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“I cannot explain why I feel the need to do this every day, I just do and this highlights one of the major points about OCD – we cannot always explain it.”

What follows is one pilot’s experience of managing his compulsions and describing the impact they have on his flying skills. He makes no claims about his experience other than hoping it may be of interest and possible help to other pilots. We are tremendously grateful to him. 

OCD is something that most pilots are likely to have experienced either with themselves, colleagues or family. However, the extent to which an individual suffers varies from person to person and generally no two cases are the same.

To analyse what OCD actually is, we need to split it up into its two primary parts; obsession and compulsion. The obsession is often a set of thoughts, urges or worries that make us anxious whilst the compulsion is a set of repetitive actions we take to ease the anxiety.

My own personal experience is that I often worry whether the actions I’m carrying out are the right ones and then start thinking of the consequences if they’re not (obsession). As a result, I always have to carry out actions in a set order so that I know in my mind that I haven’t missed anything out and I will then tend to go over it again, just in case (compulsion).

Within the aviation industry, we are constantly taught to do things in certain ways (SOPs for example) and to follow checklists. Therefore, when someone with OCD comes into the industry, some people may just pass it off as them being thorough, especially if it’s something which is similar to what I experience but actually an individual is adapting the way they have to work in order to overcome their compulsion. Because we do have all of these prescribed checks and flows, it is normally possible for people to find an easy way of overcoming their compulsions whilst operating within SOPs by adapting their actions to fit both the SOPs and their compulsions side by side but sometimes more wide ranging adaptations of the SOPs are required.

The hardest part that I find is that there are always two of you on the flight deck and whilst it may just be yourself wanting things to be ‘just so’, the other pilot may have a different way of doing things. This can be extremely frustrating depending on the severity of an individual’s condition. I find that the best way of overcoming it is by speaking with the other person and explaining what you like to do and why. Thankfully, most of the time, pilots understand and try to accommodate but occasionally you do have to work around them and try to keep your compulsion under control. Therefore, in work, I have had to learn to accept that some things won’t be correct. The way I accept this is that I compartmentalise the flight deck and so long as my area and the things I’m in control of are set as I like, I’m happy. I have learnt to overcome my compulsion if it is outside of my control but for some people, this can be extremely challenging and therefore makes the job harder too.

Whilst so far I’ve been touching on compulsions which you can explain (you know the underlying obsession), unfortunately there are some which we don’t realise why we do them. An example of this for me is with the radio panels. On the ‘XXX’, the radio volume is done by numbers (10-99). For some reason, I have to have the volume set at either a 0 or 5 (e.g. 40, 55, 65, etc) and each box has its own assigned volume in my head which I have to set at the start of the day before we go flying. I cannot explain why I feel the need to do this every day, I just do and this highlights one of the major points about OCD – we cannot always explain it.

I’m lucky in that both my obsession and compulsions are easy to overcome and most people suffer with the condition a lot worse than I do. This is why I refer to myself as suffering only minor OCD and whilst some people find this annoying, I refuse to say that I have proper diagnosable OCD as there are a lot of people who struggle a lot more than I do. Society as a whole is still coming to terms with the fact that many people do have mental illnesses and you cannot simply classify them with one generic term.

For those who suffer from OCD, in whatever form, there is help available. The biggest and simplest form of help is by simply talking to someone, as is true for most forms of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be a medical professional; it can simply be a friend or colleague who is willing to listen. There is also help available online from mental health charities such as Mind or OCD UK along with clinical professionals for more serious cases.

Pilot experience - OCD