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Inspiring the Next Generation of Pilots

People

Is it just me or does it seem the average cockpit is getting grayer? There seems to be evidence that the average age of professional pilots is climbing, not because there are more cockpits but because there are so fewer youngsters in line to take the places of us in the "seasoned" pilot class. I do a fair amount of public speaking to aviation aficionados from entry level to highly experienced, and it does appear the ages across the spectrum are going up. That isn't good. Smaller numbers of newer pilots means the older pilots have to hang on and there will be increasing pressure for single pilot transport category aircraft and, dare I say it, pilotless aircraft. We -- all of "we" -- need to do something about this.


Our past: December 17, 1903

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Photo: Orville and Wilbur Wright

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Our future?

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Photo: Airline crew, from the 2002 movie "Big Trouble"

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We already see signs of it, ab initio hires at even some major carriers are populating flight decks with pilots not ready for prime time. We need to figure out why aviation is no longer attracting each generation's brightest or holding on to them once they've been recruited.

Leadership

This may come as a shock to many professional pilots, but the public no longer holds you in high regard. Professional pilots used to be in a category all to themselves. They were professionals, yes. Like doctors. But they also did something very few knew how to do: defy gravity. In the days before deregulation, it was a rare individual indeed who was a pilot, or even knew a pilot.

These days, everyone knows someone ordinary who is a pilot. In fact, many people know of pilots who are well below ordinary. We read about them in accident reports all the time.

The problem is that more and more of the public comes into contact with more and more pilots. Chances are they've met a pilot dead-heading in coach class on his or her way to and from their domicile. They can't afford to live where they are based, their clothes are wrinkled from sleeping in the crew lounge, and they are cranky from a lack of sleep. Not a good first impression!

But we in the corporate side of aviation can be just as guilty . . .

Looks . . .

A friend of mine relates this story which speaks volumes about why many observers have a negative view about pilots:

"Yes, it is hard for pilots who have been beaten down over the years to maintain that aura of pride and joy in their chosen professions. But there is also an innate inclination on the part of many pilots towards whining and complaining. Years ago in Sydney I was at the hotel’s business lounge and sitting near me was an individual talking loudly on his cell phone. Within minutes I knew that he was a demo pilot who worked for Hawker Beechcraft and that he was not only unprofessional and arrogant but that he hated his job. To non-pilots he presented pilots in the worst possible way. Interestingly enough, a few days later while I was attending an air show in Hong Kong, someone introduced him to me while I was checking out a Hawker 4000 on static display. He was one of Hawker’s “International Captains.” As we shook hands I said to him, “I was in the lounge at the Marriott in Sydney while you were talking on the phone.” The look on his face was priceless. As a DFO I would never ever hire him and would recommend against being hired by anyone."

I see pilots like this all the time. It wasn't always this way.

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Photo: Colonel Robin Olds, F-4C, Commander of the 9th Tactical Fighter Wing, Ubon Air Base, Thailand, 1967, USAF Photo

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There was a time when an Air Force or Navy fighter pilot was recognized as the leading edge of our military's combat sword. Few in recent memory more than Colonel Robin Olds, a triple ace with 152 combat missions, including 105 over North Vietnam. On September 30, 1966, he took command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. His predecessor had only flown 12 missions during the 10 months the wing had been in combat. Olds immediately placed himself on the flight schedule as a rookie pilot and set the tone that led the wing to reversing its earlier lack of aggressiveness. Over the years he was held up to us as an ideal pilot and leader for those of us who followed him.

From the dawn of fighter aviation, combat placed pilots against each other in a battle to get on the other pilot's "six" to find the kill shot. It was a battle of wits, yanking and banking, where stick and rudder skills were paramount. Between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, fighter pilot legend Colonel John Boyd changed the primary talent from one's hands to one's brain. Then, inevitably, computers took over.

The days of maneuvering to an opponent's "six" are over. A single F-35 fighter today can easily cost more than a squadron of fighters from the Vietnam era. These high tech aircraft can end the engagement before their pilots have visual contact with the enemy. Fighter pilots, it seems, have become computer programmers.

But there is another problem. As these aircraft become more and more complicated, we have come to the point where nobody really understands them. Many of these fighters are endangering their pilots with unresolved oxygen issues. This isn't a new problem. When the F-16 first came out, for example, the aircraft were often pitching full nose down during low level flight for an unknown reason. (Earning it the name "lawn dart.") While that problem was later solved (it was a spontaneous automatic flight control check) others persist. Flying fighters has always been more hazardous in training than in combat. In a day and age where training losses are going down in other fleets, the fighter community may perceive itself to be at an unreasonable risk level. Being a fighter pilot is no longer a highly sought after pilot job.

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Photo: Airline crew, from the 1970 movie "Airport"

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If you've ever flown on a major airline in the early seventies or before, you will have had a taste of how it used to be. (The airline industry in the U.S. was deregulated in 1978.) There were not as many airlines, it cost more to fly, and you had a reasonable chance that the cockpit crew was well trained and highly experienced. Does that mean they were safer? The accident rate is lower today than it was back then, but the public's perception is the opposite. Even in the movies, an airline pilot just gave one confidence that there were adults in the front seats.

These days? Not so much. There were lots of screw ups back then, but you didn't often hear about them. With today's cockpit voice and flight data recorders, cockpit shenanigans are reported faithfully. There is also no shortage of passengers and other witnesses with cellphones ready to live stream whatever goes wrong. Add to that fact that we bestow the title "airline pilot" to anyone who can qualify for the left seat of any airplane that operates for hire. The public notices when the man or woman in the left seat of the cockpit dresses or acts less than what they expect of an airline captain.

Actions . . .

In 1988 I was in the left seat of an Air Force Boeing 747 giving a tour to the governor of a state and his staff. They were all crowded forward with one of the governor's staffers in the right pilot's seat and the governor himself kneeling behind the throttle quadrant. After I finished the standard 5-minute talk about the cockpit layout and how the airplane flew, the staffer in the right seat pointed from left to right of the forward panel and then to the overhead panel and said, "how do you take in all these instruments and keep everything straight?" I gave the answer any pilot would know. "We don't have to look at everything at once. We focus on what is important when it is important, so no extraordinary ability to take it all in at once is needed." She didn't react so I said, "Any other questions?" The governor looked at me and said, "Son, you didn't answer her first question."

The cockpit of a jet was a foreign place for most of the public back then. As backwards as that cockpit seems to us pilots today, to a non-pilot back then it was Buck Rogers level science fiction. Any mortal who could master such a machine had to be an extraordinary human being!

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Photo: B-747-100 cockpit, Bourget Museum, Olivier Cleynen

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Here we are, decades later, and everyone seems to have a ten-year-old child or grandchild who has mastered something on a video game console that seems to be even more complicated than that ancient Boeing 747. There are so many airline pilots out there today that just about everyone knows a pilot. More importantly, they know how ordinary most pilots are.

One more thing about airplanes. The trend of automated cockpits is that they are looking more and more like automobiles. I think the most cosmic cockpit in existence as I write this in 2019 belong to the Gulfstream GVII G500 and G600. Ask any non-pilot to compare the 40 year old cockpit of the Boeing to the brand new cockpit of the Gulfstream. Which takes more skill to fly?

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Photo: G500 Cockpit, 21 June 2018

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I am just as guilty as the next pilot of a high tech cockpit. "Wow, this looks like the world's biggest video game," they say. "Yeah," I used to say, "it's so easy a ten year old can fly it. Problem is there is never a ten year old around when you need them." In my attempt to be funny, I take part in the diminishing of our image. Next time I'll do better. "It is pretty high tech, all right. But you need that when the skies are as crowded as they are today and the aircraft are as technically complex as they've become."

We all lead by our actions and quite often others take note of what we say and do even when our intent is different than what is perceived. It is up to us to act like leaders in the industry, no matter where in that industry we are.

