by Kreisha Ballantyne
Many years ago, when I was a student pilot, I planned to rent an aircraft with a friend, a licensed ATPL, in the USA. When we turned up to collect the aircraft, a 1970s Cessna 172, it was filthy, decrepit and poorly maintained. Not surprisingly, the owner was dishevelled and disorganised. As we walked away, my friend quipped, ‘Never trust a pilot with gravy on their shirt! If he can’t even keep himself clean, what d’you think his engine is like?’
Another friend, who’s been flying all his life, freely admits that his views about an aircraft’s airworthiness are strongly influenced by its appearance. ‘If it looks like a mess, it probably is’, he cautions.
Over breakfast, my ATPL friend raised a question which I’ve long since pondered: in the case of aviation, can you judge a book by its cover?
In 2011, I flew across Australia in heels and lipstick to prove that you can be both glamorous and able to operate complex machinery. I have long since come to understand the importance between personal appearance and public perception, to the point where my attire became almost a costume; a device to make a point.
But, flamboyant dressers aside, is there a connection between appearance and reality? Does how a person dresses affect the way people perceive them?
Appearance and reality
The answer to the question above is: of course. The adages ‘the clothes maketh the man’ and ‘dress for success’ are, like most age old clichés, true for a reason.
Researchers at the National Research Council of Canada (NRCC) found that appearance strongly influences other people’s perception of your financial success, authority, trustworthiness, intelligence, and suitability for hire or promotion.
And, because perception is often reality, what you wear not only communicates who you are in the minds of others, but also influences your level of career advancement.
The NRCC research also found that when you combine your appearance with communication skills, not only is others’ perception of you affected, but their behaviour toward you is also influenced.
‘Clothing plus communication skills determine whether or not others will comply with your request, trust you with information, give you access to decision makers, pay you a certain salary or fee for contracted business, hire you, or purchase your products and services,’ the research states.
In terms of perception, CPL student David Bonnici says, ‘Appearance is certainly important as a CPL, especially in smaller aircraft where the passengers interact with you and are likely to be a little nervous; they feel better if you look professional. That said, you dress to the job. Our Canadian pilot who flew a Beaver floatplane in Fiji wore a blue shirt, shorts and barefoot which made him look more like a pro than if he had a neatly pressed uniform and epaulettes.’
Attitude and appearance
If you look the part, do you act the part?
As a CPL student, I wore a uniform, which at first made me feel strange and uncomfortable, but eventually led me to feel like a potential commercial pilot. After a week of intensive training, I came to associate the uniform with being organised, professional and focused. At the time, my instructor observed its importance: ‘dress like a pilot, think like a pilot, be a pilot’ was his motto.
‘I don’t always wear a uniform or business attire, but I still keep a certain standard,’ says commercial pilot James Philipsen. ‘The most casual I’ll fly in is a polo shirt and jeans; I think I’ve flown in a T-shirt once or twice, but that was when I was called in to fly at the last minute.’
‘For me it’s a bit of a mental thing. If I dress too casual, I’ll probably act too casual. On the other hand, the way I dress to fly could just be habit. I wore a uniform and tie from day one of training through to CPL; even now sometimes it feels weird when I’m flying without a tie on.’
The airlines have very strict guidelines regarding uniform. Fully aware of public perception regarding pilots, Qantas came under fire from some of their staff for grooming guidelines considered too stringent. In an article in 2016, pilots complained of having to wear buttoned up jackets in the summer heat, as well as rigid rules for facial hair (no beards) and jewellery (earrings are allowed to be worn only by female pilots, and even then, they ‘should be plain round pearl, silver, gold or diamond studs. Wearing visible facial jewellery including the piercing of noses, eyebrows, tongues and mouths is not acceptable when in uniform,’ the guidelines state). Qantas chief pilot Richard Tobiano said in a statement that standards were very important when it came to uniforms.
‘I know that our pilots are very proud and feel privileged to fly for Qantas and to wear the uniform, which not only looks fantastic but also pays tribute to the history of our airline and profession,’ he said.
Smart suit, thinking cap
Clothes don’t just shape the way other people see us. New research from a team of psychological scientists from California State University, Northridge and Columbia University finds that clothes also influence the way we think.
Across five experiments, study authors Michael Slepian, Simon Ferber, Joshua Gold and Abraham Rutchick found that dressing to impress enhanced people’s ability to engage in abstract thinking. ‘The formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person and how people perceive themselves but could influence decision making in important ways through its influence on processing style,’ the researchers write.
In an experiment, 54 college students were asked to bring two sets of clothing to the laboratory for a study, ostensibly about how people form impressions based on clothing.
The formal attire was described as being something they would wear to a job interview, while the more casual set of clothing was described as something the students would wear to class. Participants were randomly assigned to change into either their formal or their casual clothes.
The students then completed a test of their cognitive processing to determine whether they were more focused on the big picture or on more fine-grained details. After being shown a series of large letters made up of smaller letters (a large letter L or H composed of eight smaller Ls and Hs) participants had to identify each stimulus as either the big letter or the series of small letters using a computer keyboard.
As predicted, participants wearing formal clothing favoured global processing (the big letters) over local processing (the smaller letters) more often than the students wearing their street clothes.
Not just the airlines
It goes without saying that the airlines require a high standard dress code, and that an impeccable dress code is something a potential candidate needs to be aware of.
‘I completed an interview with a US regional carrier yesterday,’ says US-based instructor Johanathon. ‘I got my hair cut and wore a black suit and tie. At the end of the technical interview and as part of the debrief, the captain said, “Well, I’ve got nothing else technical, you really know your stuff, and you certainly look the part.” That is the fourth time in my career as a pilot in as many jobs that I was told I “look the part”.’
But what about private pilots and flying schools? Should they be held to the same standard? The consensus is yes, but with the emphasis on appropriateness. Generally, private pilots don’t wear epaulettes and flight instructors don’t need a peaked cap with gold leaf trimming. But for many, good risk management suggests an outfit that still works if things go wrong, so long trousers often make more sense than swimwear. Riding boots work for flights in the outback but aren’t suitable footwear for floatplane pilots. Many pilots choose to be ready to deal with the possibilities of every flight by using good judgment about their attire. They’re personal choices, but ones that often telegraph an attitude to the task at hand.
An instructor who asked not to be named commented, ‘The appearance of a well-run, tidy school, with neat instructors and staff inspires confidences in the students. Not only does an excellent exterior appearance provide a mentoring example to students, an organised facility gives a feeling of control; of being on top of things. The last thing that inspires security and a feeling of safety is any form of chaos in a training facility.’
And, from a passenger’s point of view, a pilot’s partner Lyn Battle says, ‘I would much prefer to fly with a smartly dressed pilot whether it’s a hobby friend’s flight or a charter—shoes are optional in the bush/island situation of course, but a clean shirt, reasonably tidy appearance yes, I’d like to think that flying is taken a bit more seriously than giving someone a lift down the road in a car. And even more so for private pilots flying me somewhere—there are always company standards behind commercial pilots—but for private pilots all we passengers can go on is their appearance and behaviour to indicate their skills and our safety in their aircraft.’
In short, in aviation you can judge a book by its cover. Never trust a pilot with gravy on their shirt!