A non-pilot friend once told me, “you change at the airport—it’s like you go into pilot mode and get really serious.” It was meant as good natured ribbing, but I took it as a compliment. While I have a lot of fun with airplanes and am not against some in-flight jokes, I do take flying quite seriously. In fact, I try to approach every flight like I’m a professional pilot.
Flying like a professional doesn’t mean you get paid to fly, it doesn’t mean you wear epaulets, and it doesn’t mean you burn Jet A. More than anything, it means you understand the responsibility you have as a pilot and you take pride in how you conduct every flight. It’s something you can feel more than you can describe (although I’ll try to do just that below). If you hang around an airport very long you’ll see this in action: some pilots approach each flight like it’s an afternoon on a jet ski, while others approach it like it’s a major medical procedure. Try to avoid the first type of pilot.
A professional mindset
More than anything, flying like a pro is about having the right mindset. Specifically, it requires the discipline to do every task correctly, every time you fly. Great pilots never get complacent, because as Richard Collins famously said, “it’s the next hour that counts.” That’s easy to say, sort of like “work harder” or “eat healthy food.” But staying disciplined month after month, year after year is hard—the job is never done. The best pro pilots I know embrace that grind, seeing it as a challenge rather than an annoyance.
Fighting complacency requires honest self-assessment, which is a struggle for some pilots. To avoid mistakes you first have to look for them, by paying attention to how you’re performing on every flight. How good was that last instrument approach? A pro pilot will rarely say, “fine.” It’s more likely you’ll hear details about airspeed control, stabilized approach parameters, avionics procedures, and power management. Apps like ForeFlight or CloudAhoy can help with this process, applying an unbiased and data-driven layer to your post-flight debriefing, but at the end of the day it requires a pilot who is willing to look inward. Again, though, this is a feature and not a bug: learning to be more self-aware is no bad thing, whether you’re flying or raising kids or running a business.
Related to self-awareness is humility. In aviation being humble should not be mistaken for being timid (that can be just as dangerous as being overconfident); it means admitting that pilots better than you have met their demise due to momentary inattention or overconfidence. The acid test for humility is in how you read accident reports. Pro pilots resist the temptation to say, “what a dumb pilot—I would never do that.” Instead, they think carefully about what they will do to prevent such a scenario ever happening to them.
The last part of a pro pilot mindset is lifelong learning. This should follow naturally, because if you’re humble and you want to get better, you’ll want to continuously improve your knowledge and skills. This could involve time in the air, either with an instructor or by yourself with a pre-planned training syllabus. But there are also plenty of lessons to be learned in a flight simulator or even from aviation magazines, books, podcasts, and videos. Keeping your head in the game is almost as important as logging hours.
So much for the philosophical approach. How does that mindset translate into everyday behavior? Here are 12 habits that show you’re flying like a pro:
- You always do a preflight inspection. It doesn’t have to be a 45-minute teardown of the airplane, but it does have to include a few critical checks— even if you’re almost sure the fuel caps are on, you verify.
- You do your homework before every flight. Like the preflight, this doesn’t have to be a drawn-out affair—no bonus points for using a whiz wheel before every $100 hamburger flight—but you should do some basic planning before blasting off. Don’t be the guy who flies through the TFR and ruins it for everyone else.
- You keep the airplane clean. In addition to making a good impression on passengers, this helps to spot potential maintenance issues sooner and makes it easier to find traffic in flight.
- You always follow a checklist. This doesn’t have to mean mindlessly reading the factory checklist (I like to use my own version of the POH checklist), but you should use something. The 25,000-hour airline captain definitely knows how to start the engine on his Boeing, but he still uses one—so should you.
- You fly the same whether you’re with passengers or not. There is only one standard for safety, and that cannot change depending on whether the other seats in the airplane are occupied (as the tragic Pinnacle Airlines crash in 2004 proves).
- You never say “watch this” or try to impress anyone. Low altitude buzz jobs still kill far too many pilots every year, and an uneventful flight is plenty exciting for most passengers.
- You are gracious with passengers, crew, and line personnel. Wherever you go as a pilot you represent aviation, so you expect that everyone is watching. A pro pilot never berates the co-pilot or looks down on the guy pumping fuel.
- You don’t cheat. “I’m mostly current” or “I’ll just go 100 feet lower” or “we can make 25 minutes of fuel work” are not acceptable answers. Not everything in aviation is a hard limit, but the ones that are (FARs, approach minimums) are binary: you either obey them or you don’t.
- You do more than the minimum in recurrent training. A one hour flight every two years is not enough to stay sharp, and humble pilots know it. Whether it’s an annual flight review, an IPC every six months, or just an informal lesson with a flight instructor after a month off, training is a habit, not an event.
- You have someone who can call BS on you. This is directly related to the part about being self-aware. Airline pilots have this in the form of their Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), which uses flight data monitoring to catch errors before they become accidents. Do you have a mentor or a data program to alert you to poor performance?
- You give back to the aviation community. Pro pilots care about their industry and want it to thrive, so they set a good example and help the next generation. Volunteering for airport open houses, giving Young Eagles rides, or just talking to the neighborhood kid who wants to be a pilot can all make an impact.
- Last and certainly not least, pros don’t make stupid jokes on the guard frequency!