The Human Factor: Perceived Pressure

How to ask yourself: Is this trip worth dying for?

Perceived Pressure Big

Perceived Pressure Big

There is plenty of pressure in life these days. Anyone who has been laid off knows how real the pressure is to find another job. When your boss says, “You’d better get this done by 2 p.m.,” the pressure can be intense, especially when it realistically should take at least until 4 p.m. to complete the job. Making it to work on time; getting your wife to the hospital when the contractions are only a few minutes apart; catching a flight when you left home later than you should have — all these can get our hearts racing and can lead us to cut corners and take risks we would not normally take.

There are other situations in which there really isn’t any pressure, but we can still respond as if there were. For example, when the boss says, “See if you can’t get this done by 2 p.m.,” he or she may be putting the pressure on, or may just be giving you a little pep talk with no intention to make you feel pressured, and yet you still may push yourself and even take risks to make the artificial deadline.

One of the strongest sources of perceived pressure is when you think someone’s life depends on your performance. In the early days of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) helicopters, there was a very high accident rate. It was discovered that when pilots, who were often veterans of combat in Vietnam, were informed that a baby was dying, they would go into combat mode, with the attitude “you have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” This led to them taking unreasonable risks with the weather, resulting in the high accident rate. A new policy was put into place in which the pilot would not be given any information about the patient, and, along with other initiatives, this led to a reduction in the number of accidents.

Recently the NTSB said that self-induced pressure may have led experienced pilots to make inappropriate decisions that resulted in accidents. The NTSB was referring to four fatal accidents that occurred in 2007 and 2008. Each pilot was serving as a volunteer for a medical transport flight, and in each case he was considered to be well qualified and experienced for the flight conditions, and yet each made decisions that resulted in a fatal accident.

The accidents themselves were nothing out of the ordinary:

• A 65-year-old instrument-rated commercial pilot took off with a patient and his wife on board for a flight in instrument conditions. The pilot had flown only about 5.3 hours in actual instrument conditions during the past two years and was not legally current to fly IFR. The NTSB report indicates the pilot seemed to be having control problems on the ILS approach into Boston and eventually was observed descending vertically out of the clouds.

• An 81-year-old instrument-rated private pilot took off with a tailwind and collided with the top of the ILS glideslope antenna.

• In a similar accident, a 57-year-old private pilot departed downwind and crashed during the initial climb-out.

• A 57-year-old private pilot crashed after experiencing spatial disorientation as a result of convective turbulence.

In a special report on the problem of volunteer medical-transport-pilot accidents, the NTSB noted that “the pilots in these accidents were experienced and likely should have been aware of the risks associated with taking off with excessive tail or crosswinds or flying into deteriorating weather.” The NTSB stated that while it “could not determine why these experienced pilots made the inappropriate decisions that led to the accidents, the pilots may have been subject to the self-induced pressure to start or complete the flights because of their passengers’ serious medical conditions.” The NTSB report states that the pilot in the first accident initially declined to take the flight. However, after everyone else had also declined the flight, he changed his mind and accepted it. It is very possible that, when he saw that no one else was taking the flight, he felt the internal pressure to get the patient to treatment, even though he was not legally qualified to fly in the conditions present that day.

Sometimes the perceived pressure can come from others. In one EMS accident, a helicopter was returning to its home base airport. The weather was rapidly worsening, so the dispatcher told the pilot that he had “better hurry up” if he wanted to make it back before the airport closed down. The helicopter crashed on short final in zero visibility.

There are typically no life-threatening outcomes when someone rushes to get a report done because they mistakenly thought their boss wanted it done by a certain time. However, when pilots succumb to perceived pressure, the result is often injury or death. To avoid falling prey to perceived pressure, it is helpful to take stock of yourself and your flying environment. For example, some people seem to take a very relaxed approach to life and have no problem saying, “We’ll get there when we get there.” Anxious passengers or pushy bosses just don’t seem to have any impact. Many people, however, are very easily swayed by pressure from those around them and tend to take unnecessary risks rather than disappoint the passengers or the boss.

Some situations are particularly ripe for perceived pressure. The medical transport flights discussed above are one example. Another would be the once-a-year vacation trip you have been planning for months. Typically there are nonrefundable deposits at hotels or resorts and other time-critical issues that can apply intense pressure to give it a try, even though the weather picked the day of your departure to demonstrate its power over your schedule.

I actually think that pressure is at the heart of most accidents. If there weren’t something applying real or perceived pressure on the pilots or crews, they would not have departed or continued in the face of the adverse conditions that led to the accidents. Since pressure is a fact of life, we need to carefully assess the pressure we are exposed to so we can look at the situation with the proper perspective. Thus an important part of preflight planning is to realistically assess the answers to these questions:

• How much pressure are you experiencing?

• What is the source of that pressure?

• Are those sources internal or external or both?

• What are the potential consequences if you don’t take the flight or don’t make it to the destination on time?

• What are the potential consequences if you try to make it?

• Is avoiding the potential consequences of not making it on time worth the risks you will take to try to make it?

Ultimately the decision can often be simplified to “Is this trip worth dying for?” Or perhaps “It’s not going to help the patient if the person dies on the way to the hospital!” However, to come to that kind of realization, you need to consciously assess the pressures, risks and potential consequences you are facing. So before every flight, determine if you are experiencing any internal or external pressure, real or perceived, and then make the mental adjustment to ensure you can realistically assess whether you should depart or continue without letting that pressure affect your decision.