Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
7 min read

“I read the news today, oh boy!” You can almost hear the drumbeat behind those lyrics by Lennon and McCartney.

And yet it was! I did read the news today and in my mind the exclamation of “oh boy!” followed swiftly. An airline pilot was incapacitated immediately upon takeoff of an airliner from the airport. The news was rather sad.

Imagine the plight of the copilot and the calm, quiet ignorance of the passengers in the cabin as the drama unfolded and the copilot informed ATC of the incapacitation of the pilot and guided the aircraft back to the airport safely.

Stuff happens when we merge the immutable laws of physics and the vagaries of the mechanized world and we assume all is well as we consume the news and then, as easily as the bitter pill we swallow, we forget. Our mind cleanses itself of the horrible distaste. But that bitter pill needs to be swallowed and remembered for all its bitterness.

We stop and ask, “Why?”

There are many reasons undergirding such an eventuality. Preexisting conditions and other such hidden maladies among them. But there also might be triggers that spark such a calamity. In the interest of such a thought, I charted a course to determine such a trigger.

How does one go looking for a needle in that haystack?

I solicited help from a friend. Both of us sport a Garmin Aviator watch on our wrists. So, I asked Craig to send me his accrued data from a recent flight he piloted in his Cessna T206H. I picked off some of my data with special reference to events that occurred during my flights piloting the Bonanza. The results seem to speak for themselves.

The two pervasive elements during a flight that create agitation to the inner machinery of our steady heartbeat are stress and anxiety. Both of these enemies rise above the calm surface to muddy the quiet. Both cerebral inputs triggered by a sense of fear, or fright, or unexpectedness, or venture into the unknown, lead to a release of adrenaline from our adrenal glands. This surge bathes the blood that traverses to the heart in seconds and make it jump into action.

The heart rate rises and the blood pressure goes up as the arteries constrict to pump more blood to the brain, which receives its supply of the agitator. The brain is fully alerted, and the eyes are wide open. The sense of sound and feel are accentuated, and a trickle of sweat appears on the skin. The physiological mechanism of “fright and flight” is called into play.

I chose to look at the prime event of the adrenaline rush, the rising heartbeat as a good correlate to the anxiety that insinuates in all of us for each flight. No matter the number of hours in the cockpit, nor the experience, seem to stymie the primitive brain from doing its deed when called upon in unnatural circumstances.

As the graphs obtained directly from the watches suggest, prior to any flight, there is a rise in the heart rate above the underlying “resting” threshold. This is culled by both the anticipation of the flight and by the potential unknowns that might occur. A good pilot briefs himself about any-and-all emergency procedures. During the takeoff mode, the biggest one of these emergencies being loss of thrust (loss of engine power).

craig heart rate

Takeoff and landing by Craig–note the bookends.

It is important to repeat the mantra in our heads, “If the engine quits on the takeoff roll, immediate abort! If it quits on takeoff below 700 feet of altitude, pitch down for speed and land straight ahead. If the engine quits above 1000 feet, then consider the “impossible turn” if the winds, temperature, and pilot proficiency are favorable.

These repetitions are important and, as the last retained vestige of information in the mind, the brain takes over the commands and instructs our bodies to follow suit. As one can see, a good pilot will develop a sense of controlled urgency within the veneer of calm on takeoff through this preparation. This urgency then drives the adrenaline to keep us on our toes and provide that tingle of suspense prior to takeoff. The more challenging the flight conditions–low ceilings, rain, crosswinds, high density, etc–the higher the anxiety level.

During the flight, things can hinge on several factors since nature plays her own quiet game unbeknownst to us. But we do, and can, gather data from the larger movements of the fronts and high and low pressures to decipher what might be hiding in the clouds or in the air as rain, heavy rain or worse. And possible out of nowhere, we may encounter teeth-chattering clear air turbulence. Such events may be forecast, but when they hit, they make our hearts skip a beat. The accelerator is pressed as the lurching heart finds its traction into a gallop.

This graphic shows an interesting phenomenon that occurred not too long ago in my Bonanza as the cowl flap suddenly opened in midflight. The spike in the heart rate is sudden and uncontested, but as my inputs stabilized the aircraft in flight with a slight side slip and slower speed to reduce the kinetic energy, everything seemed to will its way back to normalcy.

heart rate

The sudden spike of the heart rate correspondes with the cowling event.

A similar event of having traffic nearby as the Garmin MFD barked the alert and I was visually unable to determine its location created a jolt of adrenaline for a short duration that lessened as soon as the aircraft came into view.

heart rate

This was the result of a traffic alert from my Garmin avionics.

It is said (and I agree) that most non-pilots and pilots seem to agree that a pilot’s skills are known by the quality of the landings. While it is true that every landing has its challenges, each one is a distinction in itself. A calm landing differs from a headwind landing versus a crosswind landing. Thrown in an occupied runway or contanimated runway and the whole calculation is turned on its head. The level of anxiety reaches a new level of bizarre.

heart rate

Results from a crosswind landing.

While we are programmed to understand that not all approaches must end in a landing, our egos can get in the way, and we become test-pilots for that brief interlude. Although both graphics show the rise in our heart rates, the difference is the level of rise. It seems that proficiency matters, as well as experience. Having encountered previous events, the mind has a framed construct to follow its previous successful path. Having none, the mind goes into a battle mode.

So, in the end, is this good or bad you might ask?

To borrow a phrase, the answer lies in your definition of the words “good and bad.” It is good to have a degree of alertness during a flight, but a constant state of alarm leads to fatigue of the senses. This fatigue has caused many a pilot to deviate from the norms of flight and end up in bad scenarios. The fatigue can also be accentuated by lack of sleep, mild hypoxia, CO in the cockpit, chronic anxiety and stress, and a whole host of stuff life throws at us. Now add the phase of sudden anxiety onto a preexisting condition, such as narrowed coronary arteries, or unknown “berry aneurysms” that give up their walls etc., and incapacitation can be quite unexpected.

Other physiological events such as deep-sea diving within 24 hours, followed by a flight or flying above FL180 in an unpressurized aircraft for long durations, leading to dysbarism called “bends and chokes,” can be very disconcerting and incapacitating. Many conspirators thrive in those unknown waters, and it takes a calm mind and a steady experienced hand to wade through them.

The nutshell universe of this argument remains. A little anxiety keeps you alert, but too much is harmful. Time in a cockpit and experience are good teachers; therefore, fly often, learn, and expand your universe of experience.

Parvez Dara
Latest posts by Parvez Dara (see all)
3 replies
  1. Bob Hamilton
    Bob Hamilton says:

    Good article Parvez. Clear and concise.
    Stress happens – and generally, that’s OK.
    When issues arise, let your training take over.
    I’ve had a number of serious emergencies in my life – flying, scuba, construction site collapses, etc. Your training will be your best bet.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *