Coffee or Energy Drink? What you want your pilot drinking?

by ChrisOquist on January 10, 2013

As I was buckling in for my 6:30 AM flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Houston, I was dreaming about my third cup of coffee that would be served to me once it was safe for the flight attendants to move about the cabin. My first cup was consumed, or rather inhaled, at 4:10 AM, just minutes after my alarm rudely announced it was time to get up. I savored the second cup on the drive to the airport and had I planned a little better, could have boarded the plane with a fresh cup in hand. But all was not lost; fortunately I had time to deposit the first two cups prior to boarding.

While seated on the plane I could see the pilots in the cockpit going through their preflight checklist. I wondered if they had gotten up as early as I and what they use to get their juices flowing in the morning. Personally, I’m not a fan of energy drinks, but they seem to be all the rage lately. A cup of Joe with a little cream is all I need. The cabin door closed without me seeing any beverages being consumed by the pilots and to my knowledge, they weren’t served anything during the flight.

As a private pilot, I wondered if there was anything to Red Bull’s statement that “it gives you wings.” Could these drinks be to pilot performance what the Bose A20 is to pilot hearing? And as a passenger, I asked myself if I want my pilot’s drinking energy drinks or coffee?

FAA guidelines allow for both to be consumed, but warn that amounts determined safe by the pilot’s personal physician should not be exceeded. However, I came across an interesting article on Mens Health website about a study done by Oklahoma State University. The university split 30 student pilots into two groups and asked each to complete a series of flight exercises on two separate days. One group drank an energy drink (16 ounces) and the other a placebo, and then they switched on the second day. The results were pretty scary.

Pilots who consumed the energy drinks had a harder time maintaining straight and level flight, were 10 seconds slower to return their plane to the proper position after executing a complex turn, and were 5 seconds slower to complete an emergency checklist than those drinking the placebo.

Dr. Conrad Woolsey, Ph. D. explained that although the energy drinks probably made them more alert and less drowsy, the combination of caffeine, taurine, sugar and various other stimulants actually makes it difficult for your body and brain to perform multiple, simultaneous tasks. And multiple, simultaneous tasks makes up the majority of a pilot’s actions.

I’m definitely going to stick to coffee when I’m pilot-in-command, but I’m going to keep my intake at a minimum. Although the study didn’t include coffee consumption, I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t be hard to overdo it with Columbia’s finest. Maybe I’ll just have decaf on flying days… yeah right.

About the author.
Chris Oquist is an Internet marketer and website developer for Banyan Pilot Shop – a worldwide leader in aviation and pilot supplies. As a private pilot living in South Florida, Chris has a passion for aviation safety and pilot education, and frequently writes on the latest aviation technologies that help make our skies safer to fly.

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