The nature of piloting an aircraft can, at times, be fatiguing and stressful. Anecdotal evidence from the aviation industry suggests that one method pilots employ to cope with such situations is to consume caffeine in the form of coffee. Research examining the effects of caffeine on performance primarily focuses on moderate to high dose consumption. The vast majority of this research concludes that caffeine in the moderate to high range, equivalent to between 5mg/kg to 10mg/kg is beneficial not only in assisting with improving alertness, but also in enhancing psychomotor skills, basic cognition and vigilance (Smith, Kendrick, Maben, & Salmon, 1994; Smith & Brice, 2000). In contrast, there appears to be limited research examining the effects of low dose caffeine consumption, of which more typically reflects what is consumed within the aviation industry. Moreover, a typical serving of coffee or tea contains between 30 and 120 mg of caffeine, while cola based drinks contain between 20 and 90 mg of caffeine per serving (Segall, 2000; D’Anci, & Kanarek, 2006). As a result, the primary aim of the current research was to examine the effect of low doses of caffeine on pilots’ performance.
In order to achieve this, 30 pilots were recruited from UNSW Aviation and various flight training schools at Bankstown airport and asked to complete two simulated flights on a computer based flight simulator, with a 30 minute rest period in between. Both flights involved flying an instrument approach into Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International airport. Between the two flights, and depending in which group the participants were randomly assigned, participants were administered a lemon and water based solution with nil caffeine, 1mg/kg caffeine or 3mg/kg caffeine. Flight performance data relating to mean deviation from glide slope in both the vertical and horizontal axis was captured and analysed.
While the vast majority of the literature examining the effects of caffeine on human performance concludes with the benefits associated with consuming a moderate to high dose of caffeine, there appears to be limited research examining the effects of low dose usage, typically what is consumed drinking one or two cups of coffee. As a result the current research sought to address this issue by recruiting 30 qualified pilots and asking them to complete two simulated flights on a computer based flight simulator while blindly receiving a placebo, 1mg/kg, or 3mg/kg of caffeine. The results of the research indicated that caffeine at low doses (1mg/kg or 3mg/kg) has little impact on improving performance in comparison to consuming no caffeine.
While the results of the current research need to be replicated in future studies prior to drawing any concrete conclusions, they do however pose a number of questions regarding the benefits of consuming small amounts of caffeine with the intention to improve performance. Similarly, it would also be unwise to advocate the consumption of moderate to high doses of caffeine to improve performance considering the potential health implications (i.e., heart failure, blood pressure, intoxication).
*Flight Simulator joint property of UWS MARCS and UNSW
D’Anci, K. E., & Kanarek, R. B. (2006). Caffeine, the methylxanthines and behavior. In J. Worobey, B. J. Tepper, & R. B. Kanarek (Eds.), Nutrition and behavior: A multidisciplinary approach (pp. 179-194). Cambridge, MA: Cabi.
Segall, S. (2000). Comparing coffee and tea. In T. H. Parliament, C. Ho (Eds.), Caffeinated beverages (pp. 20-28). Washington, DC: American Chemical Society
Smith, A., Kendrick, A., Maben, A., & Salmon, J. (1994). Effects of breakfast and caffeine on cognitive performance, mood and cardiovascular functioning. Appetite, 22, 39-55.
Smit, H. J., & Rogers, P. J. (2000). Effects of low doses of caffeine on cognitive performance, mood and thirst in low and higher caffeine consumers. Psychopharmacology, 152, 167-173.
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