Stress in the Skies: Is Fatigue Getting the Better of our Pilots?

What makes Indian pilots lose their cool? Stress? Fatigue? Anxiety? Isolation?

4 min read
(Photo: iStockPhoto)

Before you scroll down any further, sample this:

April 5: A co-pilot misbehaves and hits his commander inside the cockpit of an Air India flight at the Jaipur airport.

April 27:  A GoAir pilot insults a passenger because he (the passenger) showed concern about the pilot’s behaviour.

May 16: A commander of an Air India flight from Sharjah via Kochi is found to be drunk by airport security just prior to taking off.

Being a pilot is a highly stressful job, from the time you wake up till the time you park the plane in the bay. A passenger reports an hour before the flight, but we need to report at least two to three hours in advance. Then there is an hour-long briefing followed by a breath analyser test. All this is before he enters the cockpit. Let’s not even discuss the level of stress a pilot goes through once he steps inside the cockpit.
– Zoravar Singh*, First officer with a private airline

So is it just the work pressure that makes these sky rangers lose their cool or is it the long hours, fatigue, anxiety and working in isolation?

Aviation expert Harshvardhan believes it’s the erratic work schedule and working in isolation that causes stress but not ‘work pressure’ per say. “Pilots always work in an isolated environment. Pilots have minimal interaction with passengers because of security reasons. Being away from families for days also causes irritation and stress.”

But Harshvardhan refuses to buy the ‘work pressure’ reason.

Flying has become much easier than it used to be thanks to autopilot. Now, it’s more of monitoring than physical flying. Isn’t this what the pilot signed up for?
– Harshvardhan, Aviation Expert

The ‘Autopilot’ Fix

The pilots didn’t sign-up for hearing “planes fly themselves” or “the pilot’s job is less strenuous because of autopilot.”

“The fact is, the autopilot does get the plane flying, but it’s us, who have to give instructions. We monitor the autopilot and manually alter and feed in the right altitude. Our hands might be off the throttle, but our eyes are glued to the screen, reading and checking each and every movement of the plane. Mentally preparing ourselves for that one ‘moment’ that could change our lives,” said Sahir Kapoor, co-pilot with a private airline*.

And hello! Autopilot does not have the responsibility of 150-odd people. Nor are autopilots blamed for their lives if the unthinkable happens. It’s the pilot who is held responsible.
–Sahir Kapoor*, Co-pilot with a private airline

(Photo: iStockPhoto)
(Photo: iStockPhoto)

The Hour Glass

According to rules and regulations, a pilot needs to clock 1,000 hours annually, which is further broken down to 125 hours per month and 35 hours per week. “Your clock begins to tick once you get the plane out of the bay till the time you park the plane,” said Kapoor.

Kapoor spoke to The Quint while he was heading home after flying from 6:30AM till 7:00PM.  “I will reach home around 8:30PM and I have my next flight at 3PM, the following day. And for a 3PM flight, I need to leave home by 11:30AM. So that leaves me with ‘enough’ time to socialise with my family and catch up on some sleep. Imagine doing this every day. We have no time and you wonder why we get stressed or irritated?”

The Mangalore Air Crash

The hectic schedule and sleep deprivation were the main reasons behind the unfortunate Air India Express crash in which 158 people were killed on May 22, 2010. Former Executive Director of Airports Authority of India Gurcharan Bhatura, who was a part of the Court of Inquiry (CoI) claims both the pilot and co-pilot were mentally and physically drained out. “Captain Glusica slept off during the flight and by the time he woke up or was woken up, it was too late. Sleep deprivation and fatigue are a known reason.”

Stress in the Skies: Is Fatigue Getting the Better of our Pilots?

The Safety Checks

Drink-and-fly, no can’t do, sir! The breath analyser (BA) test is so sensitive that it can even detect alcohol if you’ve had a bite of a liqueur dessert. Even mouth fresheners are a no-no. “If you’re tested positive after consuming mouth freshener. You get 15 minutes, to drink water or coffee and to take the test again in front of two witnesses, who too have undergone the test just to ensure that BA is working fine,” said Kapoor.

Crew Resource Management: Private airlines have started training employers in Crew Resource Management (CRM). This helps to focus on interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision making in the cockpit.

Bon Voyage

Even though a few measures have been taken by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to ensure that accidents don’t occur there is more that needs to be done. But after all pilots are human and it’s natural for them to get irritated and stressed out after a long flight. Wouldn’t you? Unlike passengers, pilots are also responsible for the lives of other people. It’s time the DGCA took more concrete steps and came up with stringent rules to ensure the safety of passengers as well pilots.

(* Names have been changed)

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