Flight instruction
4 min read

Most of us are not commercial pilots nor do we fly as our profession, so it would be very easy to immediately move to the next article in Air Facts thinking this article doesn’t apply to us. I would argue that flying like a professional does matter. Instead of thinking that professional flying is for those with lots of hours or ratings, I want to encourage you to approach your flying with the attitude of a professional. From Merriam-Webster: A professional is characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession.

Here are three reasons why I suggest you think this way:

  1. The feeling of accomplishment. It is a proven fact that when we approach things thoughtfully, with purpose and a plan, we are much more likely to succeed. Isn’t that we all want? The feeling that comes from a flight well planned and conducted. I think we would all answer yes.
  2. The safety that will result. Flying is serious business and there are many ways to end up hurting ourselves or the airplanes we fly. If we’re more deliberate about our flying – as the pros are – we are much more likely to emerge from flights safely and that’s a requirement if we want to continue to enjoy this privilege, we all have.
  3. Our reputation and the example we set. Like it or not we’re being watched. Other pilots at the airports we visit and encounter en route, air traffic controllers, people standing at the airport fence and people that watch our ADS-B data are all aware of what we’re up to. Each of us have the opportunity to add to or subtract from our reputation as pilots on every flight. It is important to fly well whether we are being watched or not.

So what?

It is said that exhortation without education that leads to implementation, produces frustration. With that in mind I will share two things that will help us become better pilots:

Flight instruction

You have to start with an honest assessment of your skills.

Being aware about our skills today. We need to know where we are beginning our journey to have the best chance of getting to our desired destination. Improving a skill like flying is no different. How are we flying now? What are we most pleased about our skill level today? What do we think we need to improve? Have we had a close call recently? Is there an aviation concept that we don’t quite get? The answers to these questions are all clues that a good detective can use to assess today’s reality. By the way, we all have areas like this. Bob Gawler, a legendary CFI and DPE in my area that I greatly admire, told me once that when we stop learning (and improving) we should hang up our headset!

Becoming intentional about growing. There are so many ways to grow as a pilot. Perhaps this topic is best divided into activities we can do on our own and those we can do with others.


We can learn so much from credible sources like Air Facts, AOPA, Flying, and the FAA, along with many others. For those into podcasts I particularly like Max Trescott’s. All the FAA pubs including the textbooks that many of us used to prepare for the private pilot written and practical tests (e.g. Airplane Flying Handbook and Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge) are available as PDFs for no cost. Most airports have a bookshelf full of classics like Stick and Rudder. Anything by Richard Collins or Robert Buck is worth reading. Ask your flying pals for recommendations. So many resources, so little time! The nice part about the individual approach is the “what and when” are up to you and your schedule. For those of us who are limited by the winter months, we can “fly” while enjoying our favorite chair, a nice warm fire and a great flying book while the snow flies.


Learning in a group can be a powerful classroom. Consider signing up for FAA Wings and AOPA seminars held in numerous venues in your area, where other pilots come together to learn and discuss. If your flying club meets to discuss proficiency or “lessons learned,” join in. We can learn from each other. Consider a flight with a local CFI to work on an area that you identified above. Crosswind takeoff and landing practice anyone? Joining Civil Air Patrol is a great opportunity to learn flying techniques in a group setting and enjoy a great level of camaraderie as you serve your local community.

Whichever method(s) you choose, keep a journal of what you’re learning so you can periodically go back and review.

All of us can get better when we approach our flying with the attitude of a professional. Please be safe up there!

Marty Sacks
11 replies
  1. David Ward Sandidge
    David Ward Sandidge says:

    You want to fly like a professional? Then act and look like a professional. In the military you will always look and act the part of a professional. In the airlines you will dress and look professional at all times while on duty. Dressing for success is vital to anyone’s psyche if he wants to project professionalism to himself and others. Projecting professionalism starts in your own bedroom after you get up. Do you makeup your bed in the morning and police your area? Or are you the sloppy type – relying on your momma to clean up after you? Do you drive to the airport like a professional? Do you approach your airplane with the intention of being a professional in professional attire, or do you stroll out onto the ramp in a tee shirt, shorts and flip-flops? Professionalism starts way down inside you. It should start at an early age, but it is never too late to begin. You want to fly like a professional? Then let others see professionalism in you at every turn. Discipline promotes good habits; good habits promote professionalism; professionalism promotes success.

  2. Mark Sletten
    Mark Sletten says:

    When I talk about flying to people not involved in aviation, the conversation often gets around to professional pilots. During a discussion about the recent 737 MAX tragedies, the person I was speaking with said, “I wouldn’t want to be an airline pilot. They have to make so many important decisions.” Having flown professionally in the military I thought, that’s not true…at all. Absent an emergency or other abnormal situation, about the only decision the typical pro aviator makes on a day-to-day basis is if they are going to follow the rules or not. Decisions like whether or not you fly with a given maintenance squawk, or with the current weather (etc., etc.) are all outlined in the company policy manuals–you just have to decide whether you will comply with them or not.

