The importance of coping with stress that pilots are exposed to on a daily basis

2013-08-28

The career of a pilot is often considered to be prestigious and exciting. However, most youngsters are misled by the overly idealistic image and fail to take into account the psychological challenges that the industry professionals have to overcome on a daily basis. Great responsibility for the safety of many passengers, operating an aircraft overnight, flying in bad weather or in a high density traffic area, temporarily getting off course, equipment malfunction, conflicts with other crew members or air traffic control – these are amongst the most common reasons why pilots have to cope with exceptionally high stress levels in their workplace.

Stress is the sum of biological reactions to any adverse stimulus – be it physical, mental, emotional, internal or external – that tends to off-set the body’s natural balance. Stress can be caused by alcohol consumption, self medication, drug abuse, tobacco use, inadequate diet and malnutrition as well as various psychological factors. Fatigue, poor physical fitness and dehydration are also commonly blamed for accelerating increased levels of stress. Although it is difficult to determine or measure the exact impact of stress on pilots, they have no other choice but to simply learn to master the skill of self-control which can prove vital in critical situations.

Despite the fact that pilots have to pass special psychological tests before being admitted to any flight training organization and have to be well prepared to work under intense pressure, the most commonly determined cause of crashes remains to be the human factor. For instance, on the 31st of August, 1987, a Boeing 737-200, operated by Thai Airways, crashed in Phuket, Thailand. While descending, during an approaching daylight and in good weather, the crew lost control of the aircraft and crashed into the sea. After the investigation, experts ruled that the crash was an outcome of a combination of errors made by the flight crew and the air traffic control. All of the nine crew members and 74 passengers were killed.

In 2011 the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio, the USA, carried out a study on whether specialized stress-control training sessions, introduced during the acquisition of simulator-based flight skills, enhance a pilot’s performance during subsequent stressful flight operations in an actual aircraft. It was ascertained that all the research participants who had been specifically trained in various stress control techniques, operated the aircraft more smoothly, as recorded by aircraft telemetry data, and generally better, as recorded by the evaluations provided by professional flight instructors, than did the participants with no such prior training. Therefore, the importance of teaching pilots about proper stress coping mechanisms cannot be overestimated.

Although there are a lot of techniques designed to deactivate stress, specialists claim that the most effective ways for individuals can be mastered by the persons themselves. Observing one’s conduct leads to better solutions in the future. ‘When I find myself in a stressful situation, I try to focus on all the theoretical and practical knowledge gained during training and find the best solution for the problem. Though personality type plays an important role, I believe that good training is essential in order to gain sufficient knowledge and the necessary skills to become a professional pilot, ‘states Andrej, a type rating student at Baltic Aviation Academy.

All in all it is safe to say that emotional preparation, qualified training and willingness to take on high responsibility are mandatory in order to find the best ways to cope with stress that pilots face every day. After estimating all the benefits and drawbacks of a pilot’s career path, an appropriate flying school must be chosen in order to get the best preparation for dealing with stressful situations. What is more, the need for additional stress training for all pilots must be considered.