The Introduction of Mindfulness and Awareness Practices for Pilots
“You can fly an airplane by the numbers, pushing and pulling at the appropriate time, which will very definitely get you into the air and where you are going. Or you can become a real pilot and develop a feel for the airplane which makes you part of it. Those who seem one with the airplane do so primarily because their senses are connected to it. They are feeling and hearing it, as well as seeing it.”
— Budd Davisson, CFI since 1967, aviation writer, photographer and magazine editor
In today’s rapidly changing and device-dependent world, many industries are going through major changes. Commercial piloting is one of them. To effectively adapt and directly address how this pervasive technology bombardment is impacting cognition in the piloting profession requires fresh thinking. Having flown airplanes for more than 40 years and helped run flight operations for three airlines, I'd like to share my insights about some key ingredients needed for effective aviating in this ever-changing and accelerated environment. Most importantly, I would like to introduce a new element that stands to directly address this, revolutionize pilot training, and greatly enhance safety - mindfulness and awareness practices for pilots.
Here is what my crystal ball reveals about the future of commercial piloting:
- Flying on Autopilot: Flying is likely to remain highly automated.
- Living on Autopilot: The populace from which we will choose our future pilots will comprise of persons who have grown up surrounded by electronic gadgets, are button-pushing multi-taskers constantly juggling between devices, leading lives of constant interruption and distraction, and scattered, limited attention spans.
- Possible drop in Emotional Intelligence (EQ) levels in the cockpit due to people leading more virtual lives tied increasingly to their device screens, with decreasing levels of actual human emotional connect. (EQ: noun - the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.) Exacerbated by the fact that most airline pilots do not go to a regular office and hence do not develop long-term human connections with the pilots they fly with. Hence CRM issues will likely have to be addressed to a greater degree.
- Pilot shortage: An acute shortage of qualified pilots, and even more so, of wise aviators, due to continued growth, steady in some parts of the world - USA 3.5% (IATA Jan 2016 Y-O-Y), frenetic in others - India 26%, China 23% (IATA Jan 2016 Y-O-Y).
- Lowered cockpit experience levels: Upgrades to Captain at a younger age, and in many cases, the legal minimum, qualifications and experience. It will not be uncommon to have 23-year-old Captains paired with 19-year-old F/Os in many cockpits around the world.
- Degradation of pilot handling skills due to greater use of automation, greying “stick-and-rudder” pilots fading away, ever-reducing “raw data, automatics off” flying, coupled with low cockpit experience levels.
In line operations, it is further observed that commercial pilots are exposed to:
1. Varying levels of professionalism and experience in the cockpit.
2. On-the-job stress, occasionally extreme, and occasionally with rapid onset/startle.
3. Stress from personal life brought into the cockpit which may impact emotional stability and/or safety.
4. Commercial time and financial pressures leading to rushing and stress.
5. Distractions and interruptions.
6. Lowered attention levels, even boredom, mainly in the extended cruise phase.
7. Fatigue, sometimes coupled with circadian rhythm mismatch, leading to a reduction in attention and awareness.
8. Stress from the continuous requirement for proficiency checking and medical fitness.
9. Airline culture, sometimes negative, sometimes confrontational – leading the pilot to be in a stressful mental state for operations.
10. Strong hierarchical/power distance factors still existent in some societies, with a corresponding reduction in First Officer advocacy and assertiveness.
If we look at this partial list above, even assuming well-trained and experienced professionals, there are several factors that could lead to the pilot being in a less-than-optimal state of peak performance during flight operations. These stressors are well researched, are discussed and disseminated (albeit with varying degrees of effectiveness between operators), and good professional aviators learn to develop strategies to effectively counter them so that an acceptable level of safety is maintained while on duty.
While current safety data show Loss of Control – Inflight (LOC-I), CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain), Runway Excursions and incorrect Go Arounds as specific problem areas, poor Captaincy/Leadership, Airmanship, Situational Awareness, and Problem Solving and Decision Making seem to be common threads weaving themselves through accident and incident reports from across the world, with insufficient emotional resiliency now also coming onto the radar.
