The job of being a pilot has been glamorized by Hollywood - whether it’s a pilot of an expensive private jet or a commercial airline responsible for carting thousands of people from one side of the globe to the other.
Though statistics suggest that the job may be a lot more stressful than one might think, particularly because pilots are notoriously cool-headed and unemotional - which are vital personality traits when it comes to a role that carries so much responsibility.
Pilots are trained meticulously to handle this responsibility. They undergo years of training and have to study extremely hard to be awarded their ATPL license.
It’s not necessarily that flying itself is stressful, as I said, pilots are generally people with a high tolerance of stress, otherwise, they wouldn’t be pilots. However, it seems the day-to-day life of an airline pilot can prove to be particularly stressful, so let’s take a look at why...
Is airline pilot a stressful job?
In 2017, an airline pilot was voted one of Forbes’ most stressful jobs, with a stress score of 60.54.
The obvious reason why this is a highly stressful career is that there’s no margin for mistakes. The aviation industry is a high-consequence one, and, while in other careers you can afford to mess up, as a pilot, a small mistake can have catastrophic consequences.
As expected, takeoff and landing the plane are the most stressful parts, as these require all of the pilot’s energy and focus. Studies have even indicated an increase in heart rate at these points.
The flight itself is less stressful; pilots need to watch the monitors and keep the autopilot on track, but adjusting from high demand to low demand can be difficult, especially on long-haul flights when pilots need to stay alert for long periods of time.
However, it’s not a stressful job due to the flying part alone, but the lifestyle of an airline pilot can in general be quite hectic. It’s a physical stress as well as a mental one: the daily routine of a pilot is unstable, with long stretches away from home and family, crossing over to multiple time zones at all hours of the day.
What has been done to manage stress in the aviation industry?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tries to reduce fatigue - and as a result, stress - by limiting pilots to logging no more than 8 hours of flight time over a 24-hour period. Pilots are also given a ten-hour minimum rest period before taking off.
After a series of accidents in the 1970s, a system was created called Crew Resource Management (CRM), which is designed to monitor stress levels and reduce the risk of human error in pilots. CRM training focuses on developing interpersonal communication skills, leadership, and decision-making, and helps pilots and crew members recognize signs of stress and fatigue in one another.
Is being a pilot boring?
Airline pilots who have been flying for years will probably agree that there is a certain level of tedium that comes with the job. After a couple of years, the novelty of continually traveling from one country to another, working inconsistent hours, starts to wear off.
As we said, the role of flying a plane can go from high demand - during take-off - to low-demand, where there is a lot less to do, and pilots struggle to stay alert during this period. The mental toll of the job can also cause fatigue, so even when in an exciting new country, a pilot may be more focused on catching up on sleep in their hotel room rather than sightseeing.
That said, being a pilot is certainly not your average 9-5. While it does require some repetitive tasks, what job doesn’t?
Carrying out pre-flight checks and staring at instruments may be the less interesting parts of the job, but nonetheless, flying for many pilots is a passion, and each flight is an opportunity to do what they love, and learn something new.
The unpredictability of the job means you’re continually on the edge of your seat as a pilot, prepared for the worst to happen - which can be the same attribute that creates high levels of stress and tension in pilots, too.
Though the vast majority of pilots will probably agree that compared with sitting at a desk in an office, being a pilot is pretty far away from being a boring job.
Being a pilot is a highly stressful job, and even those with a high tolerance for stress are sure to feel the pressure of being a pilot at some point in their careers. However, for those with a passion for flying, the opportunity to fly an aircraft for a living is a dream, and the stress is something that they can accept for this reason.