Becoming a professional airline pilot is a coveted and prestigious position. However, it is also one that requires fortitude and a tough mentality, due to the increasing levels of stress that pilots are exposed to on a regular basis. There are several sources of stress for a typical pilot, not least of which is the number of lives which are in their care with every flight. In fact, Career Cast ranked this vocation as the third most stressful job in 2012. (1) The above-average income associated with the job was the only reason that it wasn’t ranked even higher.
Stress is a biological response of the body to adverse stimulus, which can be internal or external. In the case of a pilot, he or she experiences both types of stress. Stressful situations can also be both expected and unexpected, and the pilot is often under tremendous pressure to deal with these sources of stress instantly.
Sources of Stress
There are several categories of stress whose presence is enough to increase the dangers of flying substantially, and we can classify them broadly into three different groups: physical, physiological and psychological. (2) Each of these categories individually may create significant amounts of stress for a pilot.
- Physical stressors
Brought on by unpleasant conditions in the cockpit of the airplane such as too much noise, vibration, humidity or lack of oxygen.
- Physiological stressors
Disturbances within the body itself such as fatigue, hunger or various illnesses.
- Psychological stressors
These include the death of a family member, arguments with the spouse, money problems etc.
These are very broad categorizations of stress. In reality pilots have to deal with several sources of stress, some which are general and others that are specific to their line of work. Here are the three most common sources of stress faced by pilots.
Fatigue is a major cause of pilot stress, and one that is shared with many different lines of work. A pilot is often required to stay focused and aware for very long periods of time.
- Working hours
Another major problem that adds to a pilot’s fatigue level is the irregular working hours. Very few pilots are able to keep a steady working schedule. They are expected to fly at all times of the week, both day and night and in all kinds of weather conditions. This irregular schedule has been shown, time and time again, to cause both mental and physical problems.
- Jet lag
In addition to the strain caused by irregular working hours, pilots need to contend with regular jetlag. Getting insufficient sleep only adds to a pilot’s fatigue levels, but is almost unavoidable for an airline pilot. Another troubling issue is that there is disagreement between various flight organizations such as regulatory agencies and unions regarding the seriousness of fatigue as being a real problem for pilots.
These are the typical stress sources for pilots, but there are several other factors to contend with that are specific to a pilot and his career. Dealing with these factors is a large part of flight training, but under certain circumstances, especially when other stressors are involved, they can be difficult to cope with.
- Harsh weather conditions
Bad conditions are something in which every pilot is trained, yet it still represents a significant source of stress every time it happens. Weather can be extremely unpredictable and there is often little time to mentally prepare.
There is a huge responsibility placed on the shoulders of each airline pilot. They realize that several hundred people may die if they make a mistake. When something unexpected happens, such as equipment malfunction or turbulence, it is easy for panic to set in. At these times, a pilot must remain calm and collected in order to maintain the safety of his passengers and flight crew.
Most people understand that being an airline pilot is a high-pressure and stressful job. Comprehensive screening programs are in place to ensure that our pilots have the mental fortitude to deal with the everyday stress they will experience. Some stressors have also been mitigated by technology, as on-board computers have progressively taken on more of the flying duties. However, many other sources of stress remain, including the ones listed above. Job-related stress is still a major problem for pilots and airlines. This is an important area of study, as the ability of an overstressed pilot to do his job affects much more than just his own life.
Coping with Stress
Researchers have examined many different ways of reducing stress among pilots. One such study was completed in 2011 at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio. (3) The study examined if stress-control sessions performed in a training flight simulator were able to enhance a pilot’s real life performance in an actual aircraft during stressful circumstances. The study did, indeed, show that pilots who received this kind of specialized training prior to flying were capable of handling stressful situations better. Their performances in the aircraft were less affected by stress after completing the training. These results were confirmed by telemetry data, as well as the personal evaluations recorded by flight instructors.
Despite the positive results shown by these stress-control training sessions, most professionals still believe that the best ways of dealing with stress are personal, and will vary from pilot to pilot. It is important to remember that there are other variables at play here, such as a pilot’s personality, flying time, and external sources of stress such as chronic illness or emotional stress. Stress-control training has a role to play, but it is hard to say that any particular stress relief process would work equally well with all pilots.
1. CareerCast, “The Most Stressful Jobs of 2012 – #3: Airline Pilot”, http://www.careercast.com/content/most-stressful-jobs-2012-3-airline-pilot.
2. PilotFriend, “The effects of stress on pilot performance”, http://www.pilotfriend.com/training/flight_training/human/stress.htm.
3. Baltic Aviation Academy, “The Importance Of Coping With Stress That Pilots Are Exposed To On A Daily Basis”, http://www.balticaa.com/the-importance-of-coping-with-stress-that-pilots-are-exposed-to-on-a-daily-basis-2/