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Physiological and Psychological Factors

in Human Factors

Physiological or psychological factors can affect a pilot and compromise the safety of a flight. These factors are stress, medical, alcohol, and fatigue. Any of these factors, individually or in combination, significantly degrade the pilot’s decision-making or flying abilities.


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 unrelated to flying. Stress is an inevitable and necessary part of life; it adds motivation to life and heightens an individual’s response to meet any challenge. The effects of stress are cumulative and there is a limit to a person’s adaptive nature. This limit, called the stress tolerance level (or channel capacity), is based on the ability to cope with the situation.

At fi rst, some amount of stress can be desirable and can actually improve performance. However, 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. [Figure 1-10]

Figure 1-10. Stress and Performance.

Figure 1-10. Stress and Performance.

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 overlearned tasks. Complex or unfamiliar tasks are also more subject to the adverse effects of increasing stress than simple or familiar tasks. [Figure 1-10]

The indicators of excessive stress often show as three types of symptoms: (1) emotional, (2) physical, and (3) behavioral. Emotional symptoms may surface as over-compensation, denial, suspicion, paranoia, agitation, restlessness, or defensiveness. Physical stress can result in acute fatigue while behavioral degradation will be manifested as sensitivity to criticism, tendency to be argumentative, arrogance, and hostility. Pilots need to learn to recognize the symptoms of stress as they begin to occur.

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 a solution, but some of them should be effective.

  1. Become knowledgeable about stress.
  2. Take a realistic self-assessment. (See the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge).
  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 flight deck 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 flight deck stress management.

  1. Avoid situations that distract from flying the aircraft.
  2. Reduce flight deck workload to reduce stress levels. This will create a proper environment in which to make good decisions. Typically, flying involves higher stress levels during takeoff and landing phases. Between the two generally lies a period of low activity resulting in a lower stress level. Transitioning from the cruise phase to the landing phase is generally accompanied by a significant workload that, if not properly accommodated, will increase stress significantly. Proper planning and prioritization of flight deck duties are key to avoiding events that affect the pilot’s capacity to maintain situational awareness.
  3. If a problem occurs, remain calm. If time is not a pressing factor, follow the analytical approach to decision-making: think for a moment, weigh the alternatives, select and take an appropriate course of action, and then evaluate its effects. If an emergency situation occurs, remain calm and use the aeronautical decision-making (ADM) process to resolve the emergency. This process relies on the pilot’s training and experience to accurately and automatically respond to an emergency situation. Constant training in handling emergency procedures will help reduce pilot stress when an emergency occurs.
  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. Studies have suggested that highly experienced pilots have taken more chances when flying into potential icing conditions than low time or inexperienced pilots. Very low time pilots without experience may analyze and interpret the likelihood for “potential” flight into icing without the benefit of life experience, thereby making decisions closely aligned with the compilation of their training and recent academic knowledge. Highly experienced pilots may evaluate the current situation based upon the empirical information (sometimes diluted with time) coupled with their vast experience. This may lead to a level of greater acceptability of the situation because their experience has illustrated successful navigation of this problem before. Therefore, the automatic decision may be in error because not all salient facts are evaluated.
  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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