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Does nutrition affect pilot performance?

University of North Dakota commercial aviation students Tim Schuh, left, and Nick Murray eat a specially prepared breakfast on March 25, as part of a research program to study the effects of diet on pilot performance.Chuck Kimmerle / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Elliot Wilson is well on his way to becoming a commercial airline pilot, but that’s not why the University of North Dakota student is eating expensive seafood this semester.

Wilson is one of 15 aviation students in a research study that examines what pilots eat and whether that affects their ability to think and operate an airplane. The pilots are assigned their own dining room on campus where they feast on a variety of foods, including occasional servings of lobster and crab legs.

“It’s way better than what we’re used to on the regular dorm assembly line,” said Elliot Wilson, a commercial aviation major from Seattle. “My friend was in the study last semester and I got very interested when I found out he was eating lobster while I was eating hamburger.”

The four-year study is being funded by a $621,310 grant from the U.S. Army Biomedical Research Command. The primary researchers are Glenda Lindseth, director of research in the university’s nursing department, and her husband, Paul Lindseth, associate dean for academics in aerospace sciences.

Four times a semester, the students gather in their own campus dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner for an entire week. They’re also given an insulated snack bag that often includes homegrown products like soy nuts and beef jerky.

“To get our percentages (of nutrients) right on one of our diets we had to use soy nuts,” said Glenda Lindseth, a registered dietitian. “Then we found out they were being manufactured right up the road, so we thought it was interesting that we were using North Dakota products.”

Prepared portions
The portions are individually measured and prepared to meet base calorie levels, so none of the students gains or loses weight during the study. What the pilots aren’t told is which one of four specific diets they are assigned for that week. They return to their normal eating patterns on other weeks.

“We try to make the meals pretty similar and they are always trying to guess what diet they are on,” Lindseth said, smiling. “Some of them get a little crankier on certain diets.”

Matt Pierce, a student pilot from Fort Collins, Colo., said there’s enough variety in the fare that he’s not sure when he’s on the high-protein, high-carbohydrate, high-fat or control diet. “It could be because I’m not that picky,” he said.

But Wilson said he can tell his macronutrients apart.

“One week I’m eating a whole bunch of meat but no sugar ... hello,” he said. “Another week I was eating sugar cookies and was all hopped up. But the worst week was when I had to eat a bowl of cottage cheese every day.”

At the end of the week, students are tested on their flying skills and mental capacity.

Testing through simulations
The flying tests are done in a flight simulator that can be used to put pilots in especially demanding situations. They are required to make an instrument approach in bad weather where the runway is not visible, then climb out into a holding pattern.

“You want to make sure you are stressing them enough to see a difference, so they are pushed pretty hard,” said researcher Warren Jensen, the school’s director of aeromedical research. “But these are pretty reasonable things that could happen.”

Jensen, a flight surgeon, monitors vital signs and lab tests. Students wear wrist monitors that measure all activity, including sleep patterns.

“It’s a $2,000 watch,” Lindseth said, “but it doesn’t tell time.”

The flight test lasts about 25 minutes. The students also have about 40 minutes to complete three separate exams that measure memory, attention span and three-dimensional perception.

The students do not pay for simulator time, which normally costs about $65 an hour. And the student who performs best in each session receives free flying time on one of the school’s acrobatic planes, worth about $150.

“One thing about student pilots is that they are very competitive and want to do the best they can,” said Thomas Petros, a UND psychology professor who handles the cognitive testing. “They really seem to be into it.”

But not everyone is thrilled about lobster and crab.

“I don’t like seafood,” said Nathan Sill, of Chisago City, Minn. “But you have to eat what they give you."