Caffeine and Quality

Building time.

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Is coffee fueling your mistakes? Easing up might help your work product.

Shakey Blake’s nervous system was fueled by caffeine. He’d arrive to work at 7 a.m., trembling, and head for the coffee maker with a 16-ounce Mountain Dew already in hand. He was as thin as a mobster’s alibi and as jumpy as a mobster’s mark. He was also an Air Force weapons load-crew team chief. Thankfully, his darting demeanor and trembling hands only connected a grease pencil to a checklist, not the cannon plugs of a nuclear weapons launcher to the nervous system of a B-52. His aircraft logbook entries were illegible. “Airman, does this say two, or five, short-range attack missiles are loaded in the aft bomb bay?

“I…I think it’s an eight, sir.” (I knew it was eight because I helped put them there, but it’s always best to let your boss think you are just as confused as they are—maybe more so.)

I (ab)use(d) caffeine myself. At first, my caffeine came from soda. On hot, muggy nights at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base, with no air conditioning in the dorm, I’d even down a cold Mt. Dew before bed. My coffee habit began in Minot, where the Cold War grew particularly bitter in the winter months. In the early 1980s, we B-52 weapons loaders had very little loading to do on a daily—or even weekly—basis. Mostly we hoped the already-loaded alert aircraft didn’t take off and we cleaned the tools, trucks and floors we had cleaned the day before. We also hung out in the squadron snack bar.

It was from the cold and tedium that I took to coffee, to stay warm and keep occupied. I found having a cup of coffee in hand was a great prop from which to take long, dramatic sips as I regaled fellow loaders with stories of growing up in Oshkosh and flying Cessnas. Back then, caffeine didn’t bother me. Neither did sugar, excessive humidity or modern music.

But today, as I ripen into upper-middle age, my tolerance for all four is greatly reduced. By midmorning I’ve consumed two cups of coffee and my fingers dance across my keyboard, nearly spelling words. After two cups I’m less accurate marking 32nds with an ultra-fine Sharpie and I can’t deftly guide the tip of a drill bit to a specific point on a part nor an AN3 bolt into a tight-fit hole. My attempts look like a honeybee dancing the directions to a distant field of tulips.

Airshow coverage sponsor:
A drill bit wandered and marred this panel. The primary causes of this are dull drill bits and over-caffeinated builders. Both causes are preventable.

Does Aviation Have a Caffeine Problem?

I’ve found coffee and aviation are inexorably linked. Three smells trigger my aviation memories: avgas, airplane exhaust and burning coffee. I can’t recall flying lessons without recalling the smell of coffee burning in a pot—even in the evening. Coffee is part and parcel to running an FBO. (Charts? Check. Cheap headsets for the students? Check. Old issues of Aviation Safety? Check. Sun-faded King Schools VHS tapes? Check. Burning coffee? Check.) Coffee is a staple at breakfast fly-ins, EAA chapter meetings and crisp mornings at AirVenture. But, as I noted above, it can impact workmanship and, as you will soon read, it can impact airmanship. I’m going to briefly turn my column over to KITPLANES® reader Brooks T., who inspired this topic, while I top off my cup. Brooks wrote:

“Some years ago I took up soaring. I had no power-pilot background to speak of though I’d been a fairly frequent flyer in all sorts of aircraft. I did have motorcycle experience where hand-eye coordination, depth perception, speed judgment and a sense of balance are developed. I found a blue-collar glider club (shabby old gliders, low dues, cheap tows) in the Deep South’s Smoky Mountains. My CFI-G was a great guy who taught newbies in an ancient L-13. On our early flights on-tow I was all over the sky. My instructor was very good at quick saves, the tow pilot tolerant. But…I should be good at this! I was appalled, embarrassed, apologetic.

“Back on the ground at the end of yet another hither-and-yon tow, the instructor asked, ‘How much coffee do you drink before we fly?’ I think he noticed when it was my turn I’d screw the top back on my thermos and join him. ‘Lessee, one to wake up, a refill with breakfast, one or two on the way to the airport (an hour’s drive), another here waiting my turn—five cups I guess.’ ‘Try drinking one cup before your next lesson,’ he said. ‘Substitute juice, water, anything wholesome, but only one cup of coffee.’

“I did that and I was still awake by my time to fly. I held a high tow perfectly. The one slack rope I caught easily with a gentle detour to the side. Hot dog! It was like somebody flipped a switch! I’ve since cut down on coffee when about to do anything of the kind and my performance has improved. I’m less nervous. There’s no drama. Same with trying to read, comprehend and remember something complex.”

Coffee and aviation seem inseparable. My habit began as a way to stay warm during the Cold War.

How Much Is Too Much?

Non-medically speaking, Dr. Google says 400 milligrams of caffeine, from all sources, is a good place to cap your intake. The FDA estimates a 12-ounce can of a caffeinated soft drink contains 30 to 40 milligrams of caffeine. An 8-ounce cup of coffee has 80 to 100 milligrams. “All sources” would include decongestants and other medications you may be on. Mixing caffeine with ephedrine, which is used in decongestants, can increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke or seizure. Needless to say (the accepted preface to things that need to be said), if you are under a doctor’s care for high blood pressure or have suffered a heart attack, stroke or seizure you should follow their orders on caffeine intake. For the rest of us, if you feel jittery, anxious or wired, your hands tremble, you don’t sleep well or your concentration seems poor—you may be consuming too much caffeine. And that is surely impacting your workmanship and flying precision.

If you drink soda or those so-called “energy” drinks, the empty 12-ounce cans or 16-ounce bottles make it pretty easy to track your caffeine intake. Coffee drinkers don’t always have a clear measure of their caffeine intake. We drink from various-sized cups and mugs—often filled, refilled, topped off and warmed up from a community pot. A server comes by and wordlessly holds forth a vessel filled with black magic while raising an eyebrow in our direction and we respond, “Just a splash.” Five splashes and two warm-ups later we excuse ourselves from the morning coffee klatch, scrawl an illegible signature on a credit card receipt and announce we’re heading to the hangar to solder 26-gauge wire to the microswitches of a 12-function joystick grip. If this sounds familiar, it may be why your radio squeals when you transmit.

I became aware of my coffee problem when I noticed I drank coffee for something to do while I composed responses to email, waited for a printer to print or searched for the right words while writing. I drank coffee while I waited for the coffee to brew. I’ve learned to limit my intake to two cups—no more warm-ups or top-offs.

Caffeine is a drug, albeit a legal one. Then again, heroin and cocaine were once legal. If you lean on caffeine like so many of us do, take a look in the mirror or, better yet, at your hands and workmanship to see if you may be leaning a little too hard. Gotta go, my cup is empty.

Photos: Kerry Fores.

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Kerry Fores grew up jumping the airport fence in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He wanted to build an airplane in 10th-grade woodshop but was asked to choose a smaller project. In 1998, unconstrained by teachers, Kerry scratch built a Sonex he polished and named Metal Illness. It was awarded Plans Built Champion at AirVenture 2006. Kerry is on the web at thelifeofdanger.com.

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