My son, Trent, recently graduated from U.S. Air Force pilot training and is set to begin his aviation career flying Boeing C-17 Globemasters around the world. As I pondered the milestone, I asked myself what words of wisdom I might share; words that he would actually listen to and benefit from. The world he enters is significantly more advanced and challenging than the one I stepped into from the same stage 32 years ago. The technology is more sophisticated and the operations tempo much faster. His generation views information flow and communication channels very differently from mine. They learn differently and challenge norms. If the demographic data projections are accurate, there will be nearly a half-million of these young men and women filling our ranks within the next decade. So, as I searched for something meaningful to say, I looked for something timeless; not just for my son, but for all those to whom we are about to pass the aviation torch. A few questions came top of mind:
• What are the constants amidst this frenetic pace of change in our industry?
• Whose responsibility is it to integrate this “great crew change” into our ranks?
• What can a rookie do to hit the ground running?
To answer these questions, I settled on what I perceive to be perhaps the biggest challenges facing the next generation in our industry, namely professionalism and enthusiasm. To get at these key issues in a way that a 23-year-old would listen to, I chose to frame the discussion around a single question:
What is the difference between a “mere pilot” and a “professional aviator?”
I ask this question with all due respect to the many non-pilot aviation career fields, such as maintenance, dispatch, cabin crew, etc. But to keep it real for my son, I stuck to piloting, and trust that readers will make the logical connections to their own areas of specialty. To answer the question, here are the five things I told my son:
1. A mere pilot complains; a professional aviator adapts. Don’t buy into the natural cynicism so prevalent in our industry today. Change is a constant. Embrace it; swim in it like a fish. Choose your associates and especially your role models carefully; they will shape and define you.
2. A mere pilot logs hours, a professional aviator logs lessons. Experience does not automatically equate to wisdom, skill or judgment. I know some damn smart 5,000-hour pilots, and more than a few who are one-hour pilots who have repeated it 5,000 times. Countless lessons are lost if we do not learn from our successes and failures. Debrief every flight for its inherent lessons, even if it’s just to yourself.
3. A mere pilot meets minimum standards; a professional aviator redefines them upward. Measure yourself against your God-given potential, not some arbitrary regulatory minimum. I told my son about a recent discussion I had with a 25-year airline pilot who pushed back against this point during our Level III professionalism training. “There are no advanced standards – just the standards set by the regulator, which I met long ago,” he said. How sad to limit oneself in this manner.
4. A mere pilot shows up; a professional aviator shows up ready. Readiness is far more than showing up on time; it is preparing for optimum performance against the day where you have to be at your very best just to survive. A mere pilot believes their qualifications equal their proficiency; a professional aviator understands that check rides are merely a snapshot, and self-assesses their day-to-day readiness as a matter of routine.
5. A mere pilot has a job; a professional aviator has a fulfilling and satisfying career. A professional pilot understands that flying is a privilege and a way to earn a living that is available to relatively few. By striving to improve and helping others to do so, the passion for flying will remain strong. But the day you decide you are “good enough” is the day that the three-headed demon of apathy, cynicism and complacency appear on your doorstep, and your fun meter starts to run downhill.
In short, the difference between a mere pilot and a professional aviator is far less about skills and far more about attitude. If my son is any example, our next generation of aviation pros has attitude in abundance. It’s our job to shape it, pass the torch and fan the flames.