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  • Writer's pictureBruce Campbell MD

Is Being a Pilot like Being a Surgeon?

When a scheduled airline flight flew 150 miles past the destination airport in 2009, pilot Bill Mazzone, who flew jet airliners for 23 years, said it is possible the pilots both got caught napping. His comments: "It’s kind of like being in an operating room. You know the physicians and the nurses…are listening to music, telling jokes, they’re doing what keeps them alert," he said. "Things are happening that if the public knew about it, they wouldn’t understand it, but it’s done. They’ve got the same thing in the cockpit."

When I was in medical school in the late 1970s, I was assigned to a surgical service that also had two first-year residents known as "the interns." As a medical student, I was required to stay in the hospital every few nights to help them. Internship was (and remains) very demanding. In those days before the "80 hour work week," though, it was not uncommon for young, newly minted physicians to stay awake on-call for 36-hour stretches every other night for weeks on end; basically alternating 36 hours at work with 12 hour at home. Personal care was non existant. Weekends were meaningless. It was exhausting and soul-sucking, and most of the night work was of no educational benefit. In the days before computers and cell phones, each lab and X-ray report needed to be tracked down from a different corner of the building. The interns shuffled from one place to another all night long, preparing for morning rounds.

Exhausted resident

When I ran across the pilot’s comments comparing airliner cockpits to operating rooms, I paused for a moment. Is being a pilot like being a surgeon? Well, certainly, both pilots and OR personnel review checklists before we begin. Yes, we do our best work when we are relaxed, careful, and attentive. Yes, a functional, alert team is safer than a dysfunctional, distracted one. Yes, we check that the equipment is ready and functioning normally before we begin. Yes, there is extraneous conversation and, sometimes, loud music while we work. But, naps? Um, I don’t think so. Not a good idea.

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