Photo: Marine drill sergeant (credit: USMC).

Eddie Sez:

There is a continuum of pilot types that ranges from laid-back to hyper-wound-up and everything in between. No matter the pilot type, most of these profess to not care about outside criticism because they've compartmentalized feelings outside of the space reserved for all things aviation. We are cool, dispassionate, and have ice water running in our veins. All that is great. But it isn't true. Pilots are ego driven and that means we do actually care about what is said about us.

Okay, so let's say you deny that. So let's put it this way. You are an exception, but everyone else is affected. That means you need to be careful about the way you deliver your critiques and other criticisms to your fellow pilots. This is a fundamental skill of leadership, whether you are leading a large airline or a two-pilot crew. The fallout from doing this wrong can impact flight safety.

Mistakes in a two-person cockpit tend to be like the old joke about two guys in an elevator when one passes a little gas: both guys know who did it. But despite that, even these two pilots can benefit by phrasing criticism using the "what's wrong" not "who's wrong" technique.

If flying were easy, anyone could do it. Just because it was you that noticed the other pilot's mistake, that doesn't mean you haven't made the same mistake before or could possibly make the same mistake in the future. Addressing it as a "we" and not a "you" problem can make it easier for the other pilot to receive the critique more receptively.

It seems like a little thing, but framing the criticism in a "positive" and not a "negative" light can get the message across more effectively.

Once you've made your point, you need to "let it go" and not "harp on it." The other pilot did not set out to make a mistake, once you've made your point going on is just pouring salt on the womb.

What if the person you are critiquing didn't understand the critique or, worse, appears not to understand the problem? You need to "find a new angle" and not "repeat yourself." Repeating yourself will just make the other person feel you are picking on them. You need to re-articulate the criticism.

What if it is you that is on the receiving end? Your first reaction may be to return fire, "Oh yeah, what about . . ." This can be a real character test, but you need to "de-escalate" and not "escalate." If you come back with a counter-accusation you may end up with a counter-counter-accusation. Where will it end?

Finally, trying giving the other person "the benefit of the doubt" and do not "suspect ill intent" for the slightest provocation.

I have no references for any of this. All of this comes from decades of giving, receiving, and observing criticisms. I am sure you can come up with a list of times these techniques have failed. But it is my experience that they usually work more times than not.


"What's Wrong" not "Who's Wrong"

Personal example

Figure: Four-ship fingertip formation, from ATCR 51-38, figure 7-20.

When I was in USAF pilot training we were told the supersonic T-38 would pose several challenges for most of us, not the least of which would be just getting it onto the ground. But once we mastered that, we were told, everything else would be relatively easy. Not so, for me. While I could maintain the airplane in perfect fingertip formation why flying two-ship and when flying number two or number three in a four-ship, I just couldn't figure out the number four position. We could be fully inverted in the middle of a barrel roll or pulling heavy g's on the bottom of a loop, I was in full control of the airplane as long as I wasn't number four. In that position, unless we were straight and level, I found myself over-controlling the airplane trying to keep on number three's wing. My instructor kept saying, "What's wrong with you? This should be easy! Why can't you do this?" To say the least, it was frustrating. I felt as if I was the only student in our flight having this trouble.

One day I was spared the aggrivation of the number four position and got high marks as lead, number two, and number three. During one maneuver I noticed my number four wingman was having the same overcontrolling issues. It was his first crack at four-ship, so that was to be expected. After the flight I eaves-dropped on his debrief. Here's what his instructor said: "The number four position is the hardest to master because you have to look through number three and keep relative position on lead, always making sure you have adequate spacing on three. If you focus on number three, of course you will end up all over the sky if number three isn't rock steady." It was an epiphany for me for two reasons. Technically, I didn't realize my focus was on lead and not number three. But from the point of view of criticism, I realized that I (the Who) wasn't the problem, it was the particular maneuver (the what) that was different. These realizations made all the difference. I got signed off in four-ship formation the very next flight.

Current day example


"We" not "You"


"Positive" not "Negative"


"Let it go" not "Harp on it"


"Find a new angle" not "Repeat yourself"


"De-escalate" not "Escalate"


"The benefit of the doubt" not "Suspect Ill Intent"