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Taking flight under pressure: How pilots train for emergencies

Published March 26, 2024

There have been a few upsetting news stories recently that can make flying scarier for those that are already uncomfortable about turbulence or flying in general. While a couple of the technical issues did not directly affect the flight or passenger safety, they had the potential to endanger people on the ground. Other cases were much more serious. And especially worrisome are cases were assembly failures have dangerous consequences. However, in all of the recent cases, pilots have been able to apply their rigorous training and do what was needed to bring planes and passengers back safely. So for today’s blog, let’s explore some of the training that pilots undergo on an ongoing basis, to always be ready for unexpected emergencies in flight. We’ll look at technical as well as psychological preparedness. 

Technical competency

  • Classroom foundation and ongoing training: Training begins in the classroom, where pilots study the intricacies of aircraft systems and the potential emergencies that might arise. This includes understanding how malfunctions can occur, their impact on flight, and the prescribed procedures for handling them for each of the aircraft the pilot commands. Before a pilot can be certified to fly a different type of aircraft, they will spend hours learning in the classroom. Additionally, pilots must stay updated on new regulations and procedures.
  • Simulator practice: The most crucial tool for emergency preparedness training is the flight simulator. These high-tech machines meticulously recreate the cockpit environment and flight dynamics of each type of aircraft. Pilots are then presented with a wide range of simulated emergencies, from engine failure and fire to instrument malfunctions and extreme weather conditions. The immersive experience allows them to practice the necessary procedures in a safe and controlled environment, building muscle memory and critical decision-making skills. Simulator training goes far beyond rote memorization of checklists. Instructors introduce unexpected twists and turns, forcing pilots to adapt and think critically. Regular proficiency checks determine additional training needs.
  • Something pilots train for extensively is engine failure. In the simulator, the pilot might experience a sudden loss of power in one engine. Training kicks in, prompting pilots to follow established procedures. This involves completing multiple actions at the same time: maintaining control of the aircraft with the remaining (or without) engine power, declaring an emergency with air traffic control, informing flight attendants and passengers, and initiating a safe landing at the nearest suitable airport or even in open terrain (remember the landing in the Hudson river!). 

Psychological readiness

Just as much as pilots train on technical emergency procedures, they have to be able to manage the physiological and psychological stress their bodies experience in an emergency. Regular medical check-ups are required, but training also includes extensive practice in stress management and crew resource management (CRM). Here are some examples:

  • Staying calm under pressure: Emergencies are inherently stressful. Pilots undergo training specifically designed to manage this stress effectively. Techniques include autogenic breathing exercises, visualization, and maintaining a positive and focused attitude.
  • Crew coordination: CRM training emphasizes teamwork and communication within the cockpit and the entire crew. Pilots learn and practice to effectively delegate tasks, share information clearly, and utilize the expertise of all crew members during an emergency. This ensures a coordinated and efficient response that leverages the strengths of everyone involved, and sometimes extends to passengers as well. In the recent event of altitude loss that left several people with injuries, the crew asked for doctors or nurses to support them with treatment until passengers could receive attention on the ground.
  • Maintaining situational awareness: In a scenario where an instrument malfunction occurs during a critical phase of flight, such as takeoff or landing, the psychological training equips the pilot to manage the sudden stress, while simultaneously maintaining situational awareness. This involves staying focused on essential flight parameters, communicating effectively with co-pilot and air traffic control, and prioritizing critical tasks to ensure a safe outcome.

Decision-making under pressure

While classroom training covers emergency procedures, real-world situations rarely unfold exactly as planned. Pilots undergo technical and psychological training to develop their ability to think critically and make sound decisions under pressure. They must be prepared to evaluate options, consider potential consequences, and adapt strategies when necessary. In the example of a passenger experiencing a medical emergency on board, psychological training helps the pilot assess the situation calmly, consult with medical professionals on the ground if possible, and make a quick decision on whether to divert the flight for an emergency landing. This involves weighing the severity of the passenger's condition against factors like weather conditions and fuel availability. By incorporating psychological training, pilots develop the mental fortitude and decision-making skills they need to navigate the emotional stress of emergencies. This holistic approach ensures that they are well-equipped to not only handle the technical aspects of a crisis, but also lead their crew and passengers effectively during the most challenging moments.