Navy pilots also combat fatigue with pills
Air Force pilots are not the only U.S. military fliers who can take “go pills” to combat in-flight fatigue on long missions.
Partially based on the Air Force’s experiences with the drug during Operation Desert Storm, the Navy also authorizes dextroamphetamines, known by the brand name Dexedrine, for its pilots, in certain situations.
“Anti-fatigue medication is considered as one tool to manage the effects of operational fatigue,” said Lt. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for the Navy Bureau of Medicine in Washington, D.C. “The use of medication by aviators is tightly controlled by flight surgeons and squadron commanders.”
Operational fatigue is typically seen after three or four days of a heavy work schedule, when a pilot cannot catch a good night’s sleep and is susceptible to a combination of physical and mental fatigue, according to a Navy guidelines.
Based on those guidelines set in 2000, Navy pilots should take go pills only after exhausting other means of maintaining alertness, including frequent “combat napping.”
Short naps of at least 10 minutes — also called combat napping — can help keep pilots both awake and alert during longer flights, according to the Navy's “Performance Maintenance During Continuous Flight Operations: A Guide for Flight Surgeons.”
“Conventional wisdom suggests that the combat nap is sought by junior officers as a means of avoiding the executive officer. From the standpoint of performance maintenance, however, it is probably the most useful tool we have during sustained operations,” the guide states.
“Safety of flight was the primary concern to make the recommendation that anti-fatigue medication be considered,” Kafka said.
While the Navy doesn’t consider Dexedrine a substitute for sleep, it does see it as a tool.
At low dosages — typically 5 milligrams, not exceeding 30 milligrams in 24 hours — the drug can maintain performance levels without side effects, according to the flight surgeons’ guide.
Common side effects can include insomnia, nervousness and appetite loss. Rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, euphoria and depression occur less frequently.
Caffeine, one of the most commonly used non-prescription stimulants, takes a back seat to Dexedrine because it only increases cognitive performance, not actual alertness, Kafka said. It is still recommended for ground crews and was used during flights supporting Operation Southern Watch in August 1992.
Statistics on the numbers of Navy pilots who have used Dexedrine since the policy was implemented were not available at press time, Kafka said.
Leah Bower is a news correspondent working from the Naples, Italy, bureau.