When we holistically look at all these factors, and include the critical element that tomorrow’s commercial cockpits will likely be manned by young, relatively inexperienced, more emotionally isolated, and easily distracted pilots, it becomes imperative, if we are to prevent a further drop in safety levels, that each step of the process be carefully and thoughtfully optimized:
1. Pilot selection – aptitude, attitude, emotional stability, resilience, and maturity - possessing “wisdom beyond her/his years”.
2. Competency based pilot training – a solid basic grounding, enhanced as the pilot progresses by what the safety data and evidence is directing, whether greater focus on handling skills, practicing grey scenarios to fine-tune “big picture” awareness and airmanship leading to sound decision-making, or other evolving shortcomings as they become evident in the future.
3. Organizational professionalism – of a high standard, without compromise, always. Particularly important during high-growth phases when, in the rush to produce the “numbers” so as to avoid having aircraft out of revenue service due to a shortage of pilots, quality slips.
4. Efficient safety trends monitoring – and a constant loop to correlate this operational data with data gathered in the training world so as to effectively mold training and operational procedures.
5. Incorporation of new technology – in airplane design, cockpit systems and software, and training methodology and software, to enhance safety and to back up human shortcomings in the evolving man-machine interface and in the environment in which we operate.
6. Agility of Regulators worldwide – to keep up with evolving trends and embrace and champion effective change to enhance safety and efficiency.
I propose one other element which has so far not been formally or explicitly introduced as part of a pilot’s “tool kit” – a skill that can be trained – and which has immense potential to form the ground from which s/he operates. This skill gives him a centered, calm, very aware space from which piloting happens and which leads to aviating from a highly-attuned oneness with the airplane and its environment. The result is a much higher level of professionalism and airmanship overall, heightened awareness of the “big picture,” higher EQ levels, and skillful decision-making. This training and practice will be even more critically required given the factors that will prevail in tomorrow’s cockpits.
I propose the introduction of Awareness or Mindfulness Training for pilots.
One commonly accepted definition of this, by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, as if your life depended on it.” Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
Though that may sound like a simple statement, each element of it requires deep, deliberate, and thoughtful reflection to grasp its depth and profound ability to change how we live, and, in our context, how we fly. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Boston. His practice of yoga and studies with Buddhist teachers led him to integrate their teachings with those of science. He developed the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) program and has been teaching mindfulness since 1979. While the scientific studies are ongoing, since that time, sufficient evidence exists on the physical and mental health benefits of living mindfully. It is helping people cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness, and in enhancing awareness of whatever is actually happening in the moment, fully present and fully seeing and feeling it exactly as it is, without it being seen through the lens (generally unconsciously) of past association, particularly of it being good or bad.
Kabat-Zinn’s and others’ work, along with the increasing scientific evidence, has inspired countless programs to introduce mindfulness training in schools, in prisons, hospitals, veterans’ centers, several corporations (Google, Accenture, General Mills, Aetna Healthcare, Intel, and more), firefighters, first responders and police departments, and the Navy SEALS, among others. In fact, it was reportedly one of the hottest topics at the 2015 World Economic Forum at Davos.
One long-time scientific researcher on the subject is Prof. Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center in Madison. His findings show that long-term meditators have increased activity and grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of the brain—the area responsible for higher order thinking, such as judgment, decision-making, and discernment (translated as Captaincy and Airmanship in our language), as well as pro-social behavior, like empathy, compassion, and kindness (or a higher order of EQ and CRM in aircraft operations).
Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University specializing in the mind-body connection. She writes:
“Over the past decade, researchers have found that if you practice focusing attention on your breath, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier. If you practice calm acceptance during meditation, you will develop a brain that is more resilient to stress. And if you meditate while cultivating feelings of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others. New research shows that meditation can help you improve your ability to concentrate in two ways. First, it can make you better at focusing on something specific while ignoring distractions. Second, it can make you more capable of noticing what is happening around you, giving you a fuller perspective on the present moment.”
If you were to search for “Mindfulness” you would get hundreds of hits. Here is a link to one recent research finding (Feb 28, 2017) from the US NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), Frontiers in System Neuroscience Journal:
and a link to a short YouTube video of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn explaining it in his own words:
Mindfulness training involves guiding participants in specific meditation practices to help them ground themselves in the present moment, fully here, aware, undistracted, and calm, through paying attention to breathing and bodily sensations. As pilots, we can see it as a means of helping us fine-tune all our sensory “antennae,” leading to heightened levels of contact with our internal and external states, an “in- touchness” that allows us to operate at higher levels of professionalism, of being one with our machine and our flying environment, leading towards mastery as aviators.
