Whenever a demand is placed on a person, that person's body has an
uncontrollable stress reaction. These demands might be environmental, physical,
and psychological, and can be pleasant or unpleasant. Stress might come from
environmental sources, such as the noise and vibration of the airplane, hot or
cold cabin temperature, or persistent turbulence. Examples of physical stressors
include lack of sleep, hunger, illness, pain, lack of fitness, or needing to go
to the bathroom. Common psychological stressors are work and family demands,
money problems, and schedule demands.
Some stress can be positive and helpful, while too much stress negatively
impacts a pilot's physical health and ability for sound decision making. Lack of
stress results in complacency. With increasing demands, the stress response
improves the pilot's ability to meet the challenge of those demands. However,
everyone has a limit. When stress becomes too great, the pilot becomes
overloaded. At this point, the pilot can no longer handle the situation, and
performance drops sharply.
The demands placed on a pilot vary during each flight. A higher workload
is experienced during the takeoff and initial climbout relative to the taxi out,
while the en route phase of flight involves very little workload. The greatest
workload is imposed during the approach and landing. Because a pilot's ability
to handle stress will lessen somewhat during the flight, the pilot typically has
the least capability to accept additional stresses without becoming overloaded
during the approach and landing phase of each flight.
The difference between the stress placed on the pilot and the amount of stress
the pilot can handle is referred to as the margin of safety. Through stress
management, a pilot can increase this margin of safety.
Often managing stress can be as simple as finding ways to reduce the demands
that cause it. Showing up at the airport at the same time as your passengers
places a time demand on the pilot during the preflight preparations. This stress
is increased a great deal should some problem need to be dealt with, but could
be avoided by arriving at the airport an hour or so before your passengers.
Bringing a bottle of water, wearing comfortable clothes, and practicing what I call
"preventative urination" prior to the flight reduces many physical stressors.
Proper planning and good decision making before the flight allow you to avoid
stress during the flight. Many pilots consider 90% of the work that goes into a
flight to take place before the engine is even started. This is because most
things that will be dealt with during the flight can be dealt with, or at least
planned for, before the flight. Develop a good plan and take care of problems
before the flight. Then the flight will be relaxing and enjoyable. More
importantly, you will be in a better position to handle the additional stress
should something unexpected occur during the flight.
Stress must also be managed beyond the scope of an individual flight. There are
several ways known to reduce the general stress which accompany the demands of
life. For example, working out and maintaining a healthy diet is known to reduce
stress. A few minutes in the car or hangar with some relaxing music might help
to establish the right mindset for good decision making.
If there is some stressor that can't be managed, it is important that this
stress be evaluated logically. It's not enough that the stress be low enough
such that the pilot can handle the stress of an everyday flight. The pilot must
be able to handle the additional stress, which would accompany an abnormal or
emergency situation. If a pilot is unable to handle this additional stress, he
or she is not fit for flight, and their medical certification is not valid under these conditions.
Stress can be difficult to recognize, since it can accumulate very slowly over
time. A pilot may be well beyond their ability to cope with the possible demands
of a flight, but feel they are fine. There are several subtle signs, indicators
that may present themselves in this situation. Which indicators will present
themselves depend on how the person copes with stress.
People cope with stress in two ways. The first type deals with the stress
inwardly. This type of person will exhibit a subtle appearance of sadness,
withdrawal, and preoccupation, similar to the symptoms of mild depression. The
second type of person pushes stress out to his or her environment, displaying
aggressive behavior toward others or even inanimate objects.
Stress also affects physical health. Not only is poor physical health often an
indicator of stress, it often increases stress.
One important aspect of decision making is to always remember to place control
of the airplane before everything else. Everyone has the natural tendency toward
focusing on a problem, especially when overloaded. The routine aspects of the
flight are considered as taken care of and can be neglected. Many times pilots
have become distracted by analyzing a past mistake. Manage the demands of the
situation while maintaining aircraft control and situational awareness as
priorities. The common phrase used when discussing priorities and workload
management is "aviate, navigate, communicate".
Planning is one way in which workload can be managed. The en route phase of
flight has a low workload when compared to the approach and landing phase.
Obtaining weather reports, planning pattern entry procedures, setting up
navigation and communications radios, and briefing passengers are all things
that can be done prior to the approach and landing phase. By doing so, the pilot
reduces the workload during the approach and landing, and the margin of safety