Lesson: be mindful of how you dress and behave in public or even on social media to the traveling public. Like it or not, you are on stage.

Ambassadorship

Think back to your first memory of meeting a real pilot, someone who did that magical thing that most people on dream about. Did that push you into the profession you know call a career? Now rewind every encounter you have ever had in public, every time you were effectively on stage with the public at large as your audience. How many converts would you have chalked up from those admiring what they see? There have been more than a few, I bet. But also look at those times when you were not in top form.

Reach out . . .

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Photo: Eddie speaks to a college aviation class, Bridgewater State University, September 21, 2016

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There are all sorts of audiences out there filled with young adults who want to learn about flying from someone who has a story or two to tell. It can be a career day at the local high school or a gathering at an aeroclub. You will be surprised at just how fascinated people will be with someone who has crossed oceans, flown down to minimums, or has simply earned a living doing something many consider the world's best hobby. If you are uncomfortable in front of an audience, start with a smaller group. Most of us pilots have had experience as instructors and talking about something you know well need not be intimidating. But you don't have to get up in front of an audience to share what you know.

Instruct . . .

If you were an instructor in an earlier part of your career, you should consider dusting off the CFI certificate and volunteer at your local flight school. Years (and decades) of real world experience can pay dividends in not only helping aspiring professional pilots to understand the challenges and benefits, but can help solidify concepts with practical advice gained from experience.

Social media . . .

You next audience may be closer than you think. There are lots of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets filled with postings by pilots which are a good start at helping recruit the next generation of pilots. But with a little extra thought, they can be much more effective.

Not all future pilots know they are future pilots. You can capture imaginations by showing what great travel opportunities exist for those of us who fly for a living. My most prolific travel period was during six months of 2008. My logbook for those eight months includes: Rio de Janiero, Brazil; Geneva Switzerland; Casablanca, Morocco; Kilimanjaro, Tanzania; Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Barcelona, Spain; Liège, Belgium; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Munich, Germany; Istanbul, Turkey; Port Elizabeth, South Africa; George, South Africa; Cape Town, South Africa; Maun, Botswana; Livingstone, Zambia; Kruger Mpumalanga, South Africa; Paris, France; Dakar, Senegal; Anchorage, Alaska; Shanghai, China; and Beijing, China.

Something that struck me in many of those locations was how I was being paid to do something the other tourists were paying dearly to do. I was on Safari on the Serengeti that year and spoke to a Danish couple who had saved a lifetime for the experience. I met another couple at the Olympics in Beijing who took out a second mortgage to attend to see a grandson compete. And for all these trips, I rarely spent more than the cost of a cab.

That was my last year flying charter and I do miss it. I have great photos but none of the quality capable by one of today's iPhones. If you are having as prolific as year as that, you have a golden opportunity to inspire the next generation of pilots through your travels. In fact, here's an idea for you. Simply post those pictures and a few words for a website you can call: "Professional Tourist Pilot." (There are service providers that make putting a website up easy.) In fact, that would make a great YouTube channel too.

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Photo: One of Eddie's photos while on Safari in Botswana, May 17, 2008

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More about this: On Safari in Botswana

Mentorship

The road to a captain's position as a professional pilot can be frustrating. There is a lot to learn and if the training isn't carefully tailored to the student, the frustration can get the better of even the most optimistic pilot.

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires."

–William Arthur Ward

Not ready for prime time . . .

