The importance of being humble

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image: © Civil Aviation Safety Authority

By Kreisha Ballantyne

The humble person makes room for progress; the arrogant person believes they’re already there.

Anyone who flies, regardless of aircraft type, has no doubt been the recipient of awe from a member of the non-flying community. The media, social media, cinema and advertising have created a stereotype of pilots as brave, singular and rugged. A quick google of ‘pilot’ turns up images of Captain Four Bars, in his mirrored aviators, slightly unshaven, sometimes surrounded by a gaggle of glamorous flight attendants. In the rare case of a female pilot being showcased, she is a combination of competent and sexy with long hair twisting out of her jaunty cap.

In film, pilots are canonised: Top Gun (obviously!), Air Force One, The Aviator, Catch Me if you Can—each broadcast the trope of the pilot as a hero, a battler, a savior. The common theme, and a word that’s no stranger in the field of aviation, is arrogance. Perhaps once considered a vital quality in a pilot, back in the days of war, where bravery required a certain blindness to the consequences of battle, arrogance is no longer a required trait in aviation. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist; we all know at least one—the guy or gal with the extra loud voice who is always the first to analyse an accident, provide you with the facts and tell you just what the pilot should have done to avoid the accident happening in the first place.

In a modern, civilised society the polar opposite of arrogance—the elegant trait of humility—is far more desirable a characteristic. Those of us who are involved in aviation know the reality is a far cry from the public perception: anyone who embarks on the path of learning to fly needs a large dose of humility, mixed with courage, patience and resilience.

Humility is admitting your mistakes, being open to new ideas, embracing change and accepting responsibility. Humility is essential to be the best and safest pilot you can be.

The humble student

There is no doubt that learning new skills can be intimidating and confronting. Those who have taken up aviation later in life may not have had an encounter with a learning environment since school or higher education. A great deal of humility is required to place oneself in unfamiliar territory, to be open to new ideas and to embrace unfamiliar concepts.

In my three years as a writer for this publication, I have interviewed countless flying instructors about their techniques in creating and nurturing pilots. I have learned that if you want to hear an instructor rant, just ask them to tell you about their most arrogant student. A grade one instructor, who asked not be named, said ‘When I first became an instructor, I was of the belief that anyone could learn to fly. After my first year I had definitely changed my mind. If instructing was just about teaching a technique, then sure, anyone can learn to fly. But you can’t teach those buggers who think they know everything! The worst are not, as you would think, the young lads, but actually the middle age professionals, especially those in commanding roles such as doctors and CEOs. They’re used to giving commands, not taking them, and are often terrible listeners and poor receivers of instruction. It’s frustrating, but with time and patience, the arrogance can be trained out of them—in most cases!’

Humility is an essential quality in a student. In learning to fly, a student develops their own unique aviation character. This is made up of technique, airmanship, and the measure of their individual psychology. One can be a risk-taker in everyday life, but conservative as a pilot. In building this character, the traits of honesty, self-reflection, self-criticism and curiosity make a humble student. In contrast, an arrogant student is self-aggrandising, inattentive to others’ needs, often poorly planned with a ‘wing it’ attitude and deaf to constructive criticism.

The humble instructor

As the recipient of instruction from more than 14 instructors, I can confidently attest that not all instructors are born equal. Some are made for the job, some are adequately trained and others should consider a transfer to correctional services.

A humble instructor will have more patience than a parent of a teenager, they will work to understand your style of learning and teach you accordingly, they will be gentle when you’re vulnerable but firm when you need a push, and they will approach your lessons with grace and humour. An arrogant instructor (and we’ve all met them, sadly) will shout, demean and generally make you feel like a clumsy buffoon who will never master the art of flight. If your instructor shouts, sighs, criticises you personally or makes you in any way feel bad about yourself, leave. Arrogant instructors often breed arrogant pilots; the industry will reward you later if you walk away from a poor instructor.

The humble pilot

Whether you’re a newly-stamped RPL or a CPL with 10,000 hours, humility is a great equaliser. Great airmanship is born of grace and humility, and sky manners are an essential quality of the pilot’s character, regardless of the thickness of their logbook.

