CEO of the Cockpit #13:
Professional Courtesy

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It's gonna be an extra-long layover for AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit this holiday season. Lots of time to contemplate what it takes to be a professional and you can bet it ain't necessarily what

This December I find myself beached, grounded, laid-up. In the life of an airline pilot, you have to expect that some time or other you'll find yourself out of the game for a month or two as you nurse yourself back to health from whatever malady you are bound to suffer from.

Many pilots have heart bypasses. Some battle cancer to a standstill and return to the line while others spend a month or two getting over tropical diseases that they contracted in the military while defending our freedom on foreign shores.

Me? I tripped over a parking curb while exiting Hooters during a layover in Daytona Beach and broke my frickin' ankle. Just imagine me, writhing in pain, smelling of hot wings, and sounding like a mournful cow as I moan my disbelief to my co-pilot and other Hooters patrons in the lot.

I almost wish I could attribute my clumsiness to a heroic intake of beer. More's the pity, I was beer-free and only swamped with sweetened iced tea when I made my pratfall over the parking stoppie thing. So much for becoming an airline legend; I am now an airline layover joke.

So today I face the Christmas season firmly ensconced in my La-Z-Boy recliner in my home's TV room watching infomercials, swallowing pain pills by the score, and awaiting my fragile metatarsals recovery to a firmer, healthier state. My cast, signed by groups of co-pilots that were almost giddy with the prospect of my being beached for a few bid periods, had such helpful supportive advice as: "Early retirement, the only answer!" "Buy more power tools!" and "Get well soon the girls from Hooters!"

My 14-year-old nephew Gabe was over with a couple of his pals and they were hogging my television playing the "Death to Saddam Sniper Game" on their Xbox. So far, they had been unsuccessful in offing the creep and had accidentally gunned down employees at two baby-milk factories and a score of UN relief workers. Apparently, that Saddam is one slinky cyber baddie. Still, Gabe and the rest hadn't given up and were blasting away.

A Visit from the Get-Well-Soon Crowd

My last co-pilot, Mark, who had been on the layover with me and had fully experienced what will no doubt be referred to in the future as the "Hooters Incident," was over with a gift from the guys at my base. It was a book and a videotape entitled: "How to Look Like and Act Like a Real Airline Pilot." It was authored by what had to be the prettiest-looking airline pilot I've ever seen. The guy pictured on the cover of the book and the video box had his impressive airline jacket on. It was festooned with more pins, awards, wings, and decorations than one of those obnoxious spirited servers at T.G.I. Friday's.

This guy looked like the poster boy for sincere and honest. He had the look that all airline managements worship blind company-oriented malleability and professionalism. Damn, this guy looked good! I couldn't see for sure, but I suspect he had a really nice heavy wristwatch and, dare I suspect, a ring from some military academy or other?

"Here," said Mark. "Everybody thought you could use a little remedial course in being a professional airline pilot, so we chipped in on this course for you. Please pay close attention to the chapter on layover safety."

Gabe and them had given up on killing Saddam and had slipped my gift tape into the VCR. It began with our erstwhile author on-screen talking about having a professional attitude and how everything you did as an airline pilot reflected on the company, your family and society as a whole.

Wow! What a load!

Gabe, misunderstanding me, said, "Yeah, uncle, I hear ya!"

No, I didn't mean that what this guy is saying is a "load" in a scatological sense, Gabe. I mean that if this good-looking professional airline pilot feels that he has to carry his job around with him 24/7, then he has quite a load to carry on his no-doubt tanned, aerobically trained shoulders.

Nobody should have to wear their job all the time. Even the president has a private moment or two with whatever intern is handy and willing. I'm sure the Pope himself kicks back from time to time and, in the privacy of the Papal residence, watches an episode of "Wheel" shouting out vowels in Latin to his glowing screen.

By now even Mark was showing a little interest in what I was saying and, putting down my free Hooters Girls Calendar that the restaurant in DAB had given me along with a Hooters Hat (no doubt in an attempt to forestall a slip-and-fall tort), he said, "Hey, didn't you write an article on professionalism for our airline's pilot newsletter?"

It is very kind of you to remember, Mark. I did write an article about that subject for our safety magazine, "Blue Side Up!" a couple of years ago when I was going through my "I can make a difference" phase. Luckily, that phase passed, but the article remains. Gabe, how about turning that TV off and getting the copy of "How to be a Pro Pilot" out from under the cat box over there and reading it to Mark and your pals? I'd read it myself, but evidently, six pain pills are too many if you want to focus your eyes. I'll let Gabe's reading finish up our time this month while I slip into a drug-induced Hooters dream ...

