Excessive levels of stress have been shown to harm flight performance. But not experiencing heightened stress and arousal during demanding flight procedures might also be an indicator of poor performance, according to new research published in The International Journal of Aerospace Psychology.
“As a university of pilots, we care about the stress of our students, and every day we are willing to enhance the methodology to train them. Since the stress factor has been previously demonstrated to affect performance, we wanted to study this factor in our case of pilot students,” said study author Toni Valles-Catala, head of research at the Center for Higher Aviation Studies in Catalonia.
In the study, 41 student pilots wore a wristband that recorded electrodermal activity, an objective and reliable measure of stress, as they completed several flight tasks in a simulator, including non-precision approaches, go-arounds, and engine failure emergency procedures. Their performance on these tasks was judged by a panel of flight instructors.
Tasks of higher complexity were associated with a spike in electrodermal activity, and this heightened physiologically stress response was associated with good performance for most of the student pilots. “It is reasonable to think that highly demanding tasks require greater arousal if they are to be completed correctly,” the researchers said.
However, some students had weaker physiologically stress responses and poorer performance in highly demanding situations.
“We studied the stress of student pilots in simulated flight, and we observed that when they get involved in the highly demanding tasks, they perform better. However, we also observed that some students (although they may perform well on the flight as a whole) poorly performed a highly demanding task,” Valles-Catala told PsyPost.
“The last conclusion was unexpected, since we understand that student pilots need to be concentrated during the flight, especially during highly demanding tasks. We suggest that this could be due to fatigue, a lack of motivation, level of skills, or even overconfidence, all of which are variables that should be assessed in future work. Another interesting point to be addressed is to observe whether this happens in real flight.”
The study, “Effects of Stress on Performance during Highly Demanding Tasks in Student Pilots“, was authored by Toni Vallès-Català, Anna Pedret, Diana Ribes, David Medina, and Miquel Traveria.