Pilots’ Health and Fitness –Enhancing Safety in the Air
The ancient Greeks were the first to identify that mental and physical health were connected and that the body and mind should be in harmony. Furthermore, in recent times medical scientists have supported the relevance of this link between mind and body and emphasised the fact that physical activity can increase life satisfaction by enhancing self-esteem and body image and subsequently allowing us as human beings to develop our potential further and increase our levels of happiness.
In the aviation industry in general but particularly for pilots this link is vital, as their physical and mental conditions have a direct impact on the lives of more than five million people that every day board one of the 15,000 aircraft that can be flying at any particular time according to The Proba-V-satellite below.
(The Proba-V satellite has picked up signals from thousands of aircraft. Now, ESA has used these signals to create an incredible flight map showing 15,000 separate aircraft based on 25 million positions).
According to NBAA Safety Committee (NTSB) and FAA; fitness for duty is listed among top safety focus areas and it should cover physical, mental, emotional and cognitive aspects that are crucial to a pilot’s job. However and only until recent times after the Malaysian Flight 370 and German Wings Flight 9525 tragedies, most of the evaluations and medical checks undergone by pilots and required by airlines and authorities were based mainly on the physical side and areas such as general pilot mental health and physiological issues were softly taken into consideration. After these regrettable events, the FAA with commercial airlines and pilots’ unions established in May 2015 the Pilot Fitness Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to address pilots’ fitness in a more dedicated and detailed manner; some of the recommendations as follows:
Enhanced training for Aviation Medical Examiners so they can increase their knowledge on mental health and enhance their ability to identify warning signs.
Airlines and unions will expand the use of pilot assistance programs. These programs will be incorporated in the airline’s Safety Management Systems for identifying risk.
However, this new reality brings about 2 new challenges that are interconnected; first of all, for the airlines and authorities to educate pilots to speak freely about mental, emotional or physical issues that could affect flying and performance. According to ARC, (2016) and FAA, (2016) the challenge lies on the fact that ‘’Pilots are trained to be problem solvers and not problem creators’’, necessary approach during flying, however, this mind set to address issues on their own, may lead to a general tendency to be a stoic group that refuses to acknowledge such mental or physical problems or seek help when needed.
The other challenge arising is for the pilots who are now required to comply with numerous and strict medicals and psychological tests to be able to guarantee a decent job. According to some of our contracted pilots in China and South East Asia, these new reinforced physical and mental tests can be daunting and extremely strict, as some authorities and airlines are not being flexible even with minor- situations that can be treated and that would not be a risk for safety. From our perspective, this may be one of the reasons why pilots are not inclined to talk about their issues fearing a potential rejection or the risk of losing their job.
There is a lot of debate to be discussed regarding the new changes on medical and psychological tests, however, while these matters are standardised within the industry, we at BAI advocate the idea that a preventing and mitigating strategy to some of these potential issues would be for pilots to increase gradually the levels of physical activity to a moderate intensity, including the basic components of a fitness program:
Warm-up • Flexibility and stretching • Aerobic conditioning • Anaerobic conditioning • Cool-down and stretching
As said by the Greeks and stated by Dr. Roy Shephard (1983), the benefits of a well-designed physical programme and good nutrition may benefit longevity, increase self-esteem levels, relieve anxiety, stress and reactive depression, as well as maximising intellectual and psychomotor development which all contribute to a healthy mind and body, enabling pilots to prolong aviation activities by helping them to pass flight physicals and in general changing their lifestyle and making them feel better, which at the end of the day would increase the safety of the millions of lives every day in flight.
*Paul Osorio is a second Dan in Taekwondo and Hapkido and a qualified sports and fitness instructor