A friend of mine relates this story:

"I have a middle-aged friend who had about 900 hours total time, maybe 100 in light twins, no jet, no turboprop, and not a CFI. Miraculously, he got hired as a CJ3 FO into a 4 A/C mom and pop 135 shop in PA. He completed the online 135 training modules here in Los Angeles, and moved all his junk to PA and roomed with his sister. They sent him to CAE in NJ for the 135 CJ3 SIC type, which he obtained. They paired him with a couple of their young “baby” captains, a sharp young lady and a sharp young man. They found his skills and knowledge lacking (he had never been above FL180, let alone spent time above 10,000 MSL), and after instructing/telling him more than 3-6 times about an issue, finally got very frustrated, lost patience, and emotionally and mentally “gave up” on him after about 10 months. Now, he could fly with the Chief Pilot, who is much older, and has thousands of hours, but my friend felt this was because the CP was so good he really didn’t “need” my friend’s FO help, he could do it himself in that little CJ3. At the end of the day, the mom and pop operator called him into the office, told him he was an outstanding employee, (positive attitude, always groomed, showed up on time, fun on the road, etc) but that his flying skills did not improve as quickly as they would have liked, so after his 12 months of employment, they would have to terminate him and not send him to simulator training. With no gainful employment, he is contemplating his next move, but corporate/business/charter aviation has left him with a very bad taste in his mouth. The mom and pop outfit did not have a training program in place, did not have real training captains (confident, mature, low key) in place, and although he was blatantly honest about his skills during the interview process, hired him anyway probably out of desperation because they could not recruit anyone to PA for that salary. This is a story we need to avoid at all costs."

I am sorry to say that I am guilty of setting up a pilot just this way, though thanks to the pilot's preserverance the results were better. I hired a young CL-600 pilot who had very little time in the jet and grew up flying around the serene Northwest. From there I hired him to fly a Gulfstream GV in the anything-but-serene Northeast. We worked with him for a year before it became obvious he couldn't adapt. He got another GV job flying in the Middle East and eventually came up to speed. I did not do him any favors by fast forwarding his career the way I did. I have been in this position a few times since then and have come to a few conclusions about the "how to" part of mentorship.

  1. Select wisely

  2. It isn't so much that the "mentee" is wrong as much that it is the environment is wrong. You cannot expect a high school quarterback to suit up for the New England Patriots and expect in a few years to have Tom Brady's replacement. By the same token, you cannot place your top CFI in a single engine flight school into an international corporate jet and hope things will turn out well during initial training.

    I think about this a lot when reading accident reports, many of them tragic. You cannot blame a young, non-turbine pilot for accepting a position flying a Lear 35 when they are not remotely ready, for example. They will see it as a winning lottery ticket and, as is true with most pilots, will be overconfident in their ability to "catch up."

    It is up to us to understand just what the prospective pilot is ready for.

  3. Set the example (be a good role model)

  4. You need to set the tone not only with the mentee, but also with the rest of the flight department. Show the mentee how it is done and show the rest of the flight department how to be a good mentor. (The more mentors the more likely your success.)

  5. Set everyone up for success

  6. If you have a varied schedule with varying levels of abilities in the crew force, you should tailor both to get the mentee off on the right foot. Many flight departments have a distinct scheduling process for international operations, or for trips into mountainous airports. You might also have a few pilots that are a bit "gruff" when presented a new hire needing extra care. If your manning situation and schedule permit, it would be wise to ensure your new hire's first flights are with your best crews and tamest destinations. It isn't that the schedule will be forever so constrained, but this is an investment in your new hire. You want his or her first impression of the operation to be a positive one. And, just as importantly, you want the flight department's first impression of the new hire to be a good one too.

  7. Empathy: understand (and predict) how the subject will react

  8. The best mentors will have played both roles in the mentor/mentee relationship. If you came up as CFI, turned turbo prop charter pilot, turned light jet pilot, then finding someone in the same progression should be a natural fit. If, however, your upbringing was different, you need to exercise your best empathy. It may be best to find someone who has walked that path.

    In the case of the CL-600 pilot that I hired, I should have reached out to other Gulfstream GV pilots who came up along the same path. "Would you have been ready making the jump without all the intermediate steps?" In hindsight, I would have done this young pilot a great favor by encouraging another path.

