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Are You a Pro?Are You a Pro?

The real quality to which we should all aspire is professionalism There seem to be only two choices to describe your involvement in any significant endeavor: amateur or professional. Boxer, fisherman, artist, golfer, astronomer, pilot.

The real quality to which we should all aspire is professionalism

There seem to be only two choices to describe your involvement in any significant endeavor: amateur or professional. Boxer, fisherman, artist, golfer, astronomer, pilot. But wait, do you want to be considered an amateur pilot? By one set of definitions you probably are: You don't get paid to fly; rather, it's usually the other way around — you're paying someone else in order to fly an aircraft. Professional pilots usually achieve their status through the simple act of being hired to fly an aircraft; unfortunately, true professionalism does not come with the paycheck. (See " President's Position: 'Professional' Pilots," February 2005 Pilot.)

Let's take a step back and find out what is professionalism and who is a professional. Like so many other words in the English language, these terms have evolved over time. The original act of profession came from the Middle Ages when an individual took vows upon entrance into a religious order; this was a declaration of intent to abide by certain rules and standards of the order. Later, other occupations requiring some education, standards, and ethics were included in the term professional: Lawyers, doctors, and accountants were among the first. Over time the term has been applied to any occupation requiring training in a specialized field, and a demonstration of competence and adherence to certain standards set by the occupational group itself.

Other "professions" have crept into the language: boxers, prostitutes, and bank robbers are said to hold professional status. This debasement of the concept tends to dilute its meaning and significance. Therefore, the real quality to which we should aspire is professionalism — the skill, competence, or character expected of a person engaged in a task or occupation.

When we say that a plumber, electrician, or carpenter is a pro we are not referring to his membership in an elite group but his ability to perform in an excellent manner. Moreover, we mean he exhibits extensive knowledge in his trade, cleverness, adherence to standards, and the ability to get the job done on time and within budget; we are referring to his professionalism.

All pilots meet the basic criteria of being in a profession: specialized training, governed by standards and the continued demonstration of competence. But every pilot has to conform to these requirements; not all are pros, i.e., not all exhibit characteristics associated with professionalism. It's what happens after the basic requirements are met that really counts.

Enough background. What are the marks of aeronautical professionalism? How does one grow and mature into a pro? Here are a few ideas.

Higher standards

While the federal aviation regulations (FARs) and the airplane flight manual (AFM) set the basic standards for all pilot operations, these constitute only minimum standards, just enough to get by. Regulatory fuel reserves, cloud clearances, instrument approach minimums, V-speeds, and maintenance intervals are not optimum values; they're only minimally acceptable. Therefore, the professional sets out to explore the adequacy of these minimums and, through research and experience, to devise personal minimums that provide adequate safety margins.

Many of these personal minimums are situational values based on operational circumstances, weather, personal health, state of airworthiness, available approach and airport facilities, and just plain common sense. This last quality is often in short supply among pilots and requires years of experience, constant learning, and a fine sense of observation to make the not-so-common more so.

Requiring minimum fuel for landing (an absolute quantity, not a planned number), prohibiting night circling approaches, raising nonprecision approach minimums for remote, poorly lighted airports, and establishing a 12-hour duty day for single-pilot operations are examples of higher personal standards.

While many of us have arrived at these and other personal or higher standards after learning our lessons the hard way, through error and subsequent trial, the wiser way is for us to think our way through potential problems and then prepare for them. Somehow my excellent hindsight usually bests my sorely lagging foresight, allowing unsettling experience to be my guide.

Constant learning

All of the professions require continuing education of their members to ensure they not only stay abreast of the latest developments in their field, but also retain the basic lessons that enabled them to initially achieve their exalted status.

So it is with the pilot. All airline, many charter, and most corporate pilots sweat their way through annual or more frequent sessions in the devil's device, the flight simulator. Moreover, they attend ground school for operational and supplemental subjects such as weather radar, specific navigational regimes, aircraft systems, new equipment, and ground emergencies. Again, these are required by the FAA, their employer, or insurers; the really good pilots delve deeper into these and other subjects related to their profession in an effort to excel at what they do.

Learning doesn't have to include formal classroom work, either. Observing the airmanship — whether abysmal or superior — of other pilots can provide valuable lessons for those who take time to watch, understand, and apply.

Perhaps the best type of learning is the self-directed variety, stemming from a natural curiosity about flying and its environment. Lack of curiosity indicates a lack of interest in one's chosen work and a tendency to shrug off what we do not understand as being irrelevant. Why do lightning strikes sometimes occur so far from thunderstorms? How is an accelerate-stop distance determined by the manufacturer? Why does the fuel filter bypass annunciator illuminate momentarily when initiating crossfeed? While these may not be questions burning in your mind at the moment, you probably have a number of puzzlers you would like to know about. While you may not consider your questions important, all knowledge will someday prove useful. The pro dares to ask and to grow with the answers.

