Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Learn Stress Management From How Pilots Handle Emergencies

In Naval Aviation, at least once a year, every pilot is required to demonstrate his procedural and system knowledge through a written test and a "check ride" in a simulator - the NATOPS (Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization) Check Flight / Simulator. And to say that this simulator flight is stressful, is the understatement of the year. These "check rides" are 60+ minutes of stress, anxiety and emergencies (one after another) - from engines failing, fires, flight control failure, to complete electrical loss, every thing is free game - often times resulting in the pilot being forced to make the decision to eject from the aircraft.

The check rides were actually intended to accomplish two things:

1. Check procedural knowledge
2. See how well the pilot is able to load shed and compartmentalize in stressful situations.

Needless to say, of the many things that I learned when I was a pilot, one of the most important ones, that has definite applicability to life in general, is that when things get "out of control", the key is to slow everything down, assess the situation and then take the necessary actions to move forward - one step at a time.

Three Things To Do When Things Are Happening Too Fast

All process in aviation are built on preparation and habit patterns. Every pilot learns from the beginning of their training to memorize procedures, not just word for word, but in action and deed. You see, it's not just about which switches to move, but also where they are in the cockpit, why they need to be moved, and what they look and feel like.

So when it comes to handling emergencies and / or stress, it isn't about doing "new" things for the first time, it's instead refreshing old memories and activating pre-planned responses.

To assist in the "emergency handling", as a Navy Pilot, we are taught three things that not only have applicability in flying, but also in handling stressful life situations as well.

- Slow things down - as slow as you possibly can handle. In the fighter aircraft, this literally meant slow the plane down from 400 mph to 200 mph hour. This "slowing down" gives you something that nearly every person needs in a stressful, overloaded scenario - more time to think about how you are going to handle the situation when you get to where you are inevitably going.

In real life, this means simply, don't rush yourself. The faster you go, trying to do things quickly, in both life and in a cockpit, the more likely you are going to miss important steps and / procedures along the way. And the more likely that you will have to go back and do them a second or even third time - actually costing you more time than if you had just taken your time the first go 'round.

Bottom line, SLOW DOWN and take your time.

- Load shed everything you possibly can on others standing by to help. Besides slowing the plane down when hit with an emergency, the next thing I, as a pilot, was taught to do was to start getting help in every way I could and then load shedding some of my key responsibilities on those standing by to help.

For example, as a single seat pilot (no co-pilot), there were people / systems that were nearly always available to pick up some hugely beneficial pieces of the puzzle. First and foremost was the Autopilot. Yep that's right, one the first things I would do as a pilot in an emergency (after making sure the plane was flying safely) was stop flying the airplane and load shed that responsibility onto a computer.

Another thing that I would do is ask my wingman or even a representative on the ground to pull out the emergency checklist and read it to me - so I could concentrate on the jet itself and not have my nose buried in a book.

In real life, this means GET HELP!

So many of us struggle with the idea of "getting help" because we are taught from a very young age that our problems are our problems - no one elses. But the more you can load shed the less important / less urgent tasks on on others, during a crisis, the quicker you can get back to normalcy.

Another aspect that falls under the "getting help" part of emergency management is not letting good intentioned other pilots or ground personnel fly your airplane. For example, ground controllers who may have the best intentions for the safety of a pilot, his crew and any passengers often steer you into bigger problems - simply cause they don't know any better. As a pilot, it's important to take control, if necessary, STATE EMPHATICALLY WHAT YOU NEED and settle for nothing less.

The same goes true in life. When you are knee deep in a stressful situation and ask for help, people will come-a-running, offering everything they can to help. It's important for YOU to keep driving your life forward in the way YOU want to and not let others take over your life.

- No matter how bad things get, the simulator ride ends eventually. This is a simple fact. Just like every morning the Sun rises, you can count on the fact that "this too shall pass". No matter how much you stress you are feeling, there is always a point when either the situation ends, or something else comes along - nothing is forever. Not even a stressful situation.

My simulator flights only lasted about an hour, even though sometimes it felt like six hours. But no matter how good or bad I would do, eventually the ride would end. Sure, if I did poorly, I had to face the music, but - the cause of the stress was over.

So it will be with what ever stress you are encountering. It too shall pass.

Finally, it's important to remember that, you can't change your current reality, but you do have control over your future. So when you are in a stressful situation, recognize your inability to change your circumstances of the immediate situation, but through your choices, you begin to influence the future - whether that future is 1 minute or possibly 1 year away. Decide what YOU want to be the outcome - YOU are a willing participant in your life - not just a spectator.


  1. Interesting and very inspiring posts! These are really good stress busters which will help every person in maintaining himself and stop stressing. I will definitely try to know my self and follow these suggestions.

  2. A good writing style and information is certainly useful. For all readers continue to write such excellent articles. Thank you.Thanks for sharing this formation. Valuable.enjoyed reading it