“People had said to me 'Relax - you'll make a great Captain one day' - That last remark was really unhelpful. It meant: but until then, you're out of your depth.”
What follows is an account sent to us by a Pilot who wanted to share their own experiences and what they did to change the situation. They make no claims about their experience other than hoping it may be of interest and possible help to other pilots. We are tremendously grateful to them.
I was a brand new Captain in a huge, new base. I had a few bad nights dodging awful weather into new destinations with inexperienced First Officers who hadn’t been there either. I missed my little famil,y stuck in a hotel: a convenient but toxic, lonely environment, full of happy people going abroad. People had said to me 'relax - you'll make a great Captain one day' - that last remark was really unhelpful. It meant: but until then, you're out of your depth.
Every day offered a tiny margin above minimum rest. I reported early every day, constantly made notes and ran failures after work to dampen my anxiety. Eventually this bled into home: I considered this diligence. I dealt with a few problems successfully but this was of little reassurance. Some of the nights were bitter, always the lowest moment. A technical issue one day was debriefed with a stranger, a Captain from another airline in the staff car park, my support network was that invisible. My friends in that base were worked so hard it was a struggle to cross paths: I met one in four months. There was no leave left when I transferred, so that summer became a personal war of attrition. Family & friends had no idea.
Several passing acquaintances mentioned I'd lost weight. I hadn't noticed but had been throwing myself into gym sessions, the only other distraction available: it wasn’t drinking, drugs or gambling. I'd just completed my medical when the idea struck me that if I stumbled down a flight of stairs I'd solve the problem. Perhaps I could just crack a finger and escape the rest of my transfer wait. That was another crack appearing. I obsessively tidied my room before duty in case it was the only evidence left of me. I subsequently found that this was classic behavior, controlling the only variable left. I thought these were normal niggles that would be scoffed at by management, not insidious burnout.
I came unstuck one night when I made a safe but uncommercial decision in widespread thunderstorms. I had a cabin crew in tears (an unrelated issue) the last Senior in base and a very capable SFO who I sensed was pushing me beyond my own limits. The passengers had been aboard without information for an hour and we had a big queue for fuel.
My manager soon pulled me aside afterwards. My internal dam burst and it took forty minutes of alternating waves of wailing and recovery to purge the evil; I was mortified and felt totally negligent and unsupported. When ordered home I even asked if that meant my real home or the hotel; I drove back on a sunny evening, tears streaming from behind sunglasses, convinced it was all over.
I was surprisingly relieved admitting this to family: I'd been living a lie for months. This should have been the highlight of my career, but I wasn't convinced I even wanted the job any more. I had some time away, a very informal series of discussions with a senior trainer and returned for some jump-seat observation and a simulator, verdict: no faults found... I had a course of CBT in my own time, which helped in a nebulous way, just being able to talk about it, then a resilience course. Funnily enough, most of the Training Captains I met along the way all had their own brushes with counselling: it happens to many of us, you just don't know it.
A note of positivity came shortly after: I was down route on a night stop with a Cabin Manager having domestic issues. I was concerned we were going to be stuck in the morning and wanted to give the company a chance to find a replacement. They kept disappearing in tears and then reappearing happy again. I eventually managed to get them aside and have a wide-ranging discussion about many things in light of my recent issue. They were a different person the following day and commented to the other cabin crew I'd been really helpful and like a big brother to them.
I found people very receptive to my surprise admission. One said to me: "All the professions are struggling: medicine, teaching, police but you’re the only ones reconciling safety and profit every day. What you do is amazing. You’re like athletes or astronauts you’re so up against the finest margins it’s to be expected that you might need some tools to get through it."
I finally got some leave and my transfer out of hell. It was just time and experience I needed: one summer, one winter and the burden began to slowly evaporate. It turns out I was not the first and I was unsurprised by Germanwings. All confirmed my suspicions about how serious, widespread and underground these issues are and the depths the mind will go to resolve a threat.
I learnt there are many out there who seek support to gain the tools they aren’t worse people for lacking, but that unusual circumstances have pushed them into needing. Permanent resilience does not come factory-fitted. We're not robots but sometimes we are forced to be.
In retrospect, there were things both employer and employee could have done to avoid the scenario but I feel better for the experience. If I could say something to the old me it would be: defend yourself from the pressures of a profession that will just consume you, stop over-thinking, lighten up & speak up.
Pilot experience - Loneliness