Safety: Situational Stress

Uncertainty and Expectations



Every working incident, fire, rescue or EMS, contains an amount of stress that can be said to be both normal and expected.

Stress is the human reaction to events and allows us to be properly vigilant and therefore more effective.

While a routine building fire might induce a normal amount of stress, one with a report of children trapped would certainly escalate what is referred to as “situational stress.”

Situational stress can be a deterrent to effective operations if it results in distraction or loss of situational awareness, our sense of what is going on around us.

Delta 1086


Flight 1086 was an MD-80 on a scheduled flight from Atlanta to New York’s Laguardia airport, on March 5, 2015, landing shortly after 11:00 in the morning on a snowy day.

The flight crew was exceptionally experienced: the captain had 11,000 hours and the first officer about 3,000 hours on the MD-80.  The captain had been based out of Laguardia and was used to landing the aircraft in the snow.

Much like a fire or EMS crew on a response, they followed their standard procedures and communicated regarding what they would probably encounter on arrival.

The major concern was stopping the aircraft on a fairly short runway with Flushing Bay looming at the far end.

They had requested “braking action reports” (BARs) from previously landing aircraft.

The reports were not available and the lack of information was the source of uncertainty and increased situational stress.

As they neared the airport, several BARs indicated good braking on runway 13 which apparently allowed the crew to build a mental image of what they would see when they broke out of the clouds.

Popping out of the clouds on final, the crew instead saw a snow-packed runway ahead, wholly different from their expectations and another source of situational stress centered on stopping the aircraft on the runway.

Taking Aggressive Action

Stopping the aircraft occurs through the use of reverse thrust, spoilers which act to cancel wing lift, and automatic braking.

It’s a busy time in the cockpit as both pilots are ensuring that systems are activating properly, monitoring speed and heading and steering and braking the aircraft.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that situational stress combined with a heavy workload caused the captain to allow excessive reverse thrust which may have put the aircraft into an uncontrollable slide.

He naturally became focused on stopping the slide to the left even as the reverse thrust climbed well beyond stated limits and actually contributed to the control failure.

The aircraft departed the runway and came to rest on a berm resulting in minor injuries to the passengers.

We use training, procedures and experience to create a combination mental picture and road map which serve to lead us safely through the opening moves of a working incident.

Delta 1086 proves that even the most highly experienced crew members can suffer from situational stress because it is a normal physiological response which can be mitigated but not eliminated.

Building a flexible picture, fostering crew communications and not being overly aggressive can help us to effectively assimilate uncertainty and incorrect expectations and to adjust the response plan to reflect the on-scene realities.


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