When the Night is Right

An Aviator’s Perspective on the Benefits of Sleeping Properly
Walter Heneghan
January 08, 2016
By Walter Heneghan
Hamlet’s soliloquy mid-way through Shakespeare’s pivotal work informs my column this issue as I personalize my message to you.


For many years, I have been a troubled sleeper. As far back as my air force days, I was a snorer and over the years have perfected that skill to Olympian levels. I always believed that in spite of this I was getting good sleep; after all I was leading a fairly effective life and managed work and play, I must be OK, right?

My ex always told me that she didn’t mind my snoring; if I was snoring, she knew that I was still alive. (This always oddly comforted me!) But intellectually, I knew that snoring was not a good thing and those odd nights when I awoke gasping for air should have told me that all was not well.

Earlier last year, I spoke to my doctor and was referred to a sleep clinic. It was not, as I had envisioned, an overnight session with EEG and EKG leads attached all-over, in a sleep lab being studied and monitored like a lab rat. Rather, I was assessed by a sleep specialist and then sent home with a device that seemed appropriate to the movie set of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!”

The sleep study device was a headband with several lightweight data units designed to measure brain wave activity, movement, heart rate and oxygen saturation. I didn’t have the most restful sleep but carried through ever curious. I had the device for just one night and then returned to the physician. Diagnosis: Obstructive Sleep Apnea, (OSA). So, now what?

Much has been written over the past few years in aviation circles about sleep disorders; sleep debt and the impact on pilots’ abilities to function at optimum levels. Recent Transport Canada (TC) consultations with industry regarding fatigue management have us much more familiar with circadian effects on pilots, coping strategies and the impact of fatigue on flight safety.

The Colgan Air 3407 accident brought additional scrutiny onto the airline industry especially regarding the fatigue or alertness levels of the pilots. In fact, earlier this year, the FAA issued specific guidance to its medical community regarding the certification process for aircrew with sleep apnea although TC has not yet followed suit. Both the NTSB and TSB have issued accident reports that address pilot fatigue as an ongoing risk factor.

Well, regardless of the regulatory processes and the science that drives it, here is my personal experience. After the diagnosis, I was provided (on loan), a device to assist in my breathing whilst asleep. The Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (or CPAP) device provides a small, constant flow of air via tubing and a mask or cannula to ensure the airway remains open while asleep.

It took some time to adjust to the mask etc. but the result was truly stunning. Two nights into using the CPAP, I was waking up truly rested. In fact, for the first two weeks of use, I was awake most days at 04:30! Apparently the quality of my sleep was such that the 6½ hours or so was sufficiently restorative. I have found myself much less tired during the day, more energized at work and “clearer of thought.” I have the energy to read more. I am retaining more. My mental processes are sharper. My outlook on life is brighter. My general fatigue and weariness including all too frequent headaches are gone.

The shift has been extraordinary and immediate. I now have the perspective provided through epistemic privilege about the truly restorative benefits of sleep. The light in my head has gone from a dim 20-watt incandescent bulb to a 200 watt LED – and all from a good night’s sleep . . . amazing!

So, here is my message to you: If you are tired in the day, sleep poorly, snore or meet any of the risk factors for sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. Get a sleep study done. If you have any diagnosis of a sleep disorder, manage it.

CPAP devices are not inexpensive – mine cost more than $2,500, but many employee health care plans provide coverage. Just do it. I can say unequivocally if the money had to come from my own pocket it would have been worth every red cent!

 “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep . . . it can change your life.


Walter Heneghan is the vice-president for Health, Safety and Environmental Protection with the Summit Air Group of Companies, Ledcor Resources and Transportation, based in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada.


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