Is it a stressful job being a pilot?
Why is it stressful being a commercial pilot?
The amount, type, duration, and severity of pilot stressors vary widely. The individual airline, union involvement, planned versus unplanned, international or domestic type of equipment, cargo or passengers, everything has an impact. I look at the pilots' stress in the context of what I've been doing over the past 10 years flying 747s on international routes for two airlines. For me, there were usually (but certainly not always) three types of stressors: physical abuse of the body, decision-making in the face of incomplete information, and frustration over things over which I had little or no control. The following examples are from the 1990s, but I'm pretty sure things and conditions are still occurring. There are still 747-200s flying, not many, but two of them are SAM 28000 and SAM 29000, the President's two 747s (heavily modified, of course).
Physical abuse of the body
For me, the biggest stress factor was the massive time zone changes. I've been based out of JFK for the past five years, but lived in Oregon. After gaining some seniority, I usually had 12 days off each month, but one day at each end was devoted to commuting.
So began a period of work with the effort and uncertainty of jumping to JFK for a multiple distance, a drive of at least 2500 miles, and a 3 hour time zone change. The most typical next day was JFK to Tel Aviv, a 12 hour flight and another 7 hour time zone change. We left JFK late in the evening and arrived at the hotel in Tel Aviv early evening the next day. I would wake up in Tel Aviv around 2:00 a.m., and from then on my daily rhythm was completely mixed up for the rest of the working hours.
We have operated a lot of charter flights, which resulted in major irregularities in our schedules. It was not uncommon for a charter to come up that set us apart from the line that we bid for and that was awarded, and from that point on we usually never came back to the line that was awarded. As a result, we often didn't know what we were going to do after completing the current flight until we got the call at the hotel after the flight.
If you work frequently in third word countries, you can occasionally get sick. It happened to me twice in 10 years, once in Jakarta at the Hilton and once in the Ramada right at the airport in Delhi. The Jakarta Hilton had a 24/7 clinic in the basement, mostly for their employees but available to their guests. So it wasn't a big deal to bring a doctor to my room in the middle of the night and give me a chance to control the vomiting and diarrhea and stop the dehydration. The Ramada was a much smaller hotel so they had to call a doctor from home again in the middle of the night. We had no reserve captains in Delhi. The next day I did a Hajj flight with a towel arranged as a diaper.
Decision making in the face of incomplete information
It happened all the time. It was part of the job, took many forms, and facing the challenges was part of the fun, but it was stressful. For example, we picked up an aircraft load of US Army troops at Stewart Air National Guard Base in New York to be transferred to a recently built runway in the Balkans. We stopped in Paris because we needed to have enough fuel to get out where we wanted to go. There was no fuel there. It turned out there was nothing there but a very narrow, short (for a 747) runway surrounded by farmland, no buildings but a few construction trailers. The information for the destination was given to me shortly before my departure in Paris. On the way from Paris I saw two problems on the approach plate and the runway data. The target weather was predicted to be cloudy, but the cap was high enough to allow boarding with the only approach aid available, an NDB. However, the plane we were shipped on had an ADF that only had a pointer error instead of a full needle. Our Ops specifications forbade NDB approaches without a pointer needle with a tail. I ignored this problem. The second problem was that the taxi map showed a runway too narrow to turn around without getting an impeller off the edge. There were no taxiways, no junctions, no ramps. This led to a series of contacts via HF via Stockholm Radio (no Satcom on this old plane) between me, the dispatch department and our operations manager. The last call from the DO was to tell me they had spoken to the military and that although the airport sign didn't show it, there was now a small ramp at each end of the runway. We landed, unloaded and left without incident.
Frustration with things that I couldn't control
This category was big, the smallest, some even ridiculous, some of greater consequence, but all of it irritating to me. Things like lying to ground supporters, shitty accommodations (me and a flight engineer got body lice from staying at the Carrera Hotel in Santiago, Chile), paying bribes (especially in Indonesia and Egypt), sometimes waiting hours for entry, often When you first come into contact with a Saudi Arabian inspector you have to say "salaam alaikum" before they answer, and switch back and forth between Bombay and Mumbai during the name change. Hindu nationalist checkers wouldn't answer if you didn't say Mumbai, others wouldn't answer if you didn't say Bombay.
The incident I remember most in this category was when I, a first officer, a flight engineer, and 14 flight attendants came to Medina, Saudi Arabia to pick up a flight. When we got there we were told that the plane would be at least 12 hours late. No problem, hotel time as we were usually entitled to a room if there was a delay of more than five hours. Problem, however, there was no available accommodation in the airport area. There were rooms in the city, but like Mecca, non-Muslims cannot enter Medina. We sat in a terminal with pitiful air conditioning for 14 hours in the middle of summer before the plane arrived.
One last little irritant. In the final months of Bill Clinton's tenure, we had to turn our usual Tel Aviv parking lot over and over again to SAM 28000 and SAM 29000 as he made the final effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
So, definitely stressful, but it was the high point of my life and I'm glad I did everything, including everything that wasn't great at the time.
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