IMSAFE: Pilot Fitness Self-Assessment Before You Go Flying


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Original publication date: December 5, 2023
Last Updated: February 8, 2024
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: Flight Physiology
Number of Comments: 0

Regardless of whether you are a professional pilot or whether you fly as a hobby, safety is the common denominator that serves as the guiding principle for all of your decision making. Sound decision making is critical to every phase of flight, not just from takeoff to landing, but even before you head to the airport in the first place. No matter how experienced or skilled you may be, there is always inherent risk associated with flying. That’s where IMSAFE comes in: The ultimate safety checklist to ensure that your next aviation excursion begins on the right footing.

IMSAFE is an acronym developed by the FAA for a self-assessment checklist that pilots should use to gauge their physical and mental fitness to make a go-no-go decision whether to take on the rigors of an upcoming flight. It stands for: Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Emotion.

IMSAFE is an essential tool in the arsenal of aviation safety risk mitigation measures that the FAA requires all pilots to abide by. It is a far cry from being relegated to a catchy mnemonic device required only to be memorized by pilots looking to pass their initial checkride. On the contrary, it is, in fact, directly referenced in the FAA’s official Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), in Section 8-1-1: Fitness For Flight.

What does IMSAFE stand for?

IMSAFE is an acronym that stands for:

IIllness
MMedication
SStress
AAlcohol
FFatigue
EEmotion

By checking off each item on the IMSAFE list, pilots can ascertain a reasonable degree of confidence in their ability to successfully carry out their duties as pilot-in-command and conduct their upcoming flight safely and competently.

The IMSAFE mindset is more than just a checklist 

IMSAFE is not just a list of tasks to complete before every flight; it is a mindset that pilots must adopt. 

By prioritizing safety and wellness, pilots should constantly be attuned to their personal well-being not only before but also during the flight. 

This will ensure that pilots are well-prepared for any challenges that may arise as the flight progresses, from takeoff to landing.

Here is the checklist below:

I – Illness

As a pilot, it goes without saying that your health is integral to a safe flight.

Any Illness can compromise your ability to operate an aircraft, no matter how benign it may seem.

It is absolutely imperative that you, as a pilot, do not attempt to subjectively minimize or downplay the impact that a particular ailment may have on you.

“Illness” is not merely used to describe a fever or debilitating condition that keeps you bed-ridden. It is a broad spectrum of general wellness, and can include even seemingly innocuous conditions such as a slight cough, stuffy nose, or heartburn. 

Even if you are slightly under the weather with a mild headache, minor cough, or minor chest congestion, you need to genuinely assess your wellness to stay attentive, alert, and focused, and be able to multitask, interpret what is happening both inside and outside the cockpit, and be able to make sound, split-second decisions.

Flying with an illness can be dangerous, primarily if the illness affects your respiratory system or impairs your motor skills. Even the common cold can impact your ability to react quickly and make sound decisions. When you’re not well, your body could very well experience degraded cognitive function.

It’s essential to take precautionary measures before making the decision to fly when you might be ill or under the weather.

To mitigate risks when flying with an illness, you should:

  • Consult with a medical professional before flying to receive proper treatment advice.
  • Avoid flying with a fever, flu-like symptoms.
  • Avoid flying after taking medication that can cause drowsiness.
  • Plan ahead: Stay hydrated and get ample before the flight.

Being mindful of your health and taking necessary precautions can reinforce and ensure your ability to operate an aircraft safely. If you’re not feeling your best, it’s better to reschedule your flight than to compromise safety.

There is an old adage in aviation:

“It is better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the sky, than to be in the air, wishing you were on the ground”. – Unknown

What about chronic illness?

Illnesses come in two types: chronic and transient:

  • Transient illnesses are those which are temporary in nature and which the body is able to ward off either naturally or through medical treatment.
  • Chronic illnesses are those which are permanent or long lasting in nature such that they are ingrained in a person’s lifestyle.

Among chronic illnesses, there are some which the FAA considers to be medically disqualifying, such that you are grounded and barred from flying until and unless the condition is cured or is controlled in such a manner that it no longer poses a threat to your ability to fly.

M – Medication

As a pilot, it’s essential to be cognizant of the impact that medication can have on your ability to operate an aircraft safely.

Whether you take prescription medication or over-the-counter drugs, some may:

  • cause drowsiness
  • impair your cognitive function
  • Impair your physical reflexes

Before taking any medication, consult with your healthcare provider to determine if it’s safe to take before a flight. They can advise you on potential side effects and how they might affect your ability to fly.

Perhaps you may have seen medication with the warning label that says:

“Do not operate heavy machinery”.

