Building a “Mindset of Professionalism”

It is difficult to define “professionalism” simply and comprehensively. This essential pilot attribute certainly requires personal integrity and commitment; to doing your best job, in the best way, every time (and even when no one is watching). But it’s not limited to a complex airframe or environment as is commonly asserted. You can be a super professional in your J-3 on a grass field or an embarrassing clown in an Airbus. Professionalism mostly resides in our attitude, discipline and mindset. Unfortunately, professionalism most often becomes obvious to us in its absence; when we suffer from bad service or observe inferior, disappointing performance. In daily operations, true professionalism often goes unappreciated until an emergency suddenly yanks us out of “the ordinary” and puts us too the test.

The recent Southwest engine explosion with Tammie Jo Shults at the controls or the historic Sullenberger and Skiles piloting of US Air 1549 are wonderful examples of professional performance in action. Unfortunately, in the media these exemplars most often get described as “miraculous.” Our non-flying friends have no idea how frequently professional pilots practice and prepare for unlikely incidents like these to make this magic happen. Training for and expecting emergencies is a large part of our jobs as pilots. These calm and professional performances are neither unique, easy, nor miraculous. They require constant training, hard work and commitment to excellence. And afterwards, each of these pilots commented honestly: “we all feel we were simply doing our jobs.” Professionalism is not optional, it is a required part of our job. Their calm professionalism exercised daily paid them back when the crisis struck. This something every pilot should aspire to emulate (and pass on). Safety in aviation requires that discipline to do everything to the best of our ability, on every single day. How can we better embrace this “mindset of professionalism”? And for educators, how can we build this essential capability in our students and clients?

“Mindset” is an increasingly common term in psychology, popularized inCarol Dweck’s book by the same name. According to Dweck, our pervasive mindset largely determines our success or failure in everything we do– much more than our IQ, innate abilities, or socio-economic status. Whether we continuously embrace a fatalistic, depressive approach to life: as a “victim”, or adopt a resilient, optimistic view of life, as an “agent,” determines our  success and happiness all through life. People with two unique mindsets encountering the same life challenges see them entirely different. A closed-minded fatalist will say “impossible” while the person with a “growth mindset” will say “game on!” and embrace the challenge.  In aviation the mindset we adopt is similarly critical to our future success and safety.

This “professionalism mindset” requires not only a “can do” attitude of agency and constant vigilance, it also needs integrity, curiosity and discipline to stay focused and sharp. As pilots, we must also have a ready toolkit of technical knowledge and flight proficiency. All pilots must be continuously ready and able to maintain aircraft control in both normal and emergency situations. The “startle response” is the classic fail preceding  loss of control; our most fatal causal factor in accidents. The reserve capacity to handle emergencies requires dual instruction  on a regular basis (its hard to surprise yourself!) Professionalism requires continuously learning and growing in skill and knowledge.

As educators, its essential first build, then model professionalism for our students. Committing to a positive example of continual learning and growth, such as new ratings or a Master CFI Accreditation, is a great way to stay excited and sharp in your daily job. It’s so very easy to get dull, bored and cynical as a CFI with frequent similar lessons around the pattern. Pretty soon we become egotistical and toxic. Reference to an established Code of Ethics like the SAFE Standard or the excellent Model Code of Conduct is a good tonic for both guidance and inspiration (and they are available at every level of certification). And training in something new and challenging always keeps a pilot humble.

For this reason also, many newer definitions of professionalism include references to  emotional intelligence and “relational skills” like humility, honesty, selflessness, and trustworthiness. These skills are certainly essential for a successful teaching environment but also valuable in a future crew environment. Most pilots first develop professionalism and good communication skills during their time as a CFI. (If you haven’t tested your patience, try teaching flying for a few thousand hours…) These instructional hours  are an essential crucible where interpersonal skills and good CRM are built. Other essential abilities are also developed here like maintaining calm during crisis, working cooperatively, and accepting errors graciously. These are all essential if/when you graduate to bigger/faster crewed aircraft.

A recent review of the NTSB report of the May 2017 Lear 35 accident circling at KTEB precipitated this blog article. At the time of this accident I was flying in and out of KTEB almost daily. Reading about the depressing level of training and lack of professionalism in this crew was demoralizing. This was a very preventable accident and a fear with the diminishing hiring standards we may be in for more. The Beach Aviation example currently in the news demonstrates how flagrantly some pilots ignore any attempt at integrity and professionalism.


In summary, though there are currently unprecedented opportunities for new pilots in our industry, my personal opinion is that every aspiring professional pilot should first become a CFI. Teaching for a while and doing the best job possible is an opportunity to develop professionalism and gain critical interpersonal skills. This growth is essential to future success in any flying career. And of course, join SAFE and support our mission. (You will save lots of $$ on the aviation products you already buy 🙂

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! Please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

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