Safety topic from Episode 4

Pilot wellbeing

As pilots, we are well versed in preparing our aircraft with great attention to detail before any flight. We have also dedicated a considerable amount of time to careful flight planning before we arrive at the aerodrome. We have scrutinised the weather forecast and briefed our passengers on what to expect on today’s flight.

However, have we paid sufficient attention to the most important factor of this whole equation – our own wellbeing? We are responsible for the lives of all on board, and for the safe operation of this flight so it goes without saying that our technical skills and currency must be of the highest standard. But, just as importantly, we must be able to monitor our own performance, and make an accurate judgement on our physical and mental health.

Physical Health

Issues affecting our physical health fall into many categories, and you will recognise these as the most familiar:

  • Alcohol and other drugs
  • Diet
  • Hydration
  • Fatigue

Excessive alcohol consumption leads the field as having the greatest overall effect on aviation safety. Of paramount importance is the pilot’s personal ability to recognise an existing problem and seek help before the problem becomes a career-ender. CASA is continually looking for ways to help affected pilots return to duty, and encourages transparency from pilots, so that the best forms of help and support can be provided.  

We all know there are limitations to our human performance, and flying an aeroplane requires optimum concentration and alertness.  A pilot devoid of sleep cannot hope to maintain the clarity of mind and situational awareness that flying demands, and so pilot fatigue has become a red alert condition that has prompted industry professionals to lean towards fatigue management plans to ensure optimum safety in their operations.

Much has been published on the importance of a healthy diet and adequate hydration. It is less well-known, however, that the amount of food and the amount of water you consume can have a significant impact on how you actually feel.  Large meals require energy to digest and a full stomach draws blood away from the brain, leaving you feeling tired. Smaller meals, more often, can avoid this effect. 

Interestingly, the leading cause of pilot incapacitation over the last decade has been upset stomachs and food poisoning. It goes without saying – pay attention to what you put in your mouth! 

Mental Health

A very public awareness campaign has reinforced in all of us that mental health is an issue for which there is a tremendous amount of help and support. Perhaps due to the frenetic pace of today’s society, one of the modern era’s flagship mental health problems is depression. 

Its effects are evident throughout all industries, but they are of course of deep concern for a pilot. Depression can impact on physical health which, in a cockpit, may translate to decreased alertness, reaction time and poor decision-making.

Endless research has improved the treatment options for people suffering mental health problems, and medications are available which have proved successful in effecting a safe and stable recovery.

Self-assessment of our own wellbeing is a discipline we all need to get a lot better at. Perhaps our problems are seemingly minor in the scheme of things; a second reminder on the gas bill, a little more friction at home than normal, an ageing parent requiring your constant care. If you’re carrying around a few of these types of issues, they become mental baggage that’s not doing you any favours as that prop starts turning. 

For further information on this topic, take time to read through the extensive advice provided on the CASA website, and most importantly, know when to take that first step in seeking help should you feel something is ‘not quite right’ a little too often.