I’m sure the last time you checked, airplanes were considered a type of “heavy machinery”!

If you must take medication, consider the following precautions:

  • Read the labels carefully and make sure you understand any warnings or precautions.
  • Never take more than the recommended dose.
  • Wait until a reasonable amount of time has elapsed after taking medication, before operating an aircraft to ensure that it doesn’t cause any side effects that could impair your ability to fly. (“Reasonable” could be defined anytime after your current dosage wears off until as much as 24 to even 48 hours after your last dosage of the medication.)

If you’re unsure about whether a specific medication is safe to take before flying, contact your aviation medical examiner or consult the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners, which maintains a catalog of common medications. This comprehensive guide provides the FAA’s official stance on the consumption of these medications and whether taking them is permissible or prohibited, in the context of being able to operate an aircraft.

Prohibited Medication

Additionally, the FAA maintains a list of medications which they unconditionally and categorically prohibit pilots from taking.

If you aspire to become a pilot, the FAA draws a red line when it comes to taking these prohibited medications. If you are taking them, you must consult with your doctor about the feasibility of weaning yourself off of them, before you can be cleared to fly.

S – Stress

Stress is a part of life. There is no human being who can ever claim that they live a completely stress-free life. What we humans can control include:

  • how well we are able to manage stress;
  • how well we are able to deal with stressful situations in life;
  • how well we are able to avoid, minimize, or reduce stress;
  • how well we are able to mitigate the impact of stressful circumstances on our well being.

Piloting an aircraft itself introduces a certain degree of stress. No phase of flight is without there being some degree of stress involved, whether it be during takeoff, climbing, navigating, complying with Air Traffic Control (ATC) directives, or landing.

Now, compound that with external stressors in your personal life, and you may find that you are setting yourself up for a potentially hazardous situation.

Stress can come from a myriad of personal situations in life, such as any of the following:

  • Conflicts with a family member or a friend
  • Divorce
  • Financial difficulties
  • Job loss
  • Death of a family member or a friend

Stress from these types of situations can lead you to compulsively or obsessively dwell on negative thoughts that could potentially cloud your judgment. Unmitigated stress can yield an adverse impact on flight safety. When you’re piloting an aircraft, it is imperative that you keep a clear mind and maintain focus. Stress can lead to distractions, impaired decision-making, and increased reaction time. This can have a snowball effect that puts your flight at risk.

Managing and coping with stress is essential to ensure the safety of every flight. 

If you need to seek counseling or therapy, it may behoove you to do so, before you jump in the cockpit.

There’s a quote by author Eckhart Tolle that aptly describes the toll that stress can potentially take on pilots:

“Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there.’”

The golden rule is that if you are feeling too stressed to focus on flying, perhaps it is better for you to stay grounded. You should plan to stay grounded until you are reasonably and confidently assured that the stress won’t get the better of you.

Remember that stress can affect anyone, regardless of experience level. This is why it is on the IMSAFE checklist.

The FAA has published a comprehensive guide on stress management for pilots.

In this guide, the FAA seeks to:

  • Define what is stress
  • Expound upon what impact that stress can have on flying
  • Address the need for pilots to be able to self-assess their current level of stress
  • Shed light on what are the cumulative, compounding effects of stress in terms of flight management
  • Identify strategies for stress management
  • Identify strategies for risk management
  • Address the issue of human error as a contributing factor in aviation accidents
  • Outline the crucial role that proper Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) makes with respect to the safe and successful conduct of every flight
  • Adminish the pilot regarding the importance of adhering to the established rules, regulations, and safety best practices that the FAA has published
  • Introduce you to the DECIDE model, as a systematic approach to empower pilots to be able to make sound decisions in response to changing dynamics and situations during flight.

A – Alcohol

The FAA draws a red line when it comes to alcohol consumption.

Flying under the influence of alcohol is strictly prohibited. 

According to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR), a pilot may not operate an aircraft within eight hours after consuming alcohol or while under the influence of alcohol, with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04% or greater. Furthermore, the alcohol should not have been consumed within 8 hours of the intended flight. For air traffic controllers and other aviation professionals, the limit is even lower, at 0.02%. 

It’s crucial to be mindful of the duration of your drinking and the timing of a potential flight. Even a minute amount of alcohol can impair your judgment, your coordination, and your performance, rendering it challenging to operate an aircraft. 

Not only that, but alcohol can also cause drowsiness and dehydration, both conditions of which can adversely impact your ability to maintain alertness during a flight.

It’s essential to remember that the dangers of alcohol in aviation are not limited to pilots or air traffic controllers. Passengers should also be cautious about consuming alcohol before a flight, particularly if they are nervous or anxious. Drinking alcohol can exacerbate any feelings of anxiety and discomfort, making the flight experience all the more daunting.

