Is resilience the most valuable skill for a pilot?
After the German Wings 9525 crash in 2015 in the French Alps, a survey of pilots mental health was conducted among nearly 2000 pilots in the US and Europe. The results were then published in the Environmental Health journal in December 2016. One of the findings showed that 12.6 % of the pilots were on the threshold of clinical depression. The survey cast light on a reality distorted by taboos and the preconceived notion of what pilots are supposed to be like. Pilots, of course, are no different from other people, and they do experience the same ups and downs as everybody else.
In 2016, Resilience Development became an EASA requirement in Crew Resource Management training. But what is resilience, and are we able to actually train pilots around the world to be more resilient?
Resilience is a psychological term that came about in the 1970s. Psychologists working with dysfunctional families found that siblings are able to develop differently despite coming from the same background with identical conditions. While one of the siblings would follow the pattern of their parents, the other would somehow break the pattern and create a better life. This sibling would be what is called resilient.
Though it seems that there are different ways of defining resilience, my approach to resilience development is based upon this definition: “Showing the ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change, and to bounce back after stressful or traumatic events.”
After many years of talking about stress management, resilience might be the new term used for pilots to cope in an industry that is changing more rapidly than ever before. Resilience implies being prepared not only for what you are trained but also for unexpected (black swan) events. We don´t really know exactly how we will respond or, in other words, how resilient we are, until it happens. Research actually shows that people are more resilient than they think when faced with adversity.
The Hudson River incident showed a crew of high resilience, faced with the unexpected. Having procedures and checklists incoherent with the actual situation and yet being able to bounce back in a calm competent manner, despite the huge time pressure and high stress load. Every day there are situations in aircraft around the world that demonstrate crews of high resilience, we just haven’t heard about them because the catastrophic outcome was prevented.
Adversity, challenge, and change come in many shades. Taking a look at the development of the flight industry over the last few decades, I would claim that pilots in general have already demonstrated a great deal of resilience: going through a variety of changes and challenges in the form of bankruptcies, adapting to a global changing world (often at the expense of family time), accepting poorer conditions in terms of salary, Loss of License conditions, retirement pay, etc. and still they bounce back into the cockpit seat.
Let’s take a look at the skill of being resilient. What is the difference between resilient and non-resilient people?
There are 3 different ways of facing an adverse condition:
1) An eruption of anger
2) Overwhelmed by negative emotions, going numb, becoming unable to react
3) Becoming upset about the disruptive change and then coping
From a human brain’s perspective this can be linked to the stress response: fight, flight or freeze. The eruption of anger and feeling overwhelmed is the work of the amygdala, ensuring our survival mode when we are faced with a threat, sending signals for the release of hormones like Adrenaline, Noradrenalin, and Cortisol. What is seen in less resilient people is that these hormones remain active longer causing the feeling of a persistent threat, thereby shutting down for the rational brain, prefrontal cortex to be engaged.
What is seen in resilient people is the same release of hormones, however, these hormones disappear quicker when the threat is no longer present. This means that they become upset about the disruptive change but are faster to engage the prefrontal cortex, thereby going into problem-solving and bouncing back.
Yale School of Medicine performed a study of the brain in resilient and non-resilient people that showed a physical change in the brain of resilient people, a group of US soldiers. One of the findings was a healthy enlarged part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is playing a part in our rational thinking, memory, the part we need for problem-solving. This part helps inhibit the amygdala hijack, associated with fear and anger. In addition to this, the study showed that the soldiers seem to be better at using dopamine – a hormone connected with the brain’s reward system, giving better resistance to stress.
YES, it is possible. And in many ways it has been done for years. In fact, training pilots in simulators around the world is a form of resilience training we just haven't had a word for until now. But since resilience is different for each person depending on life
experience, you are also able to train it individually as any other skill.
Some of the highlights of resilience in people are:
Confidence. A deep belief of what you are capable of doing with a positive outcome. Being able to make mistakes and learn from them.
Social support. Building and using good relations, being able to seek support and ask for help.
Adaptability. Being open to changing conditions, situations and new ideas. Being able to understand your failures, reflect on them and make changes accordingly.
Purposefulness. Having a strong sense of what is important to you, your goals and values.
I’d like to point out two things, in particular, you can do for yourself to enhance your resilience:
1) Meditation. As little as 10 min. a day can have an effect on your brain, causing an enlargement of the hippocampus.
2) Exercise. What works best is cardio exercise that gets your pulse up. A study from University of Columbia showed that body toning alone does not have the same effect, you need to get the pulse up to get the benefits in the hippocampus.
Finally, converting all this into the cockpit in an emergency situation or facing adversity, we can see that being resilient is a huge human asset in the problem-solving, decision-making process.
Going into the daily life of a pilot there is one issue, in particular, affecting our brain, which I ought to mention – fatigue. Disturbances of circadian rhythm, jet lag and shift work is having an effect on our hippocampus. As with chronic stress, studies showed that the hippocampus can end up shrinking and an overactivity of the amygdala is seen. This is the reality of the job today, whether you fly long-haul or short-haul, being jet lagged across the Atlantic third day in a row or flying 6-8 sectors in Scandinavia. So can we place the responsibility for resilience solely on the pilot? One might ask whether the pilots are given the right context by the airlines to exhibit resilience. Are basic human needs taken into consideration when setting the requirements and responsibility of the pilot’s performance?
As far as I am concerned, these answers are still cruising around and have not landed yet.
Gitte Furdal Damm is an experienced flight captain with a demonstrated history of working in the airlines/aviation industry. She is also the owner and CRM Instructor at About Human Factors, providing courses within aviation, such as Initial CRM, Recurrent CRM, Conversion Courses, Commander Upgrade, Teaching and Learning and individual coaching to pilots.