Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Physiological and Psychological Factors

Several factors can affect the pilot, either physiologically or psychologically, to the point where the safety of a flight can be severely compromised. These factors are stress, medical, alcohol, and fatigue. Any of these factors, individually or in combination, can significantly degrade the pilot's decision making or flying abilities, both in the flight planning phase and in flight.

Stress is the body's response to demands placed upon it. These demands can be either pleasant or unpleasant in nature. The causes of stress for a pilot can range from unexpected weather or mechanical problems while in flight, to personal issues totally unrelated to flying. Stress is an inevitable and necessary part of life; it adds motivation to life and heightens a pilot's response to meet any challenge. The effects of stress are cumulative, and there is a limit to a pilot's adaptive nature. This limit, the stress tolerance level, is based on a pilot's ability to cope with the situation.

At first, some amount of stress can be desirable and can actually improve performance. Higher stress levels, particularly over long periods of time, can adversely affect performance. Performance will generally increase with the onset of stress, but will peak and then begin to fall off rapidly as stress levels exceed the ability to cope.

At the lower stress levels, boredom is followed by optimal performance at the moderate stress levels, then followed ultimately by overload and panic at the highest stress levels. At this point, a pilot's performance begins to decline and judgment deteriorates. Complex or unfamiliar tasks require higher levels of performance than simple or over learned tasks. Complex or unfamiliar tasks are also more subject to the adverse effects of increasing stress than simple or familiar tasks.

The indicators of excessive stress often show as three types of symptoms: (1) emotional, (2) physical, and (3) behavioral. These symptoms depend upon whether aggression is focused inward or outward. Individuals who typically turn their aggressive feelings inward often demonstrate the emotional symptoms of depression, preoccupation, sadness, and withdrawal. Individuals who typically take out their frustration on other people or objects exhibit few physical symptoms. Emotional symptoms may surface as overcompensation, denial, suspicion, paranoia, agitation, restlessness, defensiveness, excess sensitivity to criticism, argumentative-ness, arrogance, and hostility. Pilots need to learn to recognize the symptoms of stress as they begin to occur within themselves.

Stress: The body's response to demands placed upon it.

There are many techniques available that can help reduce stress in life or help people cope with it better. Not all of the following ideas may be the solution, but some of them should be effective.

1.        Become knowledgeable about stress.
2.        Take a realistic self-assessment.
3.        Take a systematic approach to problem solving.
4.        Develop a lifestyle that will buffer against the effects of stress.
5.        Practice behavior management techniques.
6.        Establish and maintain a strong support network.

Good cockpit stress management begins with good life stress management. Many of the stress-coping techniques practiced for life stress management are not usually practical in flight. Rather, pilots must condition themselves to relax and think rationally when stress appears. The following checklist outlines some methods of cockpit stress management.

1.        Avoid situations that distract from flying the aircraft.
2.        Reduce workload to reduce stress levels. This will create a proper environment in which to make good decisions.
3.        If an emergency does occur, be calm. Think for a moment, weigh the alternatives, then act.
4.        Become thoroughly familiar with the aircraft, its operation, and emergency procedures. Also, maintain flight proficiency to build confidence.
5.        Know and respect personal limits.
6.        Do not allow small mistakes to be distractions during flight; rather, review and analyze them after landing.
7.        If flying adds stress, either stop flying or seek professional help to manage stress within acceptable limits.

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