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Human factors

Think you’re airworthy? How’s your mental health?

Every pilot learns that meticulous preparation before boarding the aircraft is the most effective method for avoiding in-flight mistakes. But do all pilots give equal weight to each of the three facets of thorough preflight planning?
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A comprehensive preflight checklist includes the aircraft, the flight environment, and the human factor. The human factor determines a pilot’s airworthiness; that is, their physical and psychological fitness. Pilots often neglect or even disregard their mental health as an integral consideration of a preflight brief. Nonetheless, flight safety depends on an aviator’s ability to assess honestly the state of their own mental wellness.

In a short documentary the AOPA Air Safety Institute released in 2012, a grieving father recounted the tragic events of the previous year when a gear-down misstep in his floatplane resulted in the death of his son. No Greater Burden is Russ Jeter’s real pilot story, but it is more than one of an airplane accident or one of loss.

“I think pilots tend to be more confident than the average person,” Jeter said in the video. “I’d like to reach those people who believe it’s never going to happen to me. Well, make sure it doesn’t because it’s nowhere you want to go.”

Since January 22, 2011, Jeter has traveled many nautical miles pondering a million whys and what-ifs with specialists in various fields, including a U.S. Navy Seal psychologist.

“The other thing we talked about was the mental impact of having lost my mother, and I was unaware of the insomnia and how much that was affecting me,” Jeter said. His mother’s death 12 days earlier had triggered stress-induced insomnia, which led to his chronic fatigue on that horrible day, Jeter concluded.

The human factor is a variable. In other words, a pilot’s mental state is prone to fluctuation. They must, therefore, be mindful of that immutable fact to ensure safe flight, and recognize and include it in their preflight planning.

Even setting personal worries aside, the time we live in now is at a historic level of anxiety. Consequently, the need for normalcy may override the pilot’s obligation to tune in to their mental state before engaging in demanding activities like flying. Pilots must recognize the effects of stress on their body and mind, and factor these into their go/no-go decision-making process.

Before your next flight ask yourself, am I airworthy? The IMSAFE checklist is the best tool for pilots to judge their physical and mental condition. The S in the acronym stands for stress. A few of its characteristic signs are memory loss, headaches, fatigue, stomach discomfort, and increased heart rate. As Jeter discovered, stress is difficult to detect in ourselves, and when it is poorly managed, the consequences can be devastating.

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Terrie Mead

Terrie Mead

Aviation Technical Writer
Terrie Mead is an aviation technical writer for the Air Safety Institute. She currently holds a commercial pilot certificate, a CFI with a sport pilot endorsement, a CFII, and she is multiengine rated.

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