Photo: World War I Army Biplane, from Upper Arlington Archives (Creative Commons).

We are being paid to avoid hazard, but there are still many unexplored crevasses in our reservoir of knowledge. Our zeal for air transport is always soured when we so easily reflect on failures involving certain late comrades, who proved in the final analysis to be, like ourselves, only the tip of the arrow. We are obliged to recognize our possible epitaph — His end was abrupt.
— Ernest K. Gann
Fate is the Hunter

Eddie Sez:

As an engineer I am at high risk for discounting anything that cannot be described with formulas prematurely. As a pilot, I am prone to prefer procedure over technique and mechanical facts over empathy and "feelings." Both of these facets of my personality serve me well in some areas but put me at risk in others. So into the breach we go, here it is, my own version of Pilot Psychology 101.

As I understand it, psychology has four goals. We can use those:

  1. To Describe — Describing various Pilot Personality Types can be useful because it helps us to predict crew synergy in an attempt to avoid crew resource management issues and capitalize on strengths.

  2. To Explain — Each personality type has its Strengths and Weakness that pilots should recognize in themselves and their peers.

  3. To Predict — When dealing with more than one pilot you are bound to have Conflicts and Synergy that can either harm or help the pilot team.

  4. To Change — We cannot always choose our flying partners and it is important to have a Pilot Adaptation Strategy.

What follows are mostly my thoughts from dealing with this over the years. I will cite a few references along the way.

Pilot Personality Types

Photo: Sigmund Freud, public domain (Creative Commons).

When I was in the Air Force a few of the "touchy feely" types realized that if they could give every lieutenant colonel pilot a personality test they might be able to typecast the future leaders from those who were destined to be, shall we say, the led. Somewhere along the line they signed up to the Myers & Brigss Foundation and subjected those they thought had command potential to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory.

The theory was only one type of individual was meant to be an Air Force commander, and only lieutenant colonels who were "ESTP" would be offered the chance to command flying squadrons. I think that theory is flawed but the exercise might help when it comes to figuring out how to make a flight crew work well together. All we really need to do is discuss the four personality preferences.

  1. Favorite World — In the Myers-Briggs world, the extravert and introvert are of equal value. In the Air Force command structure, however, introverts were considered not worthy of command. What they didn't anticipate was that some introverts could fool the test and that they ended up was with a lot of extraverted commanders and a smaller number of commanders smarter than the test. In the world of non-military cockpits, however, the two personality types are equally valid.
    • E - Extraversion. You are talkative, outgoing. You like to work out ideas with others and think aloud. You want to be the center of attention.

    • I - Introversion. You are reserved, quiet. You like to contemplate and think things through alone. You would rather observe than be the center of attention.
  2. Information — On the surface, pilots would seem to gather all of their information from machines, computers, and other tangible means. You could argue that only sensing people become pilots or that pilots need to be sensing people. But that isn't entirely true.
    • S - Sensing. You focus on the reality of how things are. You pay attention to facts. Your prefer practical ideas. You like to describe things n a specific, literal way.

    • N - Intuition. You like to imagine how things can be. You look at the forest (as opposed to the trees). You enjoy ideas as concepts. You describe things figuratively.
  3. Decisions — In a perfect world, all cockpit decisions would be made using a thinking, dispassionate, and logical process. The problem, however, is that we have so much to know that we cannot know it all. There are often times that a "feeling" overrules the thinking and ends up being right.
    • T - Thinking. You make decisions dispassionately, using logic. You value fairness. You enjoy finding flaws in arguments. You are reasonable and level-headed.

    • F - Feeling. You make decisions based on your feelings. You value harmony and forgiveness. You like to please others and tend to see the good in everyone. You are empathetic.
  4. Structure — Some parts of aviation bear no resemblance to others. I was invited along for a Sunday flight with a cousin and was appalled by the lack of precision in altitude, airspeed, and heading. Of course he would have looked at the kind of flying I do as little more than computer programming.
    • J - Judging. You like having things settled. Your think rules should be followed and deadlines met. Your prefer detailed, step-by-step instructions. You make plans and want to know what you are getting into.