Great airmanship starts long before take-off: a humble pilot will visualise their flight ahead of time, will plan meticulously, and will be aware of the weather and its potential hazards. A humble pilot will ask questions of those more experienced than themselves, will be polite to ATC, and will be aware of those sharing their airspace. A humble pilot will strategise and will speak up if lost, confused or unable to understand a clearance. A humble pilot will understand that ATC is there to help, will have visited the tower at some point in their training and will have an understanding of the relationship between ATC and pilot. The humble pilot performs meticulous pre-flights; uses a check-list if new to an aircraft type; is familiar with the aircraft’s speeds, emergency procedures and quirks (if they are flying an aircraft equipped with an airframe parachute, they will be familiar with its procedures and will not be too arrogant to use it); and files a flight plan and SARTIME/SARWATCH. A humble pilot is educated; attends seminars, workshops and safety briefings; keeps up-to-date with the industry’s developments by means of blogs, newsletters and magazines; has a place in their industry and is an ambassador for aviation.

Conversely, an arrogant pilot deviates from standard operating procedures, assumes complete knowledge of all facets of aviation and is often a poor listener. The arrogant pilot ignores established practices, such as pre-flights and check-lists, and suffers from poor airmanship.

The humble colleague

In the very close confines of a cockpit, humility is a desirable trait. I have learned a great deal about many colleagues in a co-pilot position.

All pilots understand that there are excellent flights, good flights and those flights that require a long sleep when the hangar doors are closed.

A humble pilot will be cognisant of the passenger and crew’s comfort and safety and will ensure their clients are enjoying the experience. An arrogant pilot will be showy and brazen, unprofessional and brash. A humble pilot will understand that they are responsible for the outcome of the flight, including troubleshooting and strategising along the way; the arrogant pilot will understand that there are good flights and bad flights but will blame others, or make excuses for their own mistakes, if the flight encounters any setbacks or deviations.

A self-critical pilot will be prepared for changes to the plan and will evaluate the situation based on their experience and training; if they make a mistake, they will admit it and learn from it, sharing it with others to benefit the greater community. An arrogant pilot will blame, shout, deny and cover up their mistakes.

The humble pilot is the one everyone wants to work with: the one with the professional presentation, the level head and the drama-free cockpit. The arrogant pilot is the one who says, ‘watch this!’ and pushes the aircraft to the edge of its envelope; the one who bad-mouths colleagues and belittles regulations; the one, who, when involved in an incident or accident, everyone else quietly says, ‘I’m not surprised.’

The importance of being humble

Thankfully, as in most things in life, characters are not always black and white. Most of us display traits of both arrogance and humility, and it’s up to us as professionals to keep each other in check. On my first solo, a pilot in a Baron radioed and asked if I could extend my downwind leg. When I told him it was my first solo and I wasn’t comfortable with it, he said, ‘C’mon, love, I planned this straight-in miles ago!’ My instructor (a fine and humble gentleman) intercepted by saying, ‘Bob, behave. Don’t you remember your first solo? You go round or join the circuit,’ to which Bob apologised profusely. When I landed, Bob was the first to congratulate me on ‘becoming a pilot’. Caught up in the moment, Bob forgot his manners, but a gentle reminder brought him back into the fold.

There’s an old joke that goes like this: ‘How do you know there’s a pilot at a party? They’ll tell you.’

While it’s marvelous to be proud of your hobby or profession, don’t be that person at the party. Be the person who climbs the mountain to see the world, not the person who climbs the mountain so the world can see them.

The ABC of humility

A—Assertiveness. This is not to be confused with arrogance. A pilot is an assertive decision-maker and confidence is an essential part of a pilot’s character.

B—Build relationships. Seek to understand others and learn to identify those with arrogant or brash characters.

C—Curiosity. Ask, always speak up, ask questions, request explanations.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. What an excellent article. I think how an instructor handles a student sets that person up for life. I learnt to fly in the 1960’s, & had an old WW2 hurricane pilot as an instructor. When I asked him ( after reading the old Aviation safety digest) is it really dangerous to fly into cloud? I didn’t really get an answer. Some days later, out in the aerobatic area at Archerfield, in a mk 1 Victa, he said ” see if you can fly through that little fluffy cloud over there!” No need to say what happened except that Gus folded his arms & said in his best Pommie accent ” well boy you got us into this, you had better get us out..”
    Best lesson ever.
    I have never been a flying instructor, but have done other instructing & well remember that experience, & how it was handled.

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