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"How you make them feel"

Finding the right balance of empathy and firmness

As airplanes get more automated, the differences in how pilots fly them shrink.
Illustration by Pablo Caracol.
Zoomed image
Illustration by Pablo Caracol.

Send two Pilatus PC–12s, or two Cessna Citations, or two Gulfstreams on the same route on the same day and their flight profiles are likely to be nearly identical. Climb, cruise, and descent are almost always done on autopilot, and speeds, power settings, and fuel consumption will closely match as each airplane crosses the same pre-programmed fixes at similar altitudes in the same amount of time.

So how then can pilots differentiate themselves? If our equipment and flight profiles are the same, what constitutes superior pilot performance?

To me, there are two clear measures: empathy and firmness.

First, empathy. As Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

General aviation pilots have an outsized impact on how we make those around us feel. Passengers entrust us with their personal safety as well as that of their loved ones, and we should show them their trust is well placed.

In addition to being knowledgeable, proficient, and well prepared, we can take an active interest in our passengers’ comfort and well-being. Whether we know it or not, they notice every aspect of a pilot’s appearance, attitude, and disposition, and they’re easy to spook. If they sense a pilot is annoyed, distracted, or overly tired, they’re likely to be alarmed, even if they don’t say so. If a piston engine doesn’t start on the first attempt, or a pilot curses a delay, or mutters about an unexpected clearance, or yawns excessively, it doesn’t escape notice.

The upside of all this focused attention is that a pilot’s good deeds are observed and appreciated. One of the corporate pilots I fly with takes note of the food and drinks that passengers consume on the outbound leg because that’s what he stocks on the return trip. (Last time, that meant Dr. Pepper, oatmeal cookies, and Pringles.)

Taking a few extra moments to answer passenger questions before boarding, during the safety briefing, or in flight can go a long way toward making them feel like special guests. Even a small act such as providing a fleece blanket to a shorts-wearing passenger in what’s going to be a cool or drafty cabin demonstrates a pilot cares.

A pilot’s ability to positively influence the way those around us feel doesn’t stop with passengers. Fellow pilots, air traffic controllers, and Uber drivers take cues from us, and it’s within our power to make them feel better—or not. A corporate pilot I used to know was infamously short-tempered and foul-mouthed on the radio. Air traffic controllers, other pilots, and FBO employees were regular targets of his radio wrath. Frequently putting others down on the frequency ended up getting him fired, however, when his on-air tantrums finally went too far.

It’s a given that pilots must know their equipment, meet safety standards, and be able to handle in-flight emergencies. But in a world where aircraft flight and navigational performance varies less and less, the things that separate the best pilots become less obvious. How thorough is your preflight inspection? And how well have you researched the weather conditions you may encounter? Preparation is vital under FAR Part 91 where individual owners and operators have fewer resources and greater flexibility than air charter firms or airlines to make decisions on the fly. And those are areas that passengers may not understand or appreciate.

How far do we push takeoff weights? Landing distances? Or deferred maintenance? This is where pilot firmness comes into play.

It’s one thing to provide textbook answers in a classroom. It’s another when the aircraft owner shows up just before takeoff with extra passengers, and you’ve fueled the airplane with the expectation of a lighter load. That’s when doing the right thing becomes difficult—yet that’s when it matters. Do you fly an approach even when the weather is reported below minimums? Are you willing to duck under decision height and delay executing the missed approach to catch a glimpse of the approach lights? Are you willing to dip into your fuel reserves to avoid the trouble, expense, and potential embarrassment of diverting?

Making the right call under duress won’t help you win any popularity contests. But a pilot’s unyielding determination to hold the line is a virtue. Success—and longevity—in flying requires the right balance between empathy toward those around us and firmness in respecting operational limitations. Getting it right isn’t easy, but it’s never been more necessary.

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Dave Hirschman
Dave Hirschman
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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