President's Position

'Professional' pilots

February 1, 2005

Phil Boyer is a 7,000-hour-plus pilot who has been flying for more than 30 years, more than 15 as an aircraft owner.

It's pet-peeve time for this month's column, and perhaps my personal concern is shared and will ring true to others who are pilots. What's the definition of a professional pilot? Obviously, the term professional applies to those whose job is flying for a living — airline, corporate, and charter pilots and the like. But what about the rest of us? One of Webster's definitions for professional is "participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs." Webster's example cites a professional golfer versus an amateur. So, when giving a first small airplane ride to a nervous friend, do you instill confidence in him or her by stating, "I'm an amateur pilot?" That doesn't seem right.

Over the holidays I spent three days completing my annual recurrent training, an insurance requirement, at FlightSafety International, one of the premier simulator-based training facilities. In completing the paperwork I was required to sign a document as to what category of pilot I belonged: "Professional Pilots: defined as those who possess an FAA commercial or ATP certificate, fly for pay, and have logged 1,500 total flying hours, 500 of which is PIC." My two shortcomings for this category were holding only a private pilot certificate and not flying for pay; therefore, I couldn't sign the line as a professional pilot. "Non-Professional: defined as those who are PIC-qualified owners/operators who do not fly for pay, and have an FAA pilot certificate with instrument rating." This one fit, but once again, using that nervous friend going up in my 172 for his first flight, do I say, "I must tell you that I am a nonprofessional pilot?"

There is no question that to own and/or fly a general aviation aircraft in the past decade has become more complicated and more regulated. Without our association I shudder to consider the additional restrictions, costs, and rules that the government could have implemented. So often AOPA works behind the scenes to head off bad legislation and regulation, at not only the federal level but also in states and local municipalities. These successes never become known on the outside, and certainly in my mind equate to the initiatives of groups such as the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and other "professional" membership organizations.

Most important, aviators share a common passion and commitment to the task of piloting an aircraft for business or personal use that I would claim is highly professional in nature. That commitment involves staying abreast of technology, keeping track of pop-up restrictions to airspace (those elusive temporary flight restrictions), and complying with regulations affecting our certificates and equipment. We try to assist with this magazine, AOPA Online, the weekly AOPA ePilot newsletter, and our AOPA Air Safety Foundation products from in-person seminars to Internet courses and quizzes. In addition, many of the safety programs offer FAA Wings credit, demonstrating an even greater degree of professionalism in our continuing education process toward flying. Surveys of our print and electronic products indicate members are most interested in technique articles — those stories and columns that pass along the experiences of others, or valuable suggestions for piloting an airplane in a more proficient manner.

All of us undergo a flight review every other year, somewhat the same as a professional completes certification credits in many technical fields. Many pilots schedule extra training and flight checks just so they don't lose the professionalism they have acquired over their logged hours. We are all required to go through a medical certification process at least every three years, ranging for some as often as every six months.

Diving further into the Webster definitions of professional, however, I came upon what we as pilots might be better served to follow in explaining who we are and how we address the risks and challenges of flight. It certainly fits the majority of us who take flying seriously and are "characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession." While most of us are not airline pilots, Webster cites "following a line of conduct as though it were a profession," which is what almost every pilot I know tries to do, as another definition of professional. After all, it's our lives and those of our loved ones at stake if we don't fly employing these traits.

So, are we professional pilots or amateurs? Do we fly professionally, but just not for a living, or does employment, higher certificates, rating levels, and hours truly make us professional? With all due respect to our members who fly for a living, I think many of us would think of ourselves as professional pilots, whether or not our primary income stream comes from the left seat. And, if you can't accept that, then at least we should all aim to fly professionally.