On a related topic, how well do you know the FARs and your AFM? When was the last time you leafed through these fascinating tomes? For most of us, it's been awhile. These are the basic documents that contain the rules by which we live. Knowing their contents will certainly save you from a regulatory violation and may save your life someday. Take time to review the basics; you will increase your confidence and skills.


How much is good enough? Do you always use the before-start checklist on a quick turnaround stop? If VREF is 126 knots, will 122 do? If thrust-reverser stow speed is 65 knots, is 55 OK? Is it OK to miss a crossing altitude by 300 feet (who will know...)?

Nitpicking? Maybe. But precision indicates a commitment to rules and regulations and more important, a commitment to good workmanship. Lack of precision indicates a willingness to cut corners to get by with whatever is "good enough." A few knots here, a couple of hundred feet there set us up on a slippery slope that is difficult to reverse. A 200-foot tolerance today may easily become 300 or 400 tomorrow. Where does it end?

If there is no respect for precision, the means whereby performance is measured are removed. "I know I was a little fast on the approach, but there was plenty of runway" is a typical method of negotiating away the lack of precision with ourselves. After awhile it becomes a habit.

It is a matter of pride, too. How many times have you flown with someone who nails every speed, altitude, and clearance, every time? While these pilots take pride in their work, you also respect them for having performed well. If you are not used to precise flying you may not be able to garner respect when your time comes.


Discipline is the drive to behave in a controlled and ordered manner regardless of the circumstances — no corner cutting, no panic, stick to the rules, make it happen, every time. Get a full weather brief prior to every flight; check fuel samples on every preflight; always run the checklist; read back every clearance completely; and record aircraft discrepancies, however small, after every flight. Small stuff? Maybe, but the slippery slope of shoddy performance is never far away on any flight.

Discipline is the hallmark of any pro's performance. The pros know they can get away with not doing the simple things, but they choose to do them because the line between small and large is easily blurred by circumstance, operational tempo, and fatigue. The line between little and big is really the line between unimportant and important items; the line is easily misinterpreted and rapidly crossed.

In my work I observe a dozen or so corporate flight crews each year from the jump seat. The quality I have come to admire most is discipline. The really good pilots are the ones who make it look easy, even though they know they are being evaluated, because they are running their office the same way they do every day, regardless of who's looking. The discipline and excellence are apparent.


With our private certificates safely tucked away in our wallets, we launched into our flying careers with a sense of adventure along with a modicum of trepidation for the unknown hazards that awaited us. This mild fear that accompanied the early hours served as a natural protection against the very real dangers that await the novice airman. With increasing hours we carefully collected experiences from which lessons were learned; we were acquiring practical knowledge that could be applied to future events, yielding safe outcomes for our passengers and ourselves. We were learning.

But merely collecting experiences for application against future challenges is only part of the lesson. The real lesson is to integrate these experiences and lessons into an overall body of knowledge so that we can devise a new way of thinking, a new way of approaching new and difficult aeronautical challenges. This new way of thinking may be thought of as wisdom. The most valuable way of doing things is to experience, reflect, learn, and integrate all of this into our aeronautical tool kit. With luck, wisdom flows from this process.

If the foregoing traits make the pro sound like a rigid, unbending, noncreative automaton, this is an incorrect view. It is the wisdom gained over the years that will allow the pro to selectively bend or, in the case of an emergency, break the rules as necessary. Be assured that the pro does very little bending or breaking of the rules, however. Doing so is an unusual occurrence, one marked by reflection, study, and eventual integration.

Viewing the acquisition of wisdom as a lifelong process is important, an ongoing exercise; you can never have enough. It is when we stop integrating lessons, when we stop learning, when we approach flying with a smug certainty that we have seen it all that we are setting ourselves up for a mighty fall. Wisdom is enhanced by the humility of knowing that we don't know it all.


The pros among us have attained their lofty positions because they developed an attitude early in their careers that they weren't going to settle for second best, that they were going to strive for excellence in every aeronautical endeavor they attempted. While their personal lives may not show the same level of precision, discipline, learning, dedication to standards, and wisdom that their flying lives do, this is of little consequence. A positive and disciplined attitude toward all piloting tasks makes all the rest easy.

Are you a pro?

Take another look at the above characteristics: How do you measure up? The honest among you will likely find a few items to brush up on; the egotist may self-bestow the award. Graveyards are full of those who valued self-delusion over reality.

Some say that professionalism also includes maturity, ethical conduct, and coolness under pressure. While these are good traits to have, they may be considered icing on an already-rich and -rewarding cake. Most of us have a hard enough time getting the basics right, let alone the extra-credit stuff. I'm still trying.

The best piece of advice I ever received on the subject was from my Navy advanced-flight instructor. After I had made a particularly egregious violation of good judgment, procedure, and regulations, he said, "You really don't have to be a pro; just act like one." His guidance and wisdom remain with me to this day.

John Sheehan is president of Professional Aviation Inc., which assists companies with air transportation analyses and flight departments with safety, management, and training issues. This article is based in part on his book, Business and Corporate Aviation Management, McGraw-Hill, New York. He holds an FAA airline transport pilot certificate and a master of business administration degree.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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