How To Be a Pro Pilot
Why I'd Rather Fly With Hawkeye ...

Excerpted from "Blue Side Up!" the safety magazine of a committed airline.

There has been a lot of talk around the airline lately about professionalism and such. This is a worthy subject, but I suspect that both the company and many of our line check-airmen are going for the "sizzle" instead of the "steak" when they talk about how we throttle-pushers purport ourselves.

To be sure, there is nothing more important to an airline pilot than his or her professional image. This is true for two reasons. First, how we act and look is important to the flying public. Second, a professional look and attitude is largely why we get paid the big bucks. Show up in a clean uniform with shined shoes and the world pays you well. Show up in dirty jeans, flip-flops and a T-shirt that says "Eat More Boogers" and, unless you are a drug dealer or a VJ on MTV, your pay will no doubt suffer.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with showing up on time dressed properly to go to work, there is more to being a professional airline pilot than wearing the big funny hat at "hat bases" (a "hat base" being any station where there is a chief pilot who can yell at you for not wearing the silly thing) and smelling like an Irish Spring instead of a Scottish Bog. There are much more important things to the aviation world than that.

Take, for example, the off-the-air, but syndicated-to-the-nth-degree, sitcom "MASH." This show displays both extremes of what is considered professional, using a group of people that make great golfers but questionable pilots: doctors.

Not that all physicians make bad pilots. Many of them can both practice medicine and successfully ply the skies in their Bonanzas with equal verve. No, the reason I bring up "MASH" is because of the contrast between the characters of Captain Hawkeye Pierce and Major Frank Burns.

Let's look at the characters through the eyes of the Army Brass. You'd have to agree that if you put Frank and Hawkeye out on a parade ground for a flag ceremony that Frank would look much more professional.

For one thing, he would probably be wearing his uniform properly, including a shiny combat helmet. Hawkeye, on the other hand, if he managed to show up at all, would probably be wearing some sort of dirty bathrobe. He would be reeking of homemade gin and his hair would be out of control.

Talking with both characters, the Brass (read: airline management) would be impressed with Frank's manner of deferential speech and his commitment to the Army's (airline's) mission statement. Speaking with Hawkeye would be painful for the Brass (management) because he would be less respectful to their authority and would probably bitch about operational stuff like keeping his patients alive, while ignoring the "big picture."

Dealing with Frank makes any management group comfortable because they know exactly what to expect from him. Dealing with Hawkeye makes them uncomfortable for the same yet opposite reason. The question though is a simple one which guy would you want to perform emergency surgery on you? The good-looking, "by the book" Frank, or the outrageous, yet very competent, Hawkeye?

Putting these characters into an airline framework, I have to say that I'd rather fly with Hawkeye any day. In any contest of substance over style, the Hawkeye's of the airline world make better pilots. Shined shoes, uniform jackets free of lint and cat hair and steely-eyed good grooming make for good airline advertisements but they don't equate to good stick-and-rudder skills.

While there are some pilots that can pull off both the appearance and the behavior of a skilled, professional pilot, many of the better ones look more like Columbo than James Bond.

Having established that looks don't count when it comes to flying I'll include a short list of what I think a real, professional airline pilot is all about.

A professional airline pilot:

  • Shows up on time ready to go to work. Nothing shows a lack of professionalism in sharper contrast than not being there ready to do the job.

  • Does the job. A professional pilot doesn't take shortcuts with checklists and other mundane parts of the job.

  • Thinks for himself or herself. Taking advice from all areas of the company and the government, the professional pilot knows that the decisions are his and his alone and he isn't afraid to rely on his own experience and background to make them.

  • Knows when to let go. A professional airline pilot isn't the kind to have "captain" on her mailbox at home. Once on the ground, she is able to let go and be a non-airline pilot for her days off.

  • Treats other pilots like the professionals they are. A good, professional airline pilot knows that if he pisses off his crew, he is all alone out there. He respects their talents and listens to them.

  • Has a sense of humor and of the absurd. A professional airline pilots realizes that she won't be doing this forever and takes the time to enjoy the job, the life and the money.

  • Makes the tough choices. Given the choice between doing what the company says to do and what is safe, a professional airline pilot picks safe every single time.

Gabe had finished reading and Mark nudged me back awake. I shifted my cast on my chair's leg rest and had to accept Mark's opinion that, while I had no future as a professional writer, maybe I could get a post-airline retirement job as a bouncer at Hooters.

As the barbiturate fog once again descended on my mind, numbing my aching ankle and putting me into my "happy place," I bade my faithful co-pilot goodbye and dozed off into my favorite dream of 777 layovers, cold beer, happy Hooters girls, and sunny-warm skies.

With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.