What makes a professional pilot good at what he/she does?
Being a successful pilot requires a combination of skills. It’s not all mathematical and technical. You also have to think creatively, act under pressure, and adopt a mentality fitting for a role of such great responsibility. Pilots not only require leadership qualities — they also have to communicate and work well as part of a team.
So here’s our top 10 list of the necessary traits & skills for being a professional pilot.
1. Clear Communication
Whilst clear communication skills help in almost any job, it really matters for pilots. In fact, incorrect or incomplete pilot-controller communication is a factor in around 80 percent of flight incidents or accidents.
The priority of any communication between pilot and controller is to establish the following:
- Purpose: clearance, instruction, conditional statement or proposal, question or request, and confirmation
- When: immediately, anticipated or expected
- What and how: altitude (climb, descend, maintain), heading (left or right), and airspeed
- Where: before or at a waypoint, for example.
It’s essential that accurate ATC instructions such as radar vectors, weather, traffic information, or advice in emergencies are properly communicated to ensure both flight & landing safety.
Aircraft operators and air traffic management (ATM) providers — like pilots and ATC controllers — work together to manage airport and airspace flow capacity, as well as safety.
Less ‘critical’ Interpersonal skills may also prove useful, as many pilots have regular contact with co-workers as well as passengers and customers. For example, charter and corporate pilots greet their passengers before embarking on the flight. Some airline pilots even help handle customer complaints, too.
Read more about the (core) EASA PPL(A) Communications subject here.
2. Situational Awareness
Situational awareness means appreciating everything that is going on throughout flying, controlling and maintaining an aircraft. Pilots must learn to have a mental picture of the location, flight conditions, configuration and energy state of their aircraft — as well as any other factors that could affect its safety.
Inadequate situational awareness could result in Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT), loss of control, airspace infringement, loss of separation, or an encounter with adverse weather conditions.
The key components of situational awareness can be summarised as:
- Other aircrafts
- Communication between air traffic control and other aircrafts
- Weather and terrain.
- Aircraft configuration
- Control system modes, including aspects such as:
- Armed/acquire/hold modes
- State of flight management system (FMS) data input and flight-planning functions.
- Control system modes, including aspects such as:
- Geographical position
- Aircraft attitude.
- Aircraft systems.
- When required procedures or events (e.g. time to initial approach turn) should occur.
- These components are thoroughly covered throughout your flight training. For an overview, we recommend checking out our section on the 9 PPL Subjects.
- Fly GA manufactures a situational awareness tool designed for use in Cessna 152 aircrafts. Check out the competitively priced TA-1 Fuel Calculation Ruler.
3. Team-Working Skills
Communication and team-working skills go hand in hand. But for pilot’s the ‘team-working’ part warrants its own section on this top 10 list.
Why is it important for pilots and cabin crew to work well as a team? Well, in aviation, studies have shown that a significant portion of accidents were caused by breakdown in teamwork, where crew members were working as individuals rather than as a team.
As an airline pilot you have to be able to work within a cohesive team. Pilots must always work closely with other pilots on the flight deck, as well as with air traffic controllers and flight dispatchers. They need to be able to coordinate actions and provide clear and honest feedback.
Years of aviation have shown us that hierarchies in airlines should always remain relatively flat, where communication flows freely despite rank/position. There shouldn’t be a stigma associated with observing and reporting a discrepancy from a superior rank. Communication and cross-checking of each other’s work throughout the team has always had a positive effect on the level of flight safety, and this is party responsible for making the airline industry one of the safest of the high risk industries.
4. Decisiveness & Quick Thinking Skills
Time and resource constraints, as well as other pressure-adding factors like turbulence, can make decision-making challenging for pilots.
When pilots encounter obstacles or emergencies, a check-list is used, containing the specific procedures to follow in order to overcome the situation. However, not all parts of the emergency check-list explicitly state the actions that a pilot needs to perform. It’s not all encompassing.
Pilots have to always keep a cool head despite knowing that making the wrong decision can result in a fatal outcome. They not only have to consistently make the right decision, but also have to make their mind up quickly. Most of the time there is not one single right decision. The Pilot is required to make sound judgements to make the best possible decision for their particular circumstance.
Here are some examples of tough situations that pilots have to make decisions on:
- Diversions. Not necessarily an emergency — but more of a safety precaution. This requires coordinating with dispatch, ATC, operations at the field, passengers & maintenance (if applicable).
- Forced landings. The pilot must choose a field to commit to for landing. This incorporates considerations such as: winds, field quality, obstacles, distance, and civilisation.
- Winter operations. This involves working out where de-ice happens, what special flow control might be in effect, and managing holdover times.
- Spring and summertime. In the UK these seasons often have days with widespread thunderstorm activity. Storms generally must be avoided and sometimes require constant coordination with controllers to deviate off-route to go around them.
Tight schedules with only a small amount of time to rest and settle into their personal lives also creates a lot of additional stress, fatigue and pressure for pilots. Staying alert isn’t easy, but it’s essential.
5. The Ability To Remain Calm
It can take years of practice to apply one simple rule: don’t panic.
This often involves shifting or muting our own personality traits. When we panic our mind races, and it clouds our judgement. Rational decisions become harder and consequently, poor decisions, or indecisiveness have a detrimental impact on our performance as a pilot.
