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.

Managing Stress

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.

Recognizing Stress

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.

Workload Management

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 is increased.