British Psychological Society Fellow Professor Robert Bor tells us '‘I never thought I would find myself being honoured alongside Major Tim Peake’. But, together with Britain’s most famous astronaut, he was due to receive Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Aeronautical Society at a ceremony on 5 December.
The award is made to recognise the most outstanding contributions to the aerospace profession. Bor’s citation refers to the ‘outstanding and lasting contributions that he has made in the field of aviation clinical psychology’ and says he is ‘recognised as one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on pilot mental health assessment, pilot selection and pilot peer-support initiatives’.
Professor and lead consultant clinical psychologist at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and visiting professor at City, University of London, Bor is the convener of the British Psychological Society’s unique CPD course in aviation psychology. He also holds a pilot’s licence, so he was a natural choice to chair the task group set up by the British Psychological Society’s Professional Practice Board in the aftermath of the Germanwings disaster – ‘a watershed in aviation’, he Bor says – to produce a position paper on aviation psychology and pilot mental health and wellbeing.
That paper gives a psychological perspective on the unique working environment of airline pilots and discusses factors that may increase their risk of developing mental health conditions. Among its recommendations are the establishment of a post-qualification course in aviation and aerospace by the BPS and higher education institutions by 2020. The same date, says the report, should see airlines ensure that all pilots have access to specialist psychological support and, where needed, assessment. It also calls for a review of what is known about pilot wellbeing to identify gaps and best practice.
Bor emphasises that psychologists working in aviation, who may come from a variety of specialisms, must be sensitive to pilots’ concerns: ‘Rather than look for “black swan” events like Germanwings we should focus on supporting pilots’ wellbeing and mental health so they can get help without jeopardising their careers.’
Psychologists have a key role in fostering the wellbeing of all air personnel in safety-critical roles, not just pilots. With air travel becoming ever more popular, the need for these personnel is growing. The paper quotes estimates that the worldwide aviation industry will need to recruit more than two million new personnel, including 617,000 pilots, by 2013.
Bor says this ubiquity of air travel is posing new problems for those in the industry: ‘People who have become seasoned flyers may not listen to the safety announcement before take-off, reasoning that they already know it all. Equally, the fact that they feel more at home when flying means they are more likely to bend the rules. I increasingly hear reports of passengers ignoring instructions to leave their baggage when the plane has to be evacuated in an emergency.’
As well as being dangerous in themselves, such passenger attitudes can erode the effectiveness of the aircrew, with implications for their wellbeing.
- Jonathan Calder
- Find more on aviation psychology in our archive.
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