Pilots are trained to remain calm and to deal with abnormalities or emergencies in accordance with their training. Flight training is intense and intended to stress-out student pilots. This makes sure he or she is confident enough to make sound decisions and execute tasks/checklists under pressure.
If remaining calm under pressure doesn’t come naturally, you can still succeed as a pilot with enough practice and persistence. However, those most heavily affected by nerves don’t always make it through flight training.
Human factors influence the safety and efficiency of flying operations. This is covered in the core PPL(A) subject of Human Performance & Limitations.
6. Mentality — Confidence, Attitude & Self-Discipline
Many pilots go from timid student to over-confident ‘expert’ — so try to keep yourself in check! Be warned that aviation has a habit of bringing cocky pilots back down to earth. How would you respond to low-fuel events, weather scares, or sometimes worse?
How you deal with these occurrences and re-adjust your mindset defines you as a pilot. Some people will promptly walk away from flying, forever scared to fly solo again. Others will continue, but feel uncomfortable with the responsibility that comes along with a pilot certificate. But those most mentally ‘equipped’ for flying will continue, but with more maturity then before.
If you’ve never experienced overconfidence as a pilot, then that’s great. You don’t want to get ahead of yourself. You’re looking to find that middle ground, where you’re extremely well-disciplined, respect the risks involved, acknowledge your limitations — but still enjoy and embrace the challenge of being a pilot.
You might hear advice such as “fly conservatively.” That’s OK for a fresh student pilot, but a formula that’s far too simplistic pilots regularly flying light aircrafts. A conservative mindset can quickly turn into a timid one. As a pilot you have to remain confident in your own abilities and fully committed to flying in the safest possible way, despite the potential difficulties you may face.
Leadership is both an inherent personal quality and a learned set of skills. Pilots must understand both the elements of effective leadership and the consequences of poor leadership.
To achieve leadership pilots need to manage their cockpit effectively, using SOP and CRM to ensure the correct procedures are always in place. These are to be followed in every phase during flight in order to minimise the risk of errors, as well as deal with unforeseen threats that might arise.
The Pilot leads their crew. In commercial flights there are usually more than two pilots involved, a cabin crew — even paramedics. But aircrafts can only have one leader: the Captain. Therefore it’s essential that pilots set the tone for the flight by creating an atmosphere of safety, as well as commitment & passion for the role. He or she must boldly lead the crew towards success in any moments of crisis.
Importantly, leadership hinges on respect. A team will only (instinctively) follow commands if they recognise and respect that the leader improves their chances of safety & success. This naturally comes with time. As leader of an aircraft it’s important to employ and promote the following formula: Training + Performance = Safety.
8. The Ability To Understand Technical Information
Pilots need to understand how their aircraft works. There are a set of typical procedures and technical tasks that Pilot’s carry out, as follows:
- Check the overall condition of the aircraft before and after every flight
- Ensure that the fuel supply is adequate and that weather conditions are acceptable before submitting flight plans to air traffic control
- Ensure that the aircraft is balanced and below its weight limit
- Communicate with air traffic control using the aircraft’s radio system
- Operate the aircraft along planned routes, including takeoffs and landings
- Monitor engines, fuel consumption, and other aircraft systems during flight
- Respond to changing conditions, such as weather events and emergencies (e.g. an engine failure)
- Navigate the aircraft by using cockpit instruments and visual references
After landing, pilots must fill out records that document their flight and the status of the aircraft.
9. Mathematics & Creative Skills Combined
A pilot can’t be just a “numbers person” or a “creative person”. Flying requires critical thinking in both realms.
Pilots have to know the numbers for the aircraft, and have the capability to perform mental arithmetic calculations quickly on demand. But that’s not to say the calculations are particularly difficult. In fact, most of the time it’s basic addition and subtraction. Accuracy and speed is what’s really required.
Aside from the maths, pilots have to know the procedures and the checklists, how to use them appropriately, and when to deviate from them. This means thinking outside of the box in order to solve a problem, which is where the creativity part comes in.
Principles of Flight is a scientific PPL(A) subject covering all aspects of operating aircrafts in a safe manner.
10. Knowing When To Break The Rules
As touched on in #9, pilots have to know when the rules should be broken.
Pilots have strict set of rules to follow, laid out by regulating bodies and various other authoratitive sources. There are other rules, too, for example:
- Rules published by the aircraft manufacturer. In the manual these are “suggestions” that, if not followed, could kill.
- Rules outlined by a company. For example, specific company policies and procedures.
These rules are all meant to promote flight safety. But what happens in the case of an emergency?
There are many dangers that flying poses. For example, pilots that routinely fly at low levels experience the threat of bridges, trees, transmission towers, power lines and other dangerous obstacles. Whilst following the rules is ideal, breaking them is sometimes the better option, where safety — the priority — is concerned. For example, a pilot may bust an ATC clearance or company protocol because an urgent situation requires them to.
In other words you can’t be too rigid as a pilot. It’s a role that requires a high level of flexibility and thinking as well as following the disciplines/protocols outlined.
For more information on rules (or “procedures”), read up on the PPL(A) Air Law subject.