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What allows airline pilots to remain cool under pressure?

I don’t think we’re any cooler under pressure than anyone else.

In general, we may seem cooler in certain cases and that’s because what seems like a pressure filled situation to outside observers is actually a practiced procedure. Turbulence often makes observers feel like it’s a pressure filled situation but we’ve experienced it every week for decades so we’re pretty chill. A good example is an engine failure.

777 engine failure and fire, looks more dangerous than it is.

We get that training on every single training event so it’s pretty reflexive and not as filled with pressure as it may seem. That said, I recently flew with a copilot who lost an engine shortly after takeoff from Las Vegas. They returned to the field and he told me they did fine initially but the captain was flying and started getting nervous and ended up overspeeding the flaps and was very reluctant to slow the airplane for approach. The copilot said the captain started thinking about all kinds of contingencies and would give him miscellaneous information and then quickly jump to a new subject before completing his first thought. He started talking about what should happen after landing while they were in the middle of the approach checklist. He said they almost didn’t get configured in time and were close to going around. The captain let his nerves take over from his training and the copilot couldn’t find a way get him to settle down. I think that happens a lot more than is reported. Some of us are better than others, which is why it’s important to have two pilots in the cockpit.

In normal life, pilots are often less cool than the general population. I have seen pilots get very upset over silly things like being sent for secondary screening at security.

Many pilots have a real problem with being “disrespected” and will lose their cool if they feel challenged by someone who they feel is beneath them. I have seen lots of examples during my career. Like any group of people, there is diversity in their approach to life and some have very fragile egos and can’t stand to have anyone question their authority. This has been a real problem in the past and caused a lot of unnecessary accidents and loss of life. Captains, sadly, would fly perfectly good airplanes into the ground because they were unwilling to listen to those around them. Today, there is little “Captain’s Authority” remaining although it is still in the regulations, captains no longer have full authority about the operation of the airplane and must get input from the crew and they can’t be non-verbal or take action unless the crew is in agreement. If they do, they can face consequences which include loss of their jobs. It’s a different world from 20 or 30 years ago.

In general, most pilots make an attempt to appear cool under pressure but it’s often an act. I’ve been guilty of it myself. I’ve felt upset and worried but I have tried to appear cool and collected. It’s not a good policy because it’s important to let the crew know about your concerns and worries because they can assist in resolving the issue or offer a perspective that is calming. If I’m calm, I’m a better pilot. The stone cold pilot with nerves of steel never really existed. They may appear that way but just beneath the surface is a human being with all the same anxieties and problems that we all have.

So there is actually being cool and acting cool. Sometimes we really are cool because we’re in a familiar situation and sometimes we’re pretending. It’s hard to tell the difference.

Airline pilots have no superior personality trait that gives them any advantage over the general population. Sometimes we’re cool and calm and sometimes we’re not.


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