Medical Handbook For Pilots Chapter 19 – Some Psychological Aspects of Flying

Your attitudes and general mental state are just as important to safe flight as the condition of your aircraft. Any disturbing feelings which affect your ability to concentrate are a potential threat. These include anger, fear, frustration, depression, worry, and anxiety.

A certain amount of anxiety is inevitable in flying. In small amounts, anxiety is even desirable. It is nature’s way of keeping you slightly keyed up for your task and alert to danger. But excessive anxiety, like other troubling emotions, can detract from your ability to concentrate in the cockpit-and perhaps lead to disaster.

If you bring your problems from the ground into the air, you are not only more easily distracted from the job at hand, your body becomes less able to adjust to various stresses. Memory, judgment, and presence of mind are crucial during flight and, surprisingly, muscular skills are closely linked with mental capacity. When one becomes defective, the other usually does, too. For example, if you are disturbed and preoccupied about something, you may lose some of your ability to time movements accurately, or your brain may fail to interpret what your eyes see on the instrument panel into a meaningful message. Research from the FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute shows that emotional disturbances can even hamper the body’s adjustment to altitude.

The pilot who flies just after a fight with his wife may mentally recreate their argument with such clarity during the flight that he forgets to switch fuel tanks or inadvertently moves his mixture control to idle cutoff instead of pulling the carburetor heat control.

Occasionally, a pilot who has family or job problems on his mind starts to carry his worries over into flying. In other words, he may become preoccupied with fears about flying or possible physical reactions at altitude. If this happens to you, be honest with yourself and get the professional advice of a doctor. Although anxiety of this sort is usually temporary, it can dangerously affect your flight performance and cause you further emotional problems if it is ignored.

The “compulsive flyer” has a special psychological quirk. He can’t stand to turn back. He has a tendency to stretch his skills beyond safe limits, rather than change his flight plan. Whether pride or simply an inflexible personality is at fault, he is the pilot who continues ahead in marginal weather-sometimes at the cost of his life.

When you are under a strain of any sort-when you don’t feel “good”-don’t fly. If your concerns are only of the mild, everyday sort, at least recognize that they exist. Then make an extra effort to concentrate on flight planning, to focus all your attention on aircraft operation, and to leave your other concerns behind you-on the ground.