THE PROFESSION OF AIRLINE PILOT
by Alex Paterson
In order to develop an insight into the Profession of Airline Pilot, it is
important to realise that a professional pilot's primary task is to fly the
aircraft under his command from the departure airport to destination safely.
This fact cannot be over emphasised. After this primary objective has been
addressed, the myriad of other important considerations such as operating the
aircraft economically, on time, smoothly, quickly, efficiently etc can then be
tackled. But unless the aircraft is operated safely it ultimately cannot be any
of the latter. The fact is, airlines that do not operate their aircraft as
safely as possible eventually 'lose' aircraft and airlines that lose aircraft do
not usually survive in the market place and as such are not viable.
As with any form of human endeavour, the ability of pilots to perform this
primary task competently is a complex distillation of many diverse and often
competing factors. Some of these factors include:
That the pilots employed by an airline be of high calibre in that they possess a
competent standard of basic aeronautical skills. These skills include basic
flying ability (manipulative skill) and cockpit management skills which are
fundamental to effective crew co-ordination and a safe decision making process.
That pilots are prepared to exercise these aeronautical skills in a responsible
(professional) manner and as such display what is known in the profession as
'good airmanship'. In order for this to occur professional pilots must possess
two character traits:-
'INTEGRITY' meaning honesty such that the pilot does not delude him/herself
about the significance of any information or clues that come his/her way and;
'STRENGTH OF CHARACTER' such that he/she is able to resist external 'pressures'
to modify his/her operational decisions in the light of commercial
That pilots are able to operate in an employment environment where they receive
the active support of senior airline management for such things as proper
aircrew training, safe operating procedures and the pilots' operational decision
making process. In other words, active management support of their pilots'
ability to operate their aircraft in a professional (safe) manner. For this to
take place, the authority pertaining to the position of 'Captain' must be
recognised and actively supported by airline management.
But fundamental to a safe airline operation is a system that ensures that pilots
are able to exercise their professional skills free of commercial pressures. In
summary, a system that enshrines basic pilot rights within an employment
contract and as such ensures 'pilot independence'.
These qualities combined together begin to define the position of 'Professional
All these factors are crucial to a safe airline operation because the pilot in
command of an aircraft is in a unique position. Not only is he the only person
aware of all the factors and operational constraints pertaining to his
particular flight, but ultimately he is the only person on location qualified to
deal in a safe manner with the myriad of problems that invariably arise
throughout the course of a flight. To summarise, an aircraft captain is the only
person capable of managing his particular flight and as such his primary role in
an airline is as the manager of his particular flight.
To quote an address to pilots from the former President of the Australian
Federation of Air Pilots, Captain Dick Holt (now retired), who said of the
Position of Airline Pilot:
"Through his seat at the front of the aircraft flow the efforts of thousands of
people who provide the means by which he carries out his task. However, it is an
undeniable fact that:
His is the final responsibility.
His is the ultimate decision in any course of action.
He can never be complacent.
He must be humble; the elements keep him so.
He must prove himself to his peers over and over again throughout his career, or
seek another job.
He must exude a quiet but magnetic confidence in his own ability and his
He must create an aura of efficiency and capability such that the passengers
stream on and off the aircraft without even a thought about what is occurring at
the front of the aircraft.
Finally, he must be ready during every second of his working life to defeat the
ultimate emergency he may encounter at any time."
These responsibilities are recognised in the definition of his title of
"Captain", which means "in command" and as such legally the final responsibility
for the safety of the aircraft rests solely with the pilot in command. 3
It is these professional responsibilities that not only make pilots "Sui
Generis", but also worth every cent of their pay and conditions. 4
In a sense, pilots are the stewards of an airline's three most valuable assets;
it's passengers, it's aircraft (worth up to $200+ million each) and the public's
confidence in the corporate identity of the airline. As such, unpalatable though
it might be to some airline managers and civic leaders who think "pilots are
just glorified bus drivers", the most important people in any successful airline
are its pilots, for on their backs rides the very survival of the airline.
NOTE: This article is an extract from 'A Pilots Perspective of the Australian
Pilots' Dispute 1989' by Alex Paterson.
1. DEFINITIONS: Source: Oxford Dictionary (1991)
PROFESSION: n. a vocation or calling, especially one that involves some branch
of advanced learning or science.
SCIENCE: n. an organized body of knowledge on a subject.
2. It is the core ethic of the profession of airline pilot that the operational
decisions of the pilot in command must