    So what’s my point? If you want to fly like a pro then you need to develop your own policies–some call them personal minimums–and stick to them. That’s how the pros do it.

  3. Chad Baker
    Chad Baker says:

    Great thoughts. I plan to be a CFI in the next couple of years and one of my big rocks I plan to teach is thinking and acting professionally when flying. Thinking and acting professionally helps prevent complacency and improves safety all around. Thanks for the article.

    • Marty Sacks
      Marty Sacks says:

      Chad, Thanks for your comment and I agree. I strongly encourage you to complete your CFI. I did mine “well along” in my flying career (in my 50s) and it is perhaps the thing that has most improved my flying. Learning how to teach has been quite a challenge and ultimately very rewarding.

  4. Steve Mosier
    Steve Mosier says:

    I am reminded of a recommendation in an AARP refresher course for “mature” drivers. “Every day you get in a car you are a different person–calm, stressed, angry, fatigued, tired, distracted, refreshed, eager, etc. Make sure you know who you are and how that may affect your performance before you hit the road. “

  5. Wayne McClelland
    Wayne McClelland says:

    I’d add a few items to the Individual improvement tools… watch, from a critical viewpoint, lots of aviation videos on YouTube; subscribe to on-going paid learning platforms (e.g. PilotWorkshops); join and contribute content to online forums (e.g. POA, Reddit/Flying); install and use frequently a good home flight simulator (e.g. X-Plane) with real-person ATC (PilotEdge).

  6. Joe Henry Gutierrez
    Joe Henry Gutierrez says:

    I totally am behind the professional explanation of David Sandidge, It’s the first time someone has hit the nail on the head as to define the real professional. Thank you Mr. Sandidge. you are spot on, it all starts at the home in a professional manner and stems from there…Everything from there on will follow suite. The old saying, ” you are what you breed”. If you are a slob so be it, so will everything you do, will follow in the same manner.

  7. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Great article. Nearly 40 years ago, when my wife cheerfully agreed with my taking flight training, she did so with the expectation that I would act as a professional in aviation just as I did in my demanding occupation. As an amateur, fun-flyer, and occasional traveler in older airplanes, I found it pleasant and rewarding emotionally and intellectually to approach flying as if I were doing it for the money. This included meticulous, timely aircraft maintenance, careful preflight inspections, and “playing by the rules” on W&B, communication, and the regulations. The instrument rating was a great experience that added to my sense of professionalism. I regret that demands of my job kept me from earning a commercial rating and becoming a CFI, things that would have further elevated the motivation to approach every flight as if I were wearing an airline captain’s outfit.

  8. Steve Vana
    Steve Vana says:

    I second your recommendation to join CAP as a way to fly with in a group setting. CAP teaches standardized procedures and gives you a chance to fly with seasoned pilots, a lot of them being former military. And you’ll do some types of flying in CAP that you won’t do anywhere else.

  9. Marty Noonan
    Marty Noonan says:

    Fly like a Professional and develop your own high standards in the planning and flying of your airplane. I am a former USAF pilot and retired B777 Check-Captain and I continue to fly my V35B Bonanza the same way. We use checklists in the military and airlines to make sure we accomplished our assigned task for the phase of flight. They are checklists, not Do-Lists. You can do a flow of switch and instrument settings and then run a checklist to make sure you did not miss anything, especially useful if your flow was interrupted by a passenger, ATC radio call or other distraction. I totally agree with Marty Sacks excellent article. Keep being the “Best You Can Be!” in flying and everything you do.

  10. Larryo
    Larryo says:

    We need to all strive to be like the professional. However, we need to tailor our actions to our own skills, currency, equipment and the environment.

    Mr. Sandidge’s comment is spot on! The way you conduct your operations (flying and others), starts with personal habits and standards.

    So, we apply these standards to our flying. (We do have a written set of standards and limitations, don’t we….. called a Standard Operational Manual). We don’t bend our rules, no matter what.

    And we can reserve the option to cancel a trip at any time… even it we have completed 3/4 of it.

    When I was a bit more active and flying a lot more, my philosophy was to depart (baring a few conditions) and constantly making the decision to continue, depending on what was out there. Now, flying less, I’ll often just cancel and go later. It works fine. However, can still argue to stay current… just finished recurrent 4 weeks ago, and the last few trips in weather were really rewarding, but “light” weather.

    We all make our own choices, make the best ones for YOU and your passengers.

    ATP, 27000 hours, but quit counting.


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