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Stressed Out or Stretched beyond…?

‘Stress’ is the sum of all non-specific changes caused by a situational disturbance in the psycho-physiological milieu of an individual, pilots included!

Pilots operate in a three-dimensional dynamic environment, often under the pressure of limited time. The aerospace operational environment is rich in potential stresses: physical, physiological and psychological. While the majority, with time, learn to cope with the routine stresses of aviation, undoubtedly some pilots may continue to remain stressed out. Being under stressful conditions, is like stretching a rubber/elastic band, which snaps when pulled beyond its capacity. Similar is the state of a “stressed out pilot”, who when stretched beyond tolerance, could have compromised performance in flight, thus affecting the aviation safety.Briefly, there are physiological and environmental stresses encountered during flight. These include the physical work of piloting, heat, cold, noise, vibration, hypoxia and acceleration etc. Inherent psychological stress factors include information overload, continuous vigilance and anxiety. Compounding the stresses encountered in aviation could be lack of sleep, inadequate recovery from fatigue or even the adverse influences of alcohol or (prescribed or prohibited) drugs. Organisational stresses stemming from role ambiguity and conflict are known to aggravate stress levels.

The in-flight work load and related stresses imposed on a pilot induce a series of non-specific changes. These may lead to situational disturbance in the psycho-physiological milieu of the individual. So also, performance can be adversely affected by the psycho-physiological limitations of human body, where pilot(s), while handling modern inherently unstable aircraft with its advanced flight management system, are in control but in a limited sort of way! Invariably flying in adverse conditions imposes considerable physical and psychological stresses on the aircrew.

While being in the cockpit, a pilot is not immune to the the excess baggage of incipient psychological stresses too. These may include inter-personal relationship in the cockpit or in the airline/company, relationship/marital (dis-)harmony, social commitments, financial status and illnesses of self or family members.

In addition to the evident in-flight stresses, pilots may face anxiety provoking conditions with novelty, uncertainty and unpredictability, in turn aggravating stress. In case of a pilot burdened with information overload, say while learning to fly or under check when changing from one aircraft type to another, or even during an emergency, (s-)he could perceive the prevailing situation as very stressful, which at times may overwhelm their psycho-physiological responses. This adversely strains the human stress coping response, affecting both physical and mental ability to perform the assigned task of piloting. It is worrisome that those with poor ability to cope with such situations can show erratic, inadequate or improper behaviour under stress. Such stressful situations could prove critical during decision making, resulting at times in wheels-up landings, over-/undershot approaches, etc., mostly with ex post facto red faces, but sometimes with tragic consequences to aviation safety.

Limiting to the subject of stress and performance, it is the nonspecific stress responses of the body that demands particular attention. Stress affects pilot performance by influencing some common intermediate variable. This intermediate variable is ‘arousal’. The arousal reaction to stress is accompanied by hormonal, cardiovascular and muscular reactions to prepare the human being for “fight or flight” reaction. This is reflected by enhanced metabolic activity at the cellular and the organs/systems level, with increased pumping of blood enriched with energy rich glucose for ready delivery of optimal activity in preparation for the evolutionary “fight or flight” reaction. This is meant to increase the alertness and motor capability of the individual, as much of use on terra firma as in the air. Till an optimal level of activation the performance efficiency increases. But excessive level of response could lead to a decrement in performance – a situation to watch out for!

There are stress coping techniques in aviation which have evolved over the years. The conventional flying training, the SOPs, CRM and LOFT in commercial aviation, and the ‘flip’ carried by the combat pilot are some of the effective tools meant to help a pilot be in the grip of the situation, including stressful ones. However, whenever a pilot feels that (s-)he is passing through a phase where his/her abilities to cope with stress associated with aviation duties, it is prudent that (s-)he seeks professional help.

Acknowledgment: Image courtesy www.freedigitalphotos.net

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