the effects of stress on pilot performance

A.  stress

Flying fitness is not just a physical condition. It has a definite meaning in the psychological sense as well. It involves the ability of the pilot to perceive, think and act to the best of his ability without the hindering effects of anger, worry and anxiety.

Studies have shown that emotional factors, mental upsets and psychological mal-adjustments are repeatedly present in airplane accidents. The ability to think clearly and act decisively is greatly influenced by the feelings and emotions. In fact, every individual will panic earlier than normal if he is suffering from fatigue, illness, worry or anger. But, even well away from the panic threshold, good judgment is seriously impaired under stress.

There are many factors that contribute to stress in the cockpit. They are generally classed into three categories: physical, physiological or psychological.

Physical stressors include extreme temperature and humidity, noise, vibration, lack of oxygen.

Physiological stressors include fatigue, poor physical condition, hunger, disease.

Psychological stressors relate to emotional factors such as a death or illness in the family, business worries, poor interpersonal relationships with family or boss, financial worries, etc.

It is essential that a pilot be able to recognize when stress levels are getting too high. If you are suffering from domestic stress, if you are undergoing divorce or separation, if you have suffered bereavement, if an argument with your spouse or your boss is still rankling, if worries are building up to an unbearable load, if you have been despondent and moody, the cockpit of your airplane is probably no place for you.

Nevertheless, stress levels do build up in the airplane cockpit, when there are a multitude of decisions to make and tasks to perform. Stress is, in effect, generated by the task itself and is not always negative. The sympathetic nervous system responds to stress and provides us with the resources to cope with the new sudden demands. However, the stress load may easily become unmanageable and a pilot needs to, take measures to manage the stress load so that it does not become so. He needs to learn how to reduce or prevent in advance those stressors over which he has control.

The physiological stressors can be controlled by maintaining good physical fitness and bodily function, by engaging in a program of regular physical exercise, by getting enough sleep to prevent fatigue, by eating a well balanced diet, by learning and practicing relaxation techniques. The physical stressors, can be reduced by making the cockpit environment as stress free as possible. A conscious effort to avoid stressful situations and encounters helps to minimize the psychological stressors. 

B.  panic

There are many things that can happen in the air that cause fear and anxiety. These are normal reactions to a predicament that is out of the ordinary. What is to be avoided is allowing that normal anxiety to progress to, panic.

Panic is a complete disregard for reason and learned responses, a feeling of extreme helplessness. A pilot in the grip of panic will freeze at the controls, will make a totally wrong response or succumb to completely irrational action.

Fatigue, hangover, emotional stress, chronic worry, illness, ail substantially reduce the amount of anxiety an individual can withstand before he succumbs to panic.

The best way to prevent panic is through training and frequent rehearsal of emergency techniques. A pilot who knows his emergency routines so well that they are automatic will be less likely to panic when faced with a real emergency situation.

Lack of self- confidence is, in itself, self-defeating and an open door to panic. Not that a pilot should be fearless, for the fearless pilot has suspended reality testing. He refuses to admit that there is any situation into which he is not competent to venture. Self-confidence is quite another thing. The self-confident pilot can assess the reality of a situation, can call on his reserves of training and knowledge to cope with the situation and does not permit emotion to cloud his reason.

C.  physical fitness

The purpose of this book has been to instruct the pilot in what he should know to be a competent aviator. What he should do is, however, of equal importance. The most competent, knowledgeable and experienced pilot is in business only so long as his medical is valid. Maintaining physical fitness is therefore of prime importance.

Throughout the flying fraternity, there are thousands of pilots in their senior years; who are still enjoying the privileges of their license and using their airplane for pleasure, business and travel. If you want to be flying when you are eligible for the old age pension, now is the time to start looking after your health and maintaining your physical fitness.

The person who is physically active, participating in a regular routine of exercise or sports, will most likely have a healthy heart, lungs and not be overweight. Diet is important, not only to keep weight at an acceptable level, but also in the control of heart disease. The case against smoking as a contributor to lung disease and heart disease is heavily documented. Protection of hearing by wearing earplugs has already been mentioned as has the need to protect the eyes from undue eyestrain.