Mental Preparedness for Pilot

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Apathy, anxiety, or any other state of mind that could hinder judgment should be laid to rest before a flight is undertaken. A pilot whose mind is occupied with something other than flying is apt to be heading for trouble.

We all have our good days and our bad, our peaks and valleys of mental readiness. People have problems and pilots are not immune to these. It could be trouble with a spouse, money, job, the IRS, or whatever. The point is that these problems have to be addressed before or after the flight—not during it.

Apathy is a lack of emotion, feeling, or passion. It is a mental state of indifference, lethargy, and sluggishness. What it really is, in plain language, is a state of just not giving a damn. You could careless if the flight is made, the sun comes up, or anything else. If you attempt a flight in this condition, you could be setting yourself up for a bad experience. You must have your mind clear and ready for the sometimes-difficult tasks of flight. If possible, clear up the problem prior to flight time. Try to put it completely from your mind. If you don’t, you might be brought back to reality by doing something like landing with the gear up, or running out of gas. That is guaranteed to take your mind off your old troubles and put it to work on a new set.

Anxiety is a state of mental uneasiness arising from fear or apprehension. The causes of anxiety are hard to detect and the cure is usually more difficult than it is with apathy.

A person suffering from anxiety feels that no matter what he or she does, it probably won’t be right. It is a self-consuming, defeatist attitude and must be overcome before safe flight can take place. Sometimes you must look deeply inward to find the cause of the anxiety. Maybe an open, honest talk with a good friend, flight instructor, or professional psychologist will bring the problem to the fore. Then it can be met head on and conquered. Whatever it takes, it has to be solved before you can perform proficiently as a pilot.

Vertigo, or spatial disorientation, as it is sometimes called, inhibits a person’s ability to perceive attitude with respect to the horizon. A pilot experiencing vertigo is unable to tell whether the airplane is climbing, descending, or turning without referencing the instruments or a good look at the horizon.

When on the ground, you perceive attitude with respect to the earth by seeing fixed objects around you, by feeling the weight of your body on your feet, and by the vestibular organs in your inner ear. You may orient yourself by any one of these means for short periods of time.

While in flight, however, all three of these normal means of orientation may become obscured or confused. The pilot might only be able to see objects that are in or attached to the aircraft when ground references are obscured by clouds or darkness. Your ability to sense the direction of the earth’s gravity, by the weight on your body and through your vestibular organs, can be confused by accelerations in different directions caused by centrifugal force and turbulence. For example, the senses are unable to distinguish between the force of gravity and the horizontal force resulting from a steep turn.

Because of these facts, gyroscopic instruments are necessary to fly for more than a few minutes without visual access to outside reference points. The use of such instruments does not ensure freedom from vertigo, for no one is immune; they do enable a pilot to overcome its effects, however. Skilled pilots learn to disregard the psychological discomfort that occurs when the instrument indications appear to disagree with perceived senses, and follow the instruments anyway.

With respect to the pilot preflight, the possibility of vertigo and other aerial challenges requires a certain mental focus and discipline. If the pilot is not mentally prepared, and adequately skilled for all conditions expected on a particular flight, the risk increases substantially.

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