    • P - Perceiving. You like keeping your options open. You think rules and deadlines are flexible. You prefer to improvise. You are spontaneous and enjoy surprises.

The next step in a standard psychological evaluation using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator would be to give yourself a letter from each of the four personality preferences so you could forever call yourself an ESTP or an INFJ or one of the fourteen other possibilities. Then they would show you a grid of the sixteen possible outcomes and tell you "all sixteen are equally valid." In the Air Force the powers that be would get your score and pretty soon it would become obvious, that just as with George Orwell's "Animal Farm," some animals are more equal than others.

For the purposes of examining pilot psychology and making sure we work together effectively, we don't need to do that. It will help to know that each personality trait carries with it strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths and Weakness

Is there an ideal pilot personality type? Or are any of those four personality preferences better answered one way or another? Is a thinking pilot always better than a feeling pilot? I think there are times when one type works better than the other. But not always.

  • Extraversion.
    • Pilot strengths: stimulates communications on the flight deck, brings out ideas and solutions from the team.

    • Pilot weaknesses: may overwhelm other crewmembers with personality, can cause others to withdraw.
  • Introversion.
    • Pilot strengths: can come up with solutions to complex problems and avoid pitfalls from tricky situations.

    • Pilot weaknesses: may intimidate junior crewmembers or "underwhelm" those senior.
  • Sensing.
    • Pilot strengths: can take in lots of information and apply technical solutions.

    • Pilot weaknesses: can miss "outside the box" solutions that solve problems beyond what is given in the flight manual.
  • Intuition.
    • Pilot strengths: can tap into a broad range of experiences to come up with ideas others would miss.

    • Pilot weaknesses: might miss standard, workable solutions while contemplating others, can "miss the trees for the forest."
  • Thinking.
    • Pilot strengths: usually gets the problem solved right, the first time.

    • Pilot weaknesses: might alienate others while striving for technical perfection, can "win the battle but lose the war" when dealing with fellow crewmembers. The brain has many congnitive limits, some you may not be aware of: Brain's Data Limits. Do not discount the power of intuition to overcome many of these limits: Pilot Psychology / Decision Making.
  • Feeling.
    • Pilot strengths: brings the best out of the crew, encourages others to contribute and may produce solutions any one individual would have missed.

    • Pilot weaknesses: can miss obvious, technical solutions, sometimes "all of us are dumber than one of us."
  • Judging.
    • Pilot strengths: less prone to making mistakes, tend to get things done as they had been practiced and flight tested.

    • Pilot weaknesses: may fail to improvise when problems are compounded or outside the known envelope of solutions.
  • Perceiving.
    • Pilot strengths: able to improvise and come up with solutions to complex problems and multiple emergencies.

    • Pilot weaknesses: prone to making mistakes when ignoring tried and true solutions.

Conflicts and Synergy

In each case, mixing personality preferences can bring out the strengths of each type and overcome the weaknesses of the other. If one pilot is sensing and the other is intuitive, for example, the team should be able to solve problems out of the textbook while being able to come up with innovative solutions to nonroutine problems as well.

There is also danger that a pilot with a very strong personality trait can overwhelm a pilot with the opposite trait. An overt extravert, for example, can cause an already introverted pilot to withdraw from the team. The extravert might take offense to the introvert's failure to engage in conversation.

Pilot Adaptation Strategy

Where there is a conflict in personality preferences, both pilot should know how to adapt to avoid conflicts and to maximize synergy provided by the difference. Pilots should be aware of their dominant personality preferences and how that might affect others of the opposite profile. They should also know how they might be adversely affected by strong personalities of other types.


The Brain's Data Limits

[Lehrer, pg. 150.]

Book Notes

Portions of this page can be found in the book Flight Lessons 2: Advanced Flight, Chapter 6.


Creative Commons

Gann, Ernest K., Fate is the Hunter: A Pilot's Memoir, 1961, Simon & Schuster, New York

Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide, Mariner Books, New York, New York, 2009.