye – What types of lenses are available, and the virtues and limitations of each type.

  The Lens of the Eye: When Fog Rolls In – What is a cataract, how they form and choices for replacement intra-ocular lenses

  Eye Floaters – What are –floaters– and what can be done about them?

Return to contents list


Illusions: Perception and distortion of reality

  Embarrass Yourself Naturally – All mistakes are due to misperception. An accident wasn't on the to-do list when you got up today. If it was on the plan, it's not an accident.

  Noticing 3-D Status Dynamically – A mountainside crash is analyzed, for it illustrates precisely how everything can feel right while going undetectable wrong.

  It Felt About Right!An analysis of the experience of an actual turn-to-final stall-spin, and the natural perceptual mechanisms that make this likely.

  Break-Off – Why pilots sometimes feel detached from the ship.

  Hand Follows GazeWhy we automatically steer in the direction of our planned gaze direction.

  Hearing, Listening, Understanding – The difference between hearing and listening, and why we don't always comprehend what we hear. (A cognitive illusion, if you like.)

  Perceptual Errors in the Turn from Base to Final – A brief summary of the illusory and cognitive errors that plague this important turn.

  Secret Betrayal: Ourselves, the Air – The important illusions that most affect pilot misunderstanding of 3-D orientation, and how these interact with the invisibility to the turbulent atmosphere.

  Tobogganing on the Invisible Hill – Illusions affecting the glide slope on final, illustrated by a land-short incident.

Return to contents list


Brain function

  Cognitive Impairment in Pilots – How can we recognize impairment, and discern whether it's temporary or the new norm?

  Why Do Pilots Forget? – A definitive essay by Key Dismukes, a world expert on cognitive error, about why we forget details we know must be done. The technical language is Managing Prospective Memory.

  Attention versus Skill – How it is that we acquire skill.

  Cockpit Attention Disorder – The brain has 2 attention systems, one that maintains focus, one that interrupts focus. Attention can be trained.

Return to contents list



  Panic – Analysis of a panic-related fatal crash.

  Confabulation: It's about character. Lying has adverse consequences for others as well as ourselves.

  Friendly Fear – An analysis of how fear may protect us or stress others. Our fear; their fear. This involves three stories.

Return to contents list



   What is Judgment? – Judgment is the ability to anticipate the consequences of our words and actions, and to assess risk.

  Mindset – Expectation Governs Actions and creates error, and surprise.

  Fooling Ourselves – The nature and the risk of self-deception.

  Am I Addicted? – An essay on the nature of addiction, not merely to substances.

  You Are Old, Father William – An autobiographical essay by Matt Herron on managing the risks entailed in aging wisely.

Return to contents list



  What is a "Safe" Medical Condition? – The story of a glider pilot who became medically unsafe and ended badly, leading to the How can I tell if I'm unsafe?

  Medical Risk – This is a detailed essay listing the various types of medical risks and how to manage these.

  Medical Requirements for Glider Flying – A review of the regulatory requirements for pilot operations and the most important aspects of self-assessment.

  Jeb Tries a Low PassThe judgment challenges involved in doing something unusual and the risks of perceptual error.

  The Calculus of Risk – How can we understand and manage medical risk?

  Aerobatics – Dangerous?– A review of the procedural, perceptual, and medical factors affecting aerobatic risk.

Return to contents list


Invisible turbulence & Piloting

  A Thunderstorm Commotion – An analysis of Curt Lewis' collision with a thunderstorm.

  Rogue Air Currents – An article by Bob Thompson about the fact that the invisible air may contain terrible turbulence, with details of the meteorology of the most important types.

  Oh !**!, I Crashed – An article by the late Bill Gawthrop detailing his experience with the wrong side of a gust on short final.

  Why We Blunder in the Turn – Tom Knauff's Six Signs of a Stall explained perceptually.

  How to Spin Unintentionally – The illusions involved in a badly coordinated turn and what to do to avoid them.

Return to contents list



  The Pregnant Pilot – The definitive reference on piloting an aircraft while pregnant, written for one such. (She had twins.)

Return to contents list


The Heart and Arteries

  Desire, Reality, Safety – when should we fly with heart disease? The principles of course apply to any potentially impairing disease.

  The Secret Life of Arteries – How arteries work, and how the get sick.

  A Path to a Miserable, Short Life – How to encourage your arteries to corrode most effectively and what can improve this.

Return to contents list


The Vestibular System: Balance and Dizziness

  Vertigo: – The basics, for pilots, of all types of dizziness. What they are, what to do.

  Benign Positional Vertigo Specifically, how to recognize and deal with benign positional vertigo.

  Why to Stay on the Ground When Congested – The main risk of flying while our head is stuffy is of vertigo d/t pressure changes of the inner ear. This is dangerously disabling.

Return to contents list


General Topics

  Avoiding Infections – An explanation of techniques that can be used to minimize the risk of getting a contagious disease.

  Skin Cancer – What actually leads to skin cancer? What can actually be done to reduce risk? What should be done about pre-cancerous skin lesions?

Return to contents list


Diet and Health

  The Bad-Years Blimp – The health effects of obesity and flight risk. Any diet that is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, low in fat and oil, and not more than 5% or so of the calories from animals, is the healthiest diet.

  Healthy Soaring – The story of a pilot who discarded 50 pounds.

  Max Gross Weight – Weight and Balance in the Age of Obesity

Return to contents list


Bad Drugs for Pilots

  Over-the-Counter Incompetence – An explanation of the impairing OTC medications, especially diphenhydramine, which causes unawareness of its impairing nature.

  The Tumescent Personality – how drugs work, illustrated by male enhancement medication.

  A Silent Cognitive Crash – Why the motion-sickness scopolamine should never be used if your brain needs to work well.

Return to contents list


Aging and Disease

  The Vintage Pilot – The changes that normally – and abnormally – come with age, and how we can respond to these.

  Cognition, Aging, and the Soaring Pilot – a clear and articulate essay by Key Dismukes, the premier expert on cognitive error, who retired after years as the Chief Scientists for Human Factors at the NASA Ames Research Center.

  Our Life Goal: Senescence! – An essay on ways to make the aging process healthier.

Return to contents list