Terry Deitz placed third on the twelfth season of the long-running television show Survivor, living on a remote beach in Panama with little access to food and shelter, and competing in a series of challenges. Being on the show was stressful, but a fun kind of stress, he says. Compared to his day job as a pilot, it was a walk in the park.
Pilot often tops the list of most stressful careers, both in the amount of perceived stress and on quantifiable metrics of stress, like rates of burnout and health issues, says Erin Bowen, chair of the Behavioral and Safety Science Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
For pilots, the basic requirements of the job are a major source of stress. “Number one, it’s what we call a high-consequence industry,” Bowen says. “When pilots make mistakes, the consequences can be catastrophic.”
Deitz first flew F-14’s off of aircraft carriers in the Navy, and now he flies commercial airplanes for American Airlines. He says the consequences of error are always in the back of his mind. “There are 150 people sitting behind me,” he says. “But that really means 15,000. Because 100 people are going to go to each one of those people's funerals. That’s how I think about it.”
The day-to-day work of a pilot is unstable, and often unpredictable. They’re away from home, and from their families, for long stretches of time. The job isn’t a typical 9-to-5— instead, pilots fly overnight from timezone to timezone, at strange hours. “The ups and downs are constant, and we fly at all different times of the day,” Deitz says. “It’s a stress on your body.”
Takeoff and landing are the trickiest parts of a given flight, requiring all of a pilot’s attention and mental energy. Heart rate increases during those windows, studies show. “You’re ready for the worst thing that can happen,” Deitz says.
For the rest of the flight, it’s usually smooth sailing, watching the monitors and making sure the autopilot is on track. But it’s also hard to stay alert and ready throughout the flight, even when there isn’t much going on, and that toggle from high- to low-demand can also take a toll, Bowen says.
Psychologists think about stress on a curve: At the bottom, without stress, it’s hard to perform with excellence. As stress and arousal start to creep up, performance does too. “The anxiousness and butterflies means your spidey senses are tingling," Deitz says, "and your adrenaline is going, and that’s a good thing to have."
But if stress creeps past that midpoint, performance starts to drop off. Too-high levels of stress mean exhaustion, panic, and blunted brain power. That’s when mistakes happen. “There are some pretty significant consequences to having that level of ongoing stress,” Bowen says. “You’re more likely to make errors.”
Stress is a catch-all for the body’s response to any sort of demand, ranging from a psychological pressure to a physical, tangible aspect of the environment. Some amount of it is beneficial, and can keep pilots tuned in and ready to go. Too much, though, can hamper their performance. For airlines and industry groups, preventing accidents means devising tools and programs to keep pilots from tipping over that line.
To reduce fatigue, which is linked to stress, rules and regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limit the number of hours a pilot can fly and how much rest they need. During a 24-hour period, a pilot flying alone can’t log more than eight hours, for example, and they have a ten-hour minimum rest period before taking off.
A system called Crew Resource Management (CRM), implemented in the 1970s after a series of accidents, also operates as a check on stress and human error in pilots. CRM training is designed to help pilots and crew members develop efficiency communication and decision-making skills. “It was also saying, this is what fatigue looks like, and this is how to recognize it in your co-pilot,” Bowen says. From that point on, she says, the airlines worked to develop a culture where pilots would hold other pilots accountable when they weren’t fit to fly. “It was about not protecting their buddy, but protecting overall safety,” Bowen says.
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One of the biggest barriers was changing the culture, Bowen says. At the time, most pilots were ex-military men, and were reluctant to acknowledge when they weren’t operating at 100 percent. “But now it’s acceptable to talk about the stress,” she says. “It’s not the days of the tough guys anymore.”
Many airlines, along with the FAA, are also implementing anonymous reporting systems, Bowen says. “It’s for early intervention, for if you see something, and you don’t think it’s a problem now, but it might become one later.” Pilots could also report their own screwup. “They could say, I realize I shouldn’t have been flying, but no one stopped me,” she says.
In 2016, the FAA established a center of excellence around technical training and human performance. Research through the center will look at everything from age and mental decline, to the best ways to train pilots, Bowen says. “It’s to figure out what we can do that balances the efficiency needs of the airline with what’s optimal for the pilots.”
Pilot mental health is another big issue to tackle, says Quay Snyder, a former Air Force flight surgeon and a member of the Aerospace Medical Association Working Group on Pilot Mental Health. Pilots are often reluctant to acknowledge the effect that emotional stressors might have on their ability to fly, he says.
“They’re slow to recognize mental health issues,” he says, “and they might think there’s a stigma against asking for help.” Pilots are required to go through medical certification every few years, and part of that process is reporting any visits to any doctors—including mental health professionals. “They might view that as a barrier, and think that asking for help might stop them from being certified,” Snyder says. “But it’s not a black-and-white decision.”
Unaddressed depression or anxiety, though, can compound the already-high levels of stress pilots experience, and might make them more likely to make errors. Many airlines are starting to implement peer-support programs to talk about mental health issues, which Snyder says is a good strategy to use with pilots. “Pilots trust pilots,” he says. “Hearing from a peer could help a pilot recognize that they may not be fit to fly. Hearing it from a physician doesn’t carry much weight, but hearing it from a peer does.”
Airlines and industry groups, Bowen says, have a vested interest in ensuring the emotional and psychological health of their pilots, and are actively involved in the ongoing research. “When mistakes happen, it’s splashed all over the news,” she says. “They’re great to work with. They have a lot to gain from these projects, and they recognize that.”
Deitz, who’s been flying commercially since 1992, says that the industry has a long memory for mistakes, and does everything to ensure that they don’t happen again. “Lessons learned are pretty much written in blood, or in ruined multimillion dollar airplanes.”
But on the whole, he says, the industry does a good job ensuring that the pressures of the career don’t become unmanageable. “It ends up taking a toll,” Deitz says. “We just need to continue to not overwork people, and not put them in situations where a normal amount of stress is going to put them over the edge.”
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