Of the many physiological factors that can affect our ability to handle difficult tasks, stress may be the most familiar to us, but also among the most difficult to mitigate. While its detrimental effects can be significant even to multi-person flight crews, single-pilot operators may face the greatest risks from stress at the worst possible time.
“Single pilot operations top the list of all the things I worry about in aviation, because it’s one of the few areas without a backup,” said Dr. Greg Vanichkachorn, transportation section chief and senior aviation medical examiner at the Mayo Clinic. “Everything is on their shoulders, which makes stress reduction even more important.”
All of us feel some degree of stress in our everyday lives, Vanichkachorn continued, though our reactions to it may differ drastically.
“We wouldn’t fly without monitoring the engine, so, of course, we should also monitor ourselves,” he said. “Look for possible indications of stress – a tightened grip on the [aircraft] controls, or the steering wheel as you drive to the airport – and other signs that may make it more difficult to make proper judgments.
“We wouldn't fly without monitoring the engine, so, of course, we should also monitor ourselves.”
Dr. Greg Vanichkachorn transportation section chief & senior aviation medical examiner, Mayo Clinic
“It’s always such an irony to me how we all apply so much attention to detail to our aircraft, yet we overlook those same steps with ourselves,” he continued. “We seldom second-guess performing maintenance or overhauls on an engine; we really need to think of maintenance for ourselves, too.”
Fortunately, the effects of stress are now widely acknowledged throughout the industry, with several resources available to help pilots recognize the signs of stress and mitigate them appropriately when preparing for a flight and making the final go/no-go decision.
“Perhaps the most effective way our industry has addressed stress is the simple fact that we’re talking about it,” said Elliott Fisher, a pilot with Polymer Resources and founder of aviation educational consulting firm Base to Final LLC. “There should be no stigma to acknowledging the times we’ve let stress affect our performance in the cockpit, as long as we learn from those experiences and improve.”
Performing a Mental Checkup
One of the simplest tools to combat stress may be a mnemonic instilled in many pilots from their earliest days of flight training.
“I’m a big fan of the IMSAFE checklist [Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Emotion],” Vanichkachorn said. “It’s a good chance for single pilots to stop, give ourselves a once-over and ensure we’re prepared for the flight.”
NBAA’s Risk Management Guide for Single-Pilot Light Business Aircraft also addresses the effects from stress to overall decision-making. The guide includes a comprehensive Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT) worksheet that single pilots can use to assess the overall risk likelihood and severity for all identified risks for a given flight.
Using a FRAT can also help single pilots ascertain the likelihood of potentially stressful situations ahead of a flight and use that assessment to help them make the final go/no-go decision. Different pilots may have different triggers for stress, so it’s also important that pilots apply FRAT results against their own stress profiles in addition to company policies.
“One of the most stressful environments for me when flying single pilot is landing VFR at an unfamiliar airport,” Fisher said. “It seems counterintuitive, but the number of variables that can come into play can result in a riskier and more stressful situation than when flying an IFR approach at minimums.”
As with other aspects of operational safety, proper planning is also key toward mitigating the effects from stress on the flight deck.
“Preparation helps us to avoid ugly surprises that can send our stress levels soaring.”
Charlie Precourt chair of the Citation Jet Pilots Association’s Safety and Education Foundation
“Preparation helps us to avoid ugly surprises that can send our stress levels soaring,” said four-time space shuttle astronaut Charlie Precourt, who now serves as chair of the Citation Jet Pilots Association (CJP) Safety and Education Foundation and the CJP Safety Committee.
Precourt pointed to his own time with NASA as an example. “We spent all our time when not actually flying preparing to immense levels of detail to handle difficult situations,” said Precourt. “It’s always better to be able to say, ‘I’ve seen this before and I know how to handle it,’ rather than to be faced with a big question mark at the absolute worst moment.”
Last year, CJP launched its “Safe to Land” initiative to reduce runway mishaps, encompassing new procedures and callouts at specific “gates,” beginning from top-of-descent and continuing through the approach and landing. Such defined procedures can also help pilots keep their stress levels in check, Precourt said.
There are 14 steps to the approach checklist on most Citation jets, he explained. “When items get missed or performed so late when your available time is already compressed, it obviously increases stress. Safe to Land helps pilots develop better procedures and manage the checklist as verification of their flows.”
Fisher echoed the importance of checklists when facing a stressful situation during a flight. “Flows on the [Pilatus] PC-12 I fly are pretty intuitive and the checklists are fairly short, but I still go through each step as a challenge-and-response to myself. Even if the passengers may think I’m crazy when I’m saying the steps out loud,” he laughed.
In addition to checklists, Todd Hotes, flight operations management and chief pilot for Polymer Resources, also emphasized how a FRAT, a full safety management system (SMS) or employing crew resource management/single-pilot resource management (CRM/SRM) all contribute to mitigating stress for single pilots.
“These are all tools we have available to us to help make us more professional pilots,” he said, “and becoming a more professional pilot, in turn, reduces our stress levels.”
What We Can Do
Learning to properly manage external stress factors is another important duty for single pilots. Vanichkachorn pointed to company employee assistance programs (EAPs) and outside counseling options for times when pilots may face life challenges that seem greater than their own ability to overcome them.
“It’s okay to talk to someone,” he said. “One positive result from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we now even have online therapy options available – and none of those options in any way risks your medical [certificate] with the FAA when medication isn’t involved.”
Adapting healthier lifestyle habits, including exercise and diet, can also help mitigate the effects from stress. However, ensuring proper rest and avoiding fatigue may offer the strongest benefits.
“I liken sleep to an oil change for the brain,” Vanichkachorn said. “We often aren’t focused on the need for quality sleep, so we really need to pay attention to proper sleep hygiene,” including good airflow, reduced light interruptions and the self-discipline to resist checking your smartphone at 2 am.
“Don't beat yourself up for not handling it perfectly. Just make note of what you could do better next time.”
Todd Hotes flight operations management and chief pilot, Polymer Resources
Even the successful completion of a flight may still bring about stress, as pilots tend to also be their own worst critics.
“Never feel embarrassed or ashamed to be in a stressful situation,” Hotes said. “Don’t beat yourself up for not handling it perfectly. Just make note of what you could do better next time.”
“I’ve never had a flight where I thought everything went absolutely perfectly,” Precourt agreed. “A post-flight debrief, even with yourself, is a good way to identify areas where stress got to you, so you can then park in your brain the idea you’ll do better next time.
“That’s a critical thing in learning to acknowledge stress without obsessing about it,” he concluded, “and most of us don’t do it enough.”