Airline pilots
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
6 min read

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

Airline pilots

You don’t have to wear the uniform to fly like a pro.

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.

Everyday habits

Checklist use

Pros know how to start the engine, but they still use a checklist—every time.

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!
John Zimmerman
25 replies
  1. Enderson Rafael
    Enderson Rafael says:

    Wonderful! I was thinking on an article with this exactly catch (pro-pilot vs being paid to fly) and I am so happy that exactly you decided to write about it. It is pitch perfect, my editor!

    • Sukhwant the chopper jock
      Sukhwant the chopper jock says:

      Amazingly I have also been writing in military journals about the need to be a disciplined flier. But dear John this is the best I’ve seen in a long time Sire. You made my morning Down Under.

  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    As a professional pilot myself, I relate to the notion of entering a “pilot mode” when at the airport, and I take flying very seriously. While I do find enjoyment and appreciate some lightheartedness during flights, I firmly believe in approaching each flight with a professional mindset. This article resonates with me and I shared it with my son who is a new Private Pilot. I strongly believe that our industry would greatly benefit from more content like this. It is essential to shape and guide the aviation field in the right direction. Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming presence of self-proclaimed YouTube experts who not only denigrate pilots but also engage in premature speculation after accidents solely to fuel their egos and attract followers. While they claim to prioritize safety, their abrasive nature is disheartening and ultimately counterproductive. In contrast, John’s approach and delivery in this article exemplify the qualities of a true professional. His insights and professionalism are commendable, providing a much-needed perspective that fosters positive change within our industry.

  3. AirMens
    AirMens says:

    Agreed, stand up straight (attitude). How you approach each event will have a significant bearing on the outcome. Thank you for a well thought out piece.

  4. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    A friend once attended a lecture by Brigadier General Chuck Yeager. At the start of the lecture, General Yeager asked for a show of hands – “How many of you are professional pilots?” A few hands went up. General Yeager then told the audience that if they were going to fly airplanes, they ALL needed to be professional pilots. This article is a good explanation of what General Yeager meant.

  5. Sunny Lowe
    Sunny Lowe says:

    Flying is, very often, going into the unknown. Landing at a new airport. Flying to a different part of the country, taking an older plane for a trip. There is ALWAYS a good reason NOT to take the trip. You just have to be creative.
    So, flying at all, is always a conversation you have with yourself. When are your skills enough? Am I flying enough right now?
    Many times I overthink it, and choose not to fly. It is important to not push caution too far. There are always questions, it is almost always more expensive (at least in my 210). You just have to own it that there is a certain amount of unknowns you will face, and prepare for them. When you do, choosing to fly will be much less stressful.

  6. John
    John says:

    Thank you for this article! All great points. I love the last one especially. While on cross country flights I dutifully monitor the guard frequency and WITHOUT fail, someone will act unprofessionally. We’ve all heard it – cat calls, whistling, singing, belching, flatulence, etc.. Passengers will comment – what was that?? Did you hear that?! Was that you? Sadly I have to explain that it’s probably an airline pilot bored out of their minds. I don’t know how else to explain the unprofessionalism.

    • Jeff Rowland
      Jeff Rowland says:

      Interesting comment, John. In the 17 yrs I flew after 9-11 (the time we began to full-time monitor 121.5) I NEVER saw, or heard, any crew-member screw around on that frequency. It never crossed my mind to do something so infantile, nor did it ever appear any pilot I flew with (2, 3 and 4 pilots at a time) was bored enough to be so childish. I heard it, sure, but assigning behavior to any one group seemed simplistic. I still hear it occasionally when flying my 180, but for the life of me, I can’t blame ‘bored airline guys.’

      I didn’t succumb to much boredom in 38 yrs of professional flying. There was always plenty to do if you approached it ‘professionally’ as this article puts forth. I guess that would be my no. 13 for this list. Turn boredom into something productive. The things a pilot can do and prepare for are endless. A professional pilot does just that.