Here are some quotes to help you understand how this translates to true pilotage, where aviators go beyond just the pure mechanics of flight, transcending what we ordinarily do into acts of beauty, art and true professionalism:
“At the controls of a small, high-performance aircraft day in and day out, you reach a point of oneness with the plane. Some people would call that the Zen of flying, but that's too deep for me. You're just a part of the plane, not separate from it, as if you are the brain and it is the body, doing some things you don't have to think about, like breathing, and other things that are converted from thought to action in an instant.”
— John Glenn, United States Marine Corps aviator, engineer, test pilot, astronaut, and United States Senator
“Ordinary people focus outwardly; warriors train inwardly, making their inner world the project and the outer world the by-product. The warrior realizes that struggling against the circumstances of life is useless—the battlefield will present what it may. Rather than aiming to change their life, the warrior trains to change his or her mind—relaxing and opening to accept and move with what is. Once the dogfighting skills were there, this is what the F-15 was all about: operating without expectations or control in a three-dimensional realm ruled by chaos, impermanence and death.”
— Mark J. Williams
“Although I have flown hundreds of times, probably with a hundred pilots, I have never experienced that sense of the poetry of motion which [Gustav] Hamel imparted to those who were privileged to fly with him. It was like the most perfect skater on the rink, but the skating was through three dimensions, and all the curves and changes were faultless …. Circling downwards so gently, so quietly, so smoothly, in such true harmony with the element in which he moved, that one would have believed that one wing-tip was fastened to a pivot. As for the grim force of gravity, it was his slave. In all his flying there was no sense of struggle with difficulties, or effort at a complicated feat; everything happened as if it could never have happened in any other way. It seemed as easy as pouring water out of a jug.”
— Sir Winston Churchill
Beyond the grace of aviating thus – passengers can sense it – but concurrent with it, we can imagine the safety benefits that could accrue to aviation if pilots could be trained to operate from such a state of oneness and awareness that, as John Glenn puts it, “You're just a part of the plane, not separate from it, as if you are the brain and it is the body.” While fully acknowledging that “time in seat” experience and “grey hair” helps get there, could specific training in awareness be the leap needed to help bridge the safety gap, especially for our young cockpits of tomorrow? I certainly think so.
As a pilot, you have probably had experiences of specific flights, or phases of some flights, when you felt completely one with your airplane and with the environment, when you felt, beyond just your mind – viscerally, totally - in tune with your machine. There is a calm knowing in this space, and any required elements of aircraft handling, captaincy or decision-making when in “The Zone” or “In the Flow” are perfect, effortless, exactly appropriate to the situation at hand, infused with wisdom, and “beyond the realm.” We seem to be in a state of grace. The mechanics of flight are transcended and infused into the realm of art and beauty. The result is pilotage performed at the level of mastery.
Speaking for myself as a long-time pilot and meditator, I can unequivocally state that when aviating while aware and in-tune, there is a palpable quality of aliveness and awareness of the “big picture” infusing my actions while operating. Whether it is the technical aspects of flying, doing a landing under difficult conditions, or even appreciating the beauty of a stunning sunset from our very privileged perch up high, there is a oneness with my aircraft and the medium in which I fly, with appropriate actions and decision-making happening almost viscerally, guided by a deeper wisdom. And for those of you flying long-haul and feeling the boredom and drudgery of it, operating from this state infuses a freshness in the mundane - you see more, hear more, feel more - so that even the thousandth flight seems like your very first.
At the other end of the spectrum, here is an example of a clear lack of mindfulness in flight operations, and you may be able to relate – How many times have you done a pre-flight walkaround and been zoned out for some of it? Let’s take an example. You’ve checked the nose wheel area and moved to the fan cowl of No. 2 engine when you start thinking– “I have to pick Mike up from school after we land. With this weather I think we’re going to be late. Maybe I should call Jill and have her pick him up. Oops, she said she’s going to be in an important meeting till late today. Oh-oh, this is bad. What do I do now? Maybe I can call Mom to help out, but given her reaction the last time she had to do this I hesitate to ask her. Who else can I call?” As your stress levels rise this internal conversation continues as you keep walking. While you have been physically walking around your aircraft and “looking” at the various parts required – the No.2 engine, the right leading edge, the fuel cap, the underside of the wing, the right wing tip - you have absorbed very little of the true state of your machine in this “mind somewhere else, absorbed in thoughts” state. While you may even have physically looked at a component, you did not “see” its actual true state, and you just gazed through and past it. And before you know it, your zoned-out walkaround has ended. It is possible that the fuel cap was not secured closed, and you have completely missed that, even though you looked right at it. It goes without saying that this lack of being fully in the present moment, focused and undistracted, can have negative safety outcomes.
It is understood that there may be some resistance to the idea of mindfulness or awareness training if it is felt that it is a religious practice or alien to one’s beliefs. However, while the origins of mindfulness meditation practices do have their roots largely in the Buddhist tradition, our interest should lie in the fact that scientific evidence points to its efficacy, and it is taught and practiced in a secular manner which does not contradict any person’s personal beliefs. What’s important is to see that it is a practice that is effective in helping us reside in, and so approach whatever we do, from a calmer, more focused and balanced place, all of which greatly enhances situational awareness, communication and teamwork, and leadership and decision-making, especially under stressful situations.
Through mindfulness and awareness training and practice as a pilot, the aim would be to cultivate a mental and emotional state that would bring you on duty, and help you remain during operations, in a condition which is:
- More situationally aware, able to absorb inputs from your environment more effectively.
- Calm, focused, and undistracted, even in stressful situations, thus putting you “ahead of the curve” and not startled or caught unawares, greatly enhancing both Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring functions.
- Clearly allowing you to discern between calm and appropriately prioritized multi-tasking, versus scattered action.
- Able in a finer way to detect internal signs of fatigue or sub-optimal performance and so take corrective action.
- More emotionally resilient and able to bounce back from upsets and stress.
- Able to skillfully discern the difference between using past experience and knowledge wisely and applying it appropriately to the task at hand, while not getting caught in negative thoughts or emotions.
- More empathetic and attuned, on a human level, with your crew, greatly enhancing teamwork, communication, and leadership.
As with mastery in any activity – whether flying or playing a sport or a musical instrument – the depth and effectiveness of our ability to be present and in-touch increases with practice. The great benefit of specifically practicing being present in the moment is that it enriches everything we do as it forms the very ground from which we operate. There is a vibrancy and freshness to life, we see things anew, the perceived dullness of a repetitive task is replaced by doing it as if for the very first time. While nothing externally may have changed, the internal state from which all is perceived is fresh and not encumbered by past value judgments, allowing us to see things as they are, not clouded by unconscious associations from our history, thus propelling us to take appropriate actions emanating from our full richness as human beings, and which are exactly right for the situation at hand.
And let's get one thing straight. There's a big difference between a pilot and an aviator. One is a technician; the other is an artist in love with flight.
— E. B. Jeppesen
"You can't watch yourself fly. But you know when you're in sync with the machine, so plugged into its instruments and controls that your mind and your hand become the heart of its operating system. You can make that airplane talk, and like a good horse, the machine knows when it's in competent hands. You know what you can get away with. And you can only be wrong once."
-- Chuck Yeager
These statements have always been relevant for pilots, and take on even more urgency in this age of highly automated flight and distracted living. The challenges we will find in future cockpits are clear. The journey to continually enhance professional and safety standards for pilots must continue. Mindfulness training for pilots can be an excellent practice from which the aviators of tomorrow can truly soar - while remaining firmly grounded.
Capt. Zaheer is Principal at Inner Compass Advisors, an aviation operations consultancy. In over 40 years of flying in the airline, corporate and military sectors, he has logged over 15000 hours on 28 different aircraft types ranging from tail-draggers to supersonic fighters, and corporate jets to widebodies. Among other leadership roles, he has served as Vice President Flight Operations and Vice President Special Projects at IndiGo, India’s largest airline. He has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for over ten years.
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