Never trust a pilot who has gravy on their shirt

image: Craig | Adobe Stock

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!


  1. My last instructor had an impeccable haircut and looked triple shaved at 3pm. He’d been on the flight line since 6am. I was seriously impressed. Made me think about bringing my best game, no question.

  2. Interesting article, sadly we are very visual creatures, we make most of our decisions daily with our eyes, looks can be very deceptive, I never rely on looks alone! In my early days a few Capt’s I flew with where well presented, spoke well seemed intelligent, until they hoped in the cockpit, they looked the part but where excellent Bullsh1tters! One of the flying schools I had a quick few lessons with a hundred years ago had the biggest pot plants in their main office, the place looked very flash, expensive everything & fancy talk, turns out they where hugely corrupt, bleeding A/C owners dry! Don’t believe that old saying ‘clothes maketh the man’, NEVER judge a book by it’s cover! Just cause someone is wearing a well pressed uniform, polished shoes doesn’t mean they are safe or know what they are doing, believing as much means you are naive!

  3. Uniform and epaulets May look impressive, but often are window dressing only. I wore business suits as did my co-pilot when flying Corporate Jets such as The Learjet

    Later when operating Canadair Challenger, HS 125 and Boring 727 for another company we wore uniforms complete with epaulets because the company felt it gave us greater authority with many of the passengers who were mostly middle level executives.

    The first corporation had a philosophy that we were part of the executive team, the second considered us a transport division similar to airlines.

    Which was the most professional? Neither the culture of professionalism was equal, in each case we dressed appropriately for the job, the second company comprised significant international operations and the caps, epaulets and formal uniform clearly identifies us as flight crew, useful at foreign airports.

    I consider a private pilot dressing up in uniform with epaulets is ridiculous and fancy dress does not equate with professionalism, often it is a cover for someone lacking the skills and professionalism

    I don’t advocate sloppy dressing or dirty clothes, clean and neat should be the dress code and a professional approach to the task, briefing the passengers, explaining a bit about the aircraft and proposed flight and diligent use of check lists and having a well prepared aircraft and flight plans.

    Phillip Reiss

  4. It’s all about first impressions. A very wise university lecturer once said to us “If you can’t be the part, at least look it!” However, this “fake it until you make it” approach isn’t appropriate for aviation.

    We must LOOK the part in order to reassure our customers that we know what we’r doing, but we must BE the part in order to deliver our customer safely to their destination.

  5. I don’t think the author’s point was that epaulets per se make one a professional, but that grease spots definitely don’t. A show pony is [still] a showpony, but a slob is just a slob. YMMV.

  6. Maybe the uniform thing works for ATPL flying, but in smaller planes I tend to be vaguely suspicious of a pilot that looks like they’d work to avoid getting grease on their hands as they inspect their engines, or dirt on their back as they crawl under the fuse to check the brake lines and look for undercarriage cracks.

  7. Interesting article and something I worked on when I was a in sales. I had to go to many different sites as a BDM for an electrical service division, and after looking like an idiot a couple of times showing up in a suit when my customers were in high vis I took care to customise what I wear to suit who I was going to see. One data centre customer who was well dressed so I also was, actually once said to me that he didn’t want someone in a suit coming over, he wanted a technician, no offence, who knew what he was doing. None taken, but I did realise that had I just shown up in my high vis shirt and steel toe boots I would have been taken more seriously.
    To me now my code is to always be neat, clean as possible, but also practical for what the customer is expecting me to do.

  8. Years of flying in PNG have taught me that judging a book by its cover is meaningless. You need to judge a book by its reputation. Ive known too many experienced and high professional bush pilots who get around in jeans, boots and worksheets to be impressed by someone with a crisp starched shirt and spotless epaulettes. The guys with filthy arms are the ones who open the cowling to look inside. The guy with the stained shirt has probably soiled it doing a fuel drain. Id rather fly with a slob who knows what they’re doing than with a pilot who has clean fingernails and no clue.

  9. It seems that influence is important in every aspects of life no matter whether it is pilot or janitor. But it is also important to not to judge someone on his or her appearances. Attire with positive gesture is important and remind to act and work properly. Getting uniforms on rent would be appropriate for your first time profession.

  10. Yesterday I paxed on QF to my duty, in uniform as I had a very quick turnaround on arrival. Guy next to me has the chilli con carne and inadvertently flicks some onto my freshly ironed white shirt, which I have to sit in for the next 8 hrs of duty. Despite best efforts, it leaves a decent, difficult to hide stain. I have a spare but folded/creased shirt in my bag, so my options are a food stain or looking like I don’t iron my shirt. Both arguably make me look unprofessional.

  11. I have been an ag pilot most of my life interspersed with instructing now and again. The flying school that I would walk away from would be where the instructors walked around with spotless white shirts and polished black shoes. I would be asking questions like how did they check the engine and oil level out without getting a little bit of dirt on them? How did they get down on their hands and knees and check under the belly of the aircraft for inflight signs of over-stress without scuffing the toes of their shoes. How did they do the fuel drain under the engine without rubbing some part of their uniform on the cowling. I don’t like white around any aircraft for that reason. You can look professional and be professional without white.

  12. It is a fact that visual appearance contribute to the success. Full stop. However I don’t think I could pass e.g. IREX exam by wearing the white shirt only. Since all my instructors wear white shirts, I do it as well (minus epaulettes:) only to show respect. Yeah, there are oil marks from cowling, dust marks on my knees, I use drained Avgas to wash fingers. Finally, I don’t think PPL in 66hrs is sign of any preferences.
    Different story when I fly own aircraft: hard yakka & red back are my favourite “uniform” :)

  13. This comes to mind..
    Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. … Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs.

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