      Those guys clowning around on 121.5 are amateurs. Pros don’t do it. You can bet those amateurs don’t do a lot of other stuff very well either. Fly safe, my friend!

  7. Mike
    Mike says:

    I agree with all of this. I always find it strange when pilots say “I’m fly extra safe and I’m careful about the weather when my family is aboard” how about just do that all the time?

  8. Lloyd M Sharp
    Lloyd M Sharp says:

    Especially the part about joking around on guard frequency….If I hear one more “Meow” I swear, I will loose all faith in humanity.

  9. Gita Brown
    Gita Brown says:

    Thank you for an insightful article. I’m a student pilot and really appreciate this kind of content. My background is in classical music and yoga; both require daily discipline, rigorous and ongoing self-evaluation, and dedication to sustain it for the long haul. I’ve been pleased to transfer these skills over to my aviation training and think that all those hours in the practice room and daily “butt on the meditation cushion” have well prepared me for approaching my flight training with a professional mindset.

    As you state, “training is a habit, not an event.” Thanks for reinforcing this!

  10. Suresh Kumar Bista
    Suresh Kumar Bista says:

    Beautifully written. You do not have to be like a rocket scientist to be a pilot. But again, there are good pilots and there are not so good pilots. You can be a ‘happy go-lucky’ pilot or a pilot in the real sense: a ‘pro.’
    We had a pilot in my airline earlier. A handsome guy, good with girls, showy and an extrovert to a higher level. What he had to show in front, didn’t quite synchronise with his ‘grey matter’, unfortunately. He enjoyed flying in a different way. Like a jet ski trip as you mentioned. With fifty to sixty passengers behind, on the approach to land, he would still be cracking a joke fifty feet above the threshold on a VHF to a captain of another aircraft. Sadly, both of them perished on CFIT a few years later.

  11. Colin Brown
    Colin Brown says:

    5 years ago I flew on an Air Canada EMB 175 CYYZ- KBNA. Expected a cancellation to to terrible weather stretching all the way to the gulf. Departed 8 AM on time. Landed on time through scattered CB’s and waited off the gate 30 min for a gap to “ deplane!” Captain told me they had been up since 4 AM working with dispatchers, weather programs and ATC to get a route through the mess. Honestly we never felt a bump. Dedicated pros!

  12. Alex
    Alex says:

    Regarding your habit about using checklist: is there a legal requirement for commercial pilots to use checklists? Does this apply to private pilots too?

    • Jim K
      Jim K says:

      Commercial operations are bound by Operations Specifications (OpSpecs) which carry the weight of FAR’s. They are issued to each operator and govern the procedures crews must follow to operate the aircraft. I have never seen an OpSpecs that did not contain a requirement to use and adhere to checklist procedures.
      Private pilots are not required to use a checklist, but consistently using one can contribute to safe and professional aircraft operations.

  13. Ronald Usher
    Ronald Usher says:

    John, professional attitude comment and so well scripted. That’s what makes great pilots to fly with THAN the rest of the smart “I’m the best and nothing goes wrong when I fly” ? My opinion? Another accident waiting to happen needlessly

  14. John Majane III
    John Majane III says:

    All good points. I would add in try to fly at least every two weeks and try to get at least three landings in.

  15. Peter N Steinmetz
    Peter N Steinmetz says:

    I am not sure I entirely agree with #5 about always having the same risk tolerance. Let’s face it, all GA flying and all flying entails some level of risk. We engage in that risk because we feel the benefits accrued make the risks worthwhile.

    I think it can be entirely rationale to have a different balance when other people are involved. Here is an example.

    For most pilots flying loops is more risky than not flying them. Nonetheless some pilots find the thrill of aerobatics worth the increased risk compared to flying straight and level. I would submit it can be entirely rational for a pilot to say that while they will personally fly aerobatics they will not take family members along due to the increased risk.

    There is no one standard risk-benefit ratio that is appropriate for all pilots or even for one pilot in all situations.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *