The "Professional" Pilot

FindaPilot guest post by:

Clint White

Clint White

CEO Jet Right Aviation Services/Jet Sales Representative- SkyWater Group
FindaPilot Member since 2008

In these tough economic times,(still), aviation profession continues to go through profound changes. Gone are the “Glory Days” where pilots were just one step below astronauts. In many cases we feel like we are treated more like “Glorified bus drivers” In this environment I hear all the time “We are professionals!” “We should be treated as professionals”. All fine words and in most cases very true,but what exactly is a “Professional Pilot?”

Webster’s Dictionary Defines Professional as: characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.

Very clean and technical, but a few years ago an old and very wise pilot called professionalism this: What you do and how your act when no one is looking. So what qualities define the professional pilot today?

A professional pilot should always look presentable: Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but too many times have I seen pilots looking like slobs with messy wrinkled shirts, 5 o’clock shadows and I-pods permanently attached to their ears in the FBO and in some cases, terminals. What kind of image does this send? In this world where “image is everything” how you look either inspires confidence or doubt. A sharp, neatly pressed, captain or first officer, no matter what part of aviation you work in, says that I care about my profession, my passengers and my fellow crewmembers. This image also comes down to the luggage you are carrying. I have seen some young pilots carrying backpacks these days. I know they are convenient, but we arent in college anymore. I strongly recommend investing in some quality luggage. You may or may not be paid well for what you do, but at least look the part.

A professional pilot sets the example: How you act both inside and outside the cockpit is also the sign of a professional. On or off duty you still represent the company and of course yourself. Inappropraite behavor is simply not acceptable and you will quickly find yourself on the street. Many times young crewmembers may want to imitate the way you act. You want to make sure that you ALWAYS act in an appropriate and respectful way. I have heard stories of experienced pilots with profanity laced tirades in the FBO against their crew or staff. Your clients and crew are watching. What kind of example does that send? Is that someone you want to fly with? Another important point, with the myriad of chat rooms, blogs and message boards these days, what you say or upload can stay with you for a VERY long time. What you post on the web is pretty much there forever and the lack of civility I see these days is disturbing. Personal attacks against crewmembers on a web page or message board can have a detrimental effect to your future career. Remember that your online reputation can be as important as your offline one and employers do look for your online activities when they are considering hiring you. Having an opinion is fine, but be please respectful to others.

A professional pilot takes care of his/her crew: When I became a Captain, one of the first things I realized was that taking care of my crew was EVERY bit as important as taking care of my clients. In charter or fractional operations where you might be flying with the same crewmember for several days at a time, how you take care of your crew can make the tour enjoyable or torturous. This means, not only having a positive,open attitude during flight operations but also after your crew duty is over. For Captains this also means making sure things like crew meals are set up properly, being the LAST one in the van on the way to the hotel, and the LAST one to your room. For senior staff that get hotel perks, take care of your crew by helping getting them upgraded rooms, free breakfasts or internet. Its the least you can do. I also STRONLY recommend that you buy your F/O and/or crew, a meal once in a while. You often make a lot more than they do and trust me, it will be greatly appreciated. Lastly, dont be a “slam-clicker”. We all have our bad days or even weeks, but isolating your crewmembers isnt going to go a long way to enhancing your reputation. We arent all extroverts, but I believe you have an obligation to associate, on some level, with your crew mates. If you want to be alone all the time, then perhaps professional aviation isnt for you.

A professional pilot has integrity: This is the simple “A person is only as good as their word”. If all you do is BS all day about how great you are as a pilot or lie about an answer you dont know, you are going to weaken the bond of trust that is critical to crew coordination. Theres few things worse than a pilot that is braggart who claims they know everything, or one who makes up answers to important questions. Of the many of the phrases I truly respect “I dont know” is one of them. I would rather hear that phrase than a wrong answer. You can parse it by saying “I will get the answer for you”….and of course DO IT. In a world where honesty is in short supply, it will be noticed and respected. A breakdown of integrity can be very dangerous in the cockpit. Crew coordination comes from mutual trust and if the crewmembers cant trust each other, than they are not going to work well together when it counts.

A professional pilot respects his crew: Mostly gone are the days of “flaps up, gear up, shut up”. The use of CRM (crew resource management) has pretty much put that attitude to rest, but I still hear stories of captains considering their first officers little more than “seat warmers”. These days, where a first officer might sit in the right seat for several years before upgrading and experienced pilots in the fractional, cargo, and charter world, the guy or gal sitting next to you might have as much or more exposure than you do. These people are a valuable resource. I think the most important thing a Captain can say to his F/O is “what do you think?”. Many times I flew with people in the right seat who were 10 even 20 years older than me. These people where flying when I was in diapers and I learned early in life that I dont know EVERYTHING. Their advice has helped make the flight more efficient, more comfortable and especially safer simply by asking the “what do you think” question. Some of the most valuable lessons I ever learned as a new Captain came from people who were sitting in that other seat either as F/O or Co-Captain. Many of the older pilots took me “under the wing” so to speak, and taught me lessons I could NEVER learn in a classroom. Just by asking these individuals “what do you think” I gained knowledge that I am eternally grateful for. This same respect should also go to your flight attendants as well. Respect them and they will respect you.

A professional pilot is always learning: We all go through IOE, initial and recurrent training, but a professional pilot goes beyond that. Education does not end when you pass your check ride. Smart pilots continue to dive into their aircraft flight manuals, keep updated on the latest regulations (they change constantly these days) and keep familiar with the new technologies that may or may not be part of their daily duties. I had a supervisor at a previous job tell me that when you are learning or refreshing material, the most important question you can ask is “why”. Why does this work the way it does?, why is this component in this area? why do we need this in the airplane? As opposed to rote memorization the “why” question opens new paths to, not only new questions, but a deeper understanding. Attending meetings and seminars sponsored by the company or by organizations like NBAA should always be important to the professional pilot. A knowledgeable pilot is a safe one.

A professional pilot is a mentor/teacher: A concept that I gained from a former employer is that there are no “first officers” In fact, we used to call them “captains in training”. There are only so many things that can be taught in a classroom. As new pilots come into the business, much of the way they behave, act and approach their duties are shaped by those who taught them how to fly and those they sit next to during their careers. It is imperative that the experience you gain is passed on to the next generation. I KNOW that I would never have become a professional aviator if it wasnt for the mentors that helped me along the way. Their patience and understanding allowed me to grow as a pilot and learn from those rookie mistakes. I have taken a piece of everything I learned from these people and incorporated it into the way I fly. I still use many of my mentors as wells of information and advice. Like I said before, no one knows everything and sometimes another point of view or direct experience that you might not have makes all the difference. As I have gotten older, I find younger pilots asking me for advice and I happy to give it. A true professional aspires that others reach their full potential and we have a duty and obligation to make that happen. Its called “Pilots Helping Pilots”

To sum it up, if we want to be treated as professionals, we have to earn it.