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by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
General Aviation Human Factors, November, 2008
New Captain Series:   Becoming a Captain | Bag of Crap | The Model Captain | FOTA | Threat & Error Management Series | CRM Series | Professionalism | Safety Triangle | Barriers to Pilot Monitoring

headlines of naughty pilotsOver the last few years pilot professionalism has been the target of many news stories.

We're in an era where such slips make world wide news and the public reacts with visceral anger.  And for good reason says Randy Babbitt, former ALPA president now FAA

Administrator, "The passengers aboard that airplane sat comfortably because they assumed that the people up front were paying attention."

Professionalism is an area which can't be regulated. Yet, clearly, the breach of the public trust results in an intense backlash.  In 1987, Allan McArtor of the FAA said "We see breakdowns in pilot vigilism and pilot professionalism.  Every pilot in the system [should be] earning his wings every day."  We're coming full circle, twenty plus years later.

You need only review a few of the ASRS, NTSB, or media reports to see stark examples of failures of professionalism. Incidents such as the inebriated pilot who on an overnight proceeded to break all the windows of the cars in the hotel parking lot.  Or the pilots who fell asleep on an inter island flight in Hawaii.  Or the flight crews in Buffalo and Lexington who violated the sterile cockpit rules. You'll see that most airlines have had their own troubles over the years.  Babbitt said that in these cases the pilots forgot their first job was to focus on flying the plane.

As US Airways Pilots, Sully and Skiles have stated, it starts with wearing your uniform correctly. It shows personal respect for you and what you do. But its more than this isn't?

Capt. Gene Cernan, USN (ret) and Commander, Apollo 17 says it best, “Professionalism is a mindset, a state of mind, a commitment to being the best… anything less is unacceptable!”  He goes on to say, "it has everything to do with internal motivation for self-satisfaction’s sake. Professionalism does not depend on any notice or acknowledgement when you succeed."

According to Cernan, the last human to walk on the Moon, professionalism as a personal trait, an individual attitude, “breeds a culture of excellence.” That trait, he noted, is “an absolute requirement of an inherently risky business. There’s no place for complacency.”

Cernan states that Professionalism is an outgrowth of commitment, knowledge, discipline, courage, passion, judgment, and skill.  However you define it, Professionalism calls for you to have your mind on the job every minute you're doing it.

The passion you have for flying helps you to accomplish this task.  The drive of absolute pleasure in being an aviator also fuels your desire to excel and this is the bedrock of our profession.

Consider knowledge another pillar of your career.  The efforts you make during your continuing qualification and recurrent training are exhaustive but your desire to overachieve is the hallmark of a true professional.  Not only is the true professional striving for excellence in learning, he's also striving for the accumulation of knowledge:  about his company, about his aircraft, about the industry, about the operating rules and specifications, and about the self.  You are your own best judge of airmanship and airworthiness.  Never underestimate the power of your conscience to help you.

To do what you do requires a certain amount of courage to accept the responsibility, the unforgiving environment, and the ability to face the inevitable mistakes you'll make.  The professional has the internal drive to improve from every experience.  A growing bag of learning experiences develops judgment. Judgment can't be regulated, legislated, or taught by bulletin. Experience, training, and discipline can condition you.  And good judgment is knowing that no matter how good you are, you know you can get better.  That's the integrity you have as a professional -- the leadership to do the right thing even if no one is looking. 

747-400 throttle quadrantAnd as good as the operational support at your airline is, the last line of defense is you -- the leader... the professional.

Often times I read the NTSB reports and find the chain of events leading to an incident begins before the crew stood the throttles up.  Proper preflight action is the easiest of all pilot tasks.  A personal preflight, aircraft preflight, analysis of the flight plan, aircraft performance, and weather punctuated with a threat & error mindset will keep you on the right side of safety equation.  Your efforts continue with precise checklist usage, correct callouts, compliance with SOP, and sterile cockpit conditions.  Otherwise you're playing with fire and the unsuspecting public is along for the ride. 

Have you ever had a perfect flight?  I would think not.  But the sense of accomplishment because of an uneventful flight is priceless.  The margin of safety that you create because of your professionalism and the factors mentioned here will go unnoticed by your passengers, however the highest complement a pilot can receive is "uneventful."  Keep your mind in the game, use the threat & error model, think professionally, prepare professionally, and fly professionally.  And remember, think out loud.

 "The important thing in aeroplanes is that they shall be speedy." — Baron Manfred Von Richthofen 

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