A common thread that weaves through many aircraft mishaps is what appears to be pure stupidity (“Why would anyone do that?”) or ignorance (“Why didn’t they know better?”). You can also detect a similar tendency among peers you would like to avoid (“Doesn’t that pilot understand how risky that behavior is?”). The answer to all three questions might lie with a common trait among experienced pilots: arrogance.
Arrogance : noun, offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.
Arrogance is a part of pilot psychology that we don’t bother examining, apart from military combat units where it could be rightfully thought of as a survival tool. We are more likely to consider complacency and overconfidence as the root cause of some of these pilot behaviors; but don’t these just boil down to a pilot thinking he or she knows it all? When a pilot deviates from standard operating procedures, ignores common practice, refuses to listen to the inputs of fellow crewmembers; that pilot is showing all the telltale signs of arrogance. We can look for a cure by thinking of what is required by the opposite trait: humility.
Humility : noun, the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.
Humble pilots realize that no matter how experienced, well trained, and naturally gifted they are, they can still make mistakes and that they still have much to learn. A humble pilot never assumes total knowledge, relies on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and is willing to listen to the crew. In short, a humble pilot is a safe pilot.
If we examine components of a pilot’s character against this prism of arrogance versus humility, we can learn how to adopt our behavior and become safer pilots.
What follows are quotes from the source documents, listed below, as well as my comments in blue.
A key element of survival for all humans is the ability to tie cause with effect. Pilots must have this results-oriented nature to fully understand the “why” of aviation.
An arrogant pilot understands there are good flights and bad flights, but assumes all of his or her actions will end up in a good flight. Bad flights are the result of someone else’s actions, the “system,” or simply “just how it goes.”
A humble pilot understands that all pilot procedures and techniques are aimed at the successful outcome of the flight. Procedures and techniques that don’t contribute to that goal must be examined and improved upon. This results-oriented nature requires the pilot to be honest with him or herself.
The key difference between arrogance and humility is the quality of honesty. Pilots must be truthful with themselves and with others to avoid falling into complacency.
An arrogant pilot tends to ignore SOPs that require additional effort, harm their personal view as “above all that,” or require they admit they had been doing it wrong in the past.
Humble pilots realize they cannot know everything, can forget the things that they once knew, and are not immune to making mistakes. Moreover, a humble pilot understands the cause-and-effect chain in pilot procedures and realizes that the pilot is almost always responsible for the cause.
You cannot fix something that you don’t know is broken. If the thing that is broken lies within one’s self, the fix has to come from within.
An arrogant pilot makes excuses for mistakes or finds someone or something to take the blame.
A humble pilot has an open mind when it comes to the cause and effect of what goes on in the cockpit. When something does not go as planned, a humble pilot places his or her own actions at the top of the suspect list and openly accepts ownership of the blame and attempts to learn from the episode. Pilots who are self-critical tend to operate according to SOPs and have cockpits with less drama than those who don’t. Moreover, these pilots earn reputations for drama-free cockpits and the ability to work well and get along well with other crewmembers. People learn to rely on them. In short, they will have become trustworthy.
It is easier to place one’s trust in someone who is more predictable in each of these characteristics; it is easier to rely on what will happen next.
An arrogant pilot only follows SOPs if they think they are convenient or when being watched by someone they fear (a check airman, their boss, or perhaps a safety auditor).
A humble pilot, on the other hand, realizes that SOPs were designed to accommodate all pilots, including very good pilots who may have been compromised by fatigue or occasional forgetfulness. The humble pilot is far less likely to make a preventable mistake.
Trustworthy pilots consistently follow SOPs. If an occasional deviation is required by the situation, a trustworthy pilot analyzes the situation to discover why the SOP didn’t work and looks for ways to amend the SOP accordingly.
A humble pilot realizes that the higher goal of aviation is to accomplish all flight objectives without hurting anyone or breaking anything; as well as the personal goal of becoming a better pilot so as to achieve the higher goal more consistently.
An arrogant pilot doesn’t understand why things cannot be perfect when they can point to so many of their personal accomplishments (while ignoring their many shortcomings).
The humble pilot understands that there is a cause and effect for all results; is truthful enough to understand that he or she is often the cause, and can be relied upon to keep this attitude at all times. In other words, this pilot has the big picture.
Portions of this page can be found in the book Flight Lessons 3: Experience, Chapter 5.