The ergonomics of the cockpit go unchanged. However, what we can affect is the biomechanics and physical condition of the helicopter pilot before he takes a seat. It is an interesting contrast between how much attention preparing the aircraft receives in comparison to the pilot. The pilot can just step into the cockpit without any preparation. What makes the role of the body even more critical is that it has a significant impact on the pilot’s ability to concentrate when flying. So, it is essential to question the industry’s standards. Why do we not pay more attention to the pilot’s mental stage and physical preparedness? After all, human factors cause over 80% of accidents. Thus, there is no room to leave anything assured – certainly not the pilot’s ability to fly in good condition.
To address the multiple challenges helicopter pilots have to face, we brought two physical training experts into our Coptersafety team. With this addition, we further aim to bring much needed physical training for the helicopter pilots training program.
Learnings from military aviation and sports
“In military aviation, the G-forces are putting the human body under extreme stress. So, screenings are held continuously for the pilots to catch on early symptoms to reduce the risks. This aims to make the pilots fit for the job as well as enhance their overall physical well-being later in their life,” states Mikko Luukkanen, Chairman of PhysioBit and test pilot of Finnish air forces. Luukkanen has found these procedures beneficial to the military industry. Thus, he wanted to express his concern that similar actions are not taking place within the helicopter industry. Based on several discussions with fellow pilots he feels that he has not met a pilot that hasn’t had some aches and pains caused by the job that requires a lot of the human body.
A distinction between sports and aviation
If we take an example from sports, there is a high awareness of the impact of stress, and continuous repetition has on the athlete’s body. Hence, the athlete continuously prepares themselves for the demands of that particular sport with very tailored physical exercises. Consequently, the situation with pilots feels quite funny. They just fly, get sick and fly again. Unfortunately, this has some longer-term consequences. Hence, pilots typically get occupational diseases like degeneration of the cervical spine due to:
- Problematic ergonomics
- Extended sitting position
- Poor sitting posture
Pilot work is challenging in that it is difficult to achieve and maintain physical preparedness. In many cases, the pilot’s unprepared “cold body” is put under demanding physical situations and stress, which is evidently harmful. For instance, in HEMS and SAR operation, it is common to have to be up in the air middle of the night in just 5 minutes. In all sports, the preparation of the body for the performance is pretty much a norm. An ice hockey team would never start a match waking up 5 min before the game with no warm up, explains Sampsa Kautto, an aviation physiotherapy specialist.
Preventive approach increases aviation safety and cost savings
When looking at some pilots with long careers, we can see visible changes in their biomechanics. For example, the posture of the whole upper body has permanently changed. The proper preventative physical work should start early on when the pilot begins flying as it is often much harder to try to fix things when the damage is already done, explains Kautto.
At the moment, Coptersafety provides:
- An ergonomic analysis in the cockpit
- Exercises and materials
- Guidance to exercises that will decrease the physical symptoms caused by the demanding working environment
All this material is available for the pilots through the personalized app that the pilot can access at all times. By utilizing on the comprehensive physical training experience, the training aims to improve the whole scene of helicopter training. This in return enhances the pilots’ performance and safety by sharing information on helicopter aviation related health risks. It also enables them to learn how to avoid physical problems in practice – before those arise. Therefore, the pilot should start the preventative work early on when they start flying, Luukkanen points out. By putting more emphasis on preventive physical training enables organizations to both to save money and to increase the safety of their operations.
Motivation and self-driven attitude matter most
Building and improving the underlying health and specific muscles for flying is hard work and requires persistence and continuity. “We can give the tools to the pilots to get started, but at the end of the day, it is up to them if they succeed or not. Being motivated and self-driven is what matters the most. It is also important to keep in mind, how are the pilots going to spend their lives following their careers. Wouldn’t you rather spend it being active than struggling to put on your socks?”, states Kautto.
“Let’s aim to build a healthy body for high performance, secure flying, and simultaneously secure life without pains and aches after the career. Doesn’t that sound like a good mission?” summarizes Luukkanen and Kautto together. “We are happy to co-operate with Coptersafety to take our mission forward and bring more focus on helicopter pilots physic as part of the overall training.”