The Air Force Is Studying Ways to Help Airmen Sleep Better

FacebookTwitterPinterestEmailShare
An Airman wears a continuous positive-air pressure mask in the 673d Medical Group Sleep Disorder Clinic at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Hospital, Alaska, Oct. 30, 2015. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Christopher R. Morales)
An Airman wears a continuous positive-air pressure mask in the 673d Medical Group Sleep Disorder Clinic at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Hospital, Alaska, Oct. 30, 2015. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Christopher R. Morales)

The Air Force has begun a formal study to analyze the sleep habits of airmen in an effort to prevent mistakes and mishaps caused by exhaustion.

The service said its 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, will examine sleep, fatigue and overall performance by tracking sleep habits "while also evaluating sleep-monitoring technology to ensure its accuracy and ability to work in an operational setting," officials said in a recent release.

"It's a multi-pronged approach to studying sleep and fatigue," said Dr. Glenn Gunzelmann, 711th HPW Airman Systems Directorate training core technical competency lead, in the release.

"Providing airmen with information on their sleep patterns and history helps airmen understand how sleep affects their operational effectiveness," Gunzelmann added. "Giving leadership this data also helps inform policy and how to account for sleep needs in their planning."

Related: Smartwatches Could Help Air Force Pilots, Crew Recognize Dangerous Fatigue

The service said it will develop ideas to reduce exhaustion, with some already being workshopped in a NATO aircrew fatigue management working group. The group also includes Army and Navy researchers, according to the release.

The working group is constructing a "sleep toolbox," which officials say will "have educational resources on fatigue risk assessment with ways for mitigation."

"It will also have information on insomnia, including cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia and other sleep disorders," the release states.

"Our current operations cross over multiple time zones, resulting in circadian rhythm issues, sleep deprivation or insufficient sleep," Lt. Col. Dara Regn, U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine internal medicine branch chief, said in the release. Both Regn and Gunzelmann participate in the group.

"As partner nations, we all deal with similar challenges, like increased mission tempo, long-range missions and pilot shortages. We are working together to optimize our pilots and bring back the importance of sleep," Regn said.

The pooled resources will be made available through an open-source NATO website as well as a "secure offline application," the officials said.

The overall goal is to reduce detrimental sleep habits that lead to fatigue or exhaustion, especially in the pilot community.

"About 80% of aviation accidents are due to human error, and pilot fatigue accounts for about 15 to 20%of that," Regn said.

It's not the first time the Air Force has looked for better sleep habit solutions.

For the last few years, Air Force Maj. Alexander Criss has researched ways to get more rest for pilots and crew heading out for operations across the globe.

Through his study, Criss, who has flown as a C-21, KC-10 and C-5 pilot, found that more than half of mobility pilots -- 53% -- were flying "during this window when their body thinks they should be sleeping," he said during a recent interview with Military.com.

Criss, now assigned to U.S. Transportation Command in Illinois, said his research helped with the development of a smartwatch app and system that aims to help pilots and crew understand their bodies' rhythms and when they're most drowsy.

The project, known as the Better Effectiveness Through Tracking Yourself, or BETTY, "helps fill a gap in our current fatigue risk management system," Criss said.

While BETTY is a multi-pronged process, the data-gathering system includes a wristwatch that measures a pilot's circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates a person's sleep-wake cycle.

"Circadian rhythm disruption ... is when our bodies are out of sync with our sleep and wake cycles," Criss said. After flying, many people feel jet lag because the body and mind interpret differently when they should be asleep or awake, he explained.

A proposed software app would monitor data from the watch, in addition to comparing and contrasting it through some of the sleep models that are already out there, he said.

The combined data can act as a sleep assistant.

Criss' efforts have been worthwhile: In May, David Shahady, director of the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Program, offered Criss and his team a $1.5 million commitment for a Small Business Innovation Research program.

Air Force-led organizations "put some money behind it to say, 'We want to solve this problem,' which is awesome," Criss said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

Read More: Air Force Base Announces New Restrictions on Personal Weapons

Show Full Article