If you are planning to drink alcohol, make sure you allow enough time for your body to eliminate it completely before flying. 

While 8 hours is the legal limit, the FAA advises pilots to wait at least 24 hours after consuming alcohol before operating an aircraft.

Hence, alcohol earns its own spot on the IMSAFE checklist, to self-assess your fitness to fly.

F – Fatigue

One cannot underscore the inherent dangers and perils of flying while fatigued.

Fatigue can impair your cognitive abilities, reflexes, and decision-making skills, which can put your safety and the safety of your passengers at risk.

If you are feeling sleepy or fatigued, it is important to approach the situation practically.

To Caffeinate or Not To Caffeinate?- That Is The Question

Downing a double-shot of espresso or a can of Red Bull just won’t cut it.

No amount of caffeine can serve as a true substitute for getting some tried and true rest.

If you have a scheduled flight coming up, it makes sense to plan ahead:

  • Get adequate sleep the night before.
  • Make sure you don’t get yourself fatigued due to any type of mental or physical exertion in the hours leading up to the flight.

But what about fatigue during a flight?

If you start to feel the onset of fatigue creeping up on you during flight, it is critical that you address and assess the situation:

  • How much longer do you have left until you arrive at your destination?
  • How complex is the airspace and the type of approach you are making to your destination airport?
  • What are the weather conditions of the flight?
  • Is it day time or night time?

Depending on the circumstances, perhaps the best course of action could very well be to consider diverting to the nearest suitable airport in order for you to get on the ground and get some rest.

Once you get on the ground, you can determine whether all you need is to take a power nap and then get back into the air, or if you need to call a night and resume your journey the following day, after getting a good night’s sleep.

When planning your flight, perhaps it would be wise to ensure that your journey begins and ends during your normal waking hours.

Depending on how far you are flying, you may also need to factor in the effects of jet lag on your circadian rhythm.

If you have the luxury of being able to fly with a co-pilot, perhaps you can have them take over for you, while you rest.

The FAA offers some guidance on the issue of pilot fatigue:

Lifestyle Recommendations for Avoiding Fatigue:

  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, heavy meals, and exercise 3-4 hours before bedtime.
  • Do not use sleeping pills, take work to bed, or nap for more than 30 minutes during the day.
  • Maintain a comfortable sleep environment and sleep routine, aiming for eight hours of sleep per night.
  • Seek medical advice for sleep-related problems and manage stress effectively.

Understanding Fatigue:

  • Fatigue is a condition of weariness with diminished capacity for work and efficiency, often accompanied by a feeling of tiredness.
  • It can arise from various sources like boredom, circadian rhythm disruptions, or heavy physical exertion.
  • Individuals often underreport their fatigue levels, and no amount of experience or stimulants like coffee can overcome it.

The Impact of Fatigue on Aviation:

  • General aviation pilots, although not subjected to the same stresses as commercial pilots, are still at risk of fatigue due to single-pilot operations and high workload.
  • Fatigue can lead to sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, apathy, isolation, annoyance, slowed reactions, memory problems, and increased errors in task performance.
  • Adequate sleep is crucial for preventing fatigue; insufficient sleep leads to significant physical and psychological problems.

Prevention and Management of Fatigue:

  • Prevention of fatigue in aviation is challenging but necessary to avoid accidents.
  • Lifestyle changes, such as managing sleep disorders, reducing alcohol or caffeine intake, and addressing social or behavioral issues, are key to combating fatigue.
  • Pilots must take personal responsibility to modify lifestyle factors that contribute to fatigue.
FAA Safety Video, “Grounded” – A story of Fatigue

What about get-home-itis coupled with fatigue?

Get-home-itis is one of multiple “hazardous flight attitudes” that the FAA has identified as a risk factor for pilots. This refers to the pilot’s stubborn and relentless determination to get home, no matter the physiological or environmental challenges that may be at play, be it the weather or even the pilot’s physical or mental state.

As a pilot, if you are feeling fatigued, yet you are finding yourself vexed at the thought of having to land early to end the flight and get some rest, then you must strive to avoid this feeling at all costs.

The FAA offers a free online safety course on the Top 10 Causes of General Aviation Accidents in which the issues of fatigue and get-home-itis are addressed.

This old aviation adage bears repeating again:

“It is better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the sky, than to be in the air, wishing you were on the ground”. – Unknown

The following table outlines some common causes of fatigue and strategies for managing them:

Common Causes of FatigueManagement Strategies
Lack of sleepGet adequate rest before and during flights
Jet lagAdjust your sleep schedule and avoid scheduling flights during your normal sleep hours
High workloadPrioritize tasks and take breaks when needed
Stressful situationsPractice stress management techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation

E – Emotions

The last element of the IMSAFE self-assessment checklist is “E” for “Emotion”. Flying an aircraft requires an acute degree of level-headedness. So if you are feeling emotionally upset or distraught, due to some personal issue in your life, then this can cloud your judgment, impede your focus and concentration, and thus jeopardize the safety of your flight, putting it at risk.

Three main facets of emotional distress can be red flags, which should be grounds for you to remain grounded:

Stress

We already discussed stress earlier, but it bears mentioning again, that any type of stress, whether they arise from personal issues, work-related pressures, or even from the demands of flying itself, can result in a degradation of cognitive performance. This can lead to:

  • decreased situational awareness
  • poor decision-making
  • reduced ability to handle unexpected events or emergencies

Stress can also cause physical symptoms to manifest themselves, such as:

  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • anxiety

Each of these can further diminish a pilot’s ability to fly safely.

Anger

Anger can be a particularly dangerous emotion for pilots. It can stem from personal conflicts, professional disagreements, financial difficulties, or even frustration with certain in-flight flying conditions. When a pilot is angry, their judgment can be clouded, leading to:

  • impulsive decisions
  • aggressive actions
  • Irrational judgments

As a result, an angry pilot might:

  • take unnecessary risks
  • react poorly to air traffic control instructions
  • handle the aircraft in an otherwise unsafe manner

The heightened emotional state associated with anger can also distract the pilot from essential tasks and checks which they need to perform.

Grief or Sadness

Experiencing grief or deep sadness, perhaps due to a personal loss or a significant life event, can greatly affect a pilot’s mental state.

These emotions can lead to:

  • decreased concentration
  • memory lapses
  • general disinterest in the task at hand
  • ambivalence toward the safety of the flight

A grieving or deeply saddened pilot might miss critical cues, forget to perform routine checks, or be unable to respond appropriately in a crisis. The mental burden caused by the distraction of these emotions can also dampen reaction times and diminish the pilot’s overall alertness.

In all these cases, the emotional state of the pilot can compromise flight safety. It’s crucial for pilots to recognize and address these emotional states, seeking help if necessary, and to avoid flying if their emotional condition could impair their performance.

The aviation industry emphasizes the importance of mental health and emotional well-being for pilots, recognizing that the safety of flight operations is not just a matter of technical skill, but also of the pilot’s mental and emotional state.

Additional Resources

Ensuring aviation safety is a shared responsibility. While the IMSAFE checklist is an essential tool for all pilots, there are numerous resources available that can enhance your understanding of aviation safety. Below are some additional resources for further reading:

ResourceDescription
FAA’s Aviation Safety ProgramThis program offers various courses and seminars to help pilots and other aviation professionals stay current with safety standards and best practices.
The Aviation Safety NetworkThis website provides up-to-date information on aviation incidents, accidents, and safety issues from around the world.
The Flight Safety FoundationThis organization offers resources and information for improving aviation safety, including articles, research, and training programs.
Aviation Safety MagazineThis publication provides the latest news, research, and insights into aviation safety issues and trends.
The DECIDE ModelThe FAA has published a checklist for pilots to follow, in the event that they run into a critical situation that requires prompt decision making to take corrective action to address the issue, during flight.

By staying informed and up-to-date with the latest safety practices, you can ensure that you are doing everything possible to make your next aviation journey as safe as possible.

Stay safe with IMSAFE!

In conclusion, prioritizing safety is critical for a successful aviation journey. The IMSAFE checklist is a comprehensive guide to ensuring your well-being before and during flights. 

By following the guidelines outlined in the IMSAFE checklist, and assessing your personal well-being before each flight, you can mitigate risks and fly with confidence. In doing so, you can be sure that you are in optimal condition to operate an aircraft.

We encourage all of our readers at PilotDiscovery.com to cultivate a safety mindset and engage in continuing education programs, such as The WINGS Program, to help you hone your skills as a pilot.

Max Skyler

Max Skyler is a Private Pilot with nearly 200 hours of total flight time under his belt. He is a freelance writer for PilotDiscovery.com. Flying is not his day job. (He's into computers.) But flying is among his passions and hobbies. He just passed his instrument ground school course, and is getting ready to take the IFR written exam as we speak, in early January 2024! He hopes to earn his instrument writing within a year. We've brought him onto our team to share his insights on all-things general aviation, with our community of readers. Let's wish him good luck on his instrument written exam!

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