Managing Startle and Surprise Using Psychotherapy

Safe and efficient flight operations rely on pilots’ management of their mental resources; in particular, ensuring that (as far as is possible) reason, planning and logic are the main drivers of their behaviour and not raw emotion. Pilots, however, remain human animals – animals who place themselves in an extreme and unnatural environment and will, on occasion, succumb to the influences of animal instinct and emotion. Arguably, this is nowhere more true than when human pilots are either startled or surprised; these represent an acute emotional state and can lead, in effect, to a partial or total incapacitation of the pilot in question. 

Fortunately, the management of extreme emotional states is a discipline already practiced by psychotherapists in the treatment of depression and – most relevantly here – anxiety. Far from suppressing or denying our emotions, various techniques can be deployed to recognise and manage one’s emotional state and thus produce the desirable behaviour. After all, the modification of behaviour is, as well as the aim of the psychotherapist, the principle role of the flight instructor.


Captain Owen Sims, Type Rating Examiner

Owen Sims obtained his commercial flying license at the Cabair College of Air Training in the UK, graduating top of his class in ground school and flight school. .

Owen developed an interest in psychology and psychotherapy; in particular, how these impacted on his role as an instructor. At Flybe he was an instructor and examiner as well as a CRM Trainer. He spoke at the Asia Pacific Airline Training Symposium in 2016 on how the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy can be applied to flight training, has addressed the Human Factors Roundtable in Memphis, Tennessee, and spoke at EATS, both in 2017 on the application of mindfulness and last year on person-centered psychotherapy. He has a bachelors’ degree in philosophy and is working towards another in psychology.