    Once the pilot is hired, you need to keep engaged and understand how things are going. "They are going great, boss!" The mentee will be reluctant to give you bad news. It is up to you to generate the trust that will allow the mentee to speak his or her mind. That is the only way you can offer the needed course corrections. Well, actually, there is one more way. And that depends on the rest of your team.

  9. Get the entire team on board

  10. It is hard to predict how the rest of the team will react to a new face, especially one they perceive never paid his or her dues on the way up. Getting them involved in the hiring and training process will help start the process of getting everyone on board. But you need to follow through. When any problems crop up, ask the team for solutions.

  11. Monitor, listen, provide course corrections

  12. One of the advantages of mentoring in aviation is there are so many metrics available along the way. A failed written exam or checkride are obvious examples, of course. But there are others, such as an excessively long preflight, or a nearly missed altitude level off. While even your most capable pilots can make mistakes, a pattern of mistakes can be a telling sign that something needs to be done.

    You may be surprised to see "listen" on a list of things to do when mentoring because it is just so obvious. But differentiate the word "listen" and "hear" to understand why. I once had a flight attendant tell me the environment up front with one of our pilots was different. I didn't pursue the problem until I realized later what she meant. The new pilot was not open to critique from anyone (except me) and the other pilots started giving him the cold shoulder as a result. Had I engaged sooner we might have been able to keep that pilot from completely alienating the rest of the flight department. (We had to get rid of him.)

  13. Be patient

  14. There will be ups and downs and the mentee may become discouraged along the way. You should understand and expect that things may not go as smoothly as possible but with a few course corrections everything can work out well. You should let the mentee know that setbacks along the way are expected but all that is a part of the process.

Attitude is Key!

Your attitude has a profound impact on the message your appearance, your words, and your very demeanor send to whomever is watching. Do you telegraph to the casual observer that you are a professional? We often think of this in terms of inspiring confidence among the crew and our passengers. But let's take that one step further and consider how it impacts the next generation of pilots.

Image is key

I was once seated in the front row in the cabin of a 19-seat commuter when the captain boarded the airplane. Her uniform was wrinkled and she wore a wool hat even though the temperature was hot enough to cause her to sweat through her shirt. Her first officer appeared next, wearing pink sunglasses and pink earbuds playing something loud enough to distract him from the noises around the airplane he had just preflighted. His hair was well over his ears. I suspected the two of being members of a different breed of pilot even before they had thrown the first switch.

Juan Trippe, the founder and CEO of Pan American World Airways, coined the term "Master of Ocean Flying Boats" to describe the pilots in charge of his early seaplanes. His decision to transform what used to be called the "first pilot" into the equivalent of an ocean liner's captain paved the way for what became the public's first impression of the person in the front left seat of the airplane. Gone were the dirty white scarves, goggles, and leather flying gloves. They were replaced by snazzy coat and tie with the four stripes. These captains exuded competence and gave you confidence that your life was in good hands. They were super humans that received your trust even before they had earned it.

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Photo: Pan Am Captain, IslandArtStore.com

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It is very easy to be pessimistic; some say it is our natural outlook as pilots. (We are always looking for trouble so we can deal with it more quickly.) It takes effort to be optimistic. But making that effort is key to telegraphing our positive outlook. So you have the attitude. Where do you put that on display?

On Stage . . .

Where? The answer "everywhere" may seem trite, but consider this. I try to attend the NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exposition every year and I go to aircraft recurrent at FlightSafety every six months. When I do this I am often dismayed by what I see and hear. Many pilots show up wearing what you might expect on the beach or a local flea market. Conversation revolves around how rotten their jobs are and how they would gladly give it all up for an extra thousand dollars a month. We often fail to realize that new contacts at the Expo or our simulator instructors keep a subconscious log of everything said. They then rebroadcast it all to the next person, and so on. How you conduct yourself matters.

As unfair as it may seem, the public's perception of us collectively is shaped by us collectively. If you are a slob, you reflect poorly on the rest of us. It behooves all of us to dress and behave well whenever we can be identified as a member of the professional pilot class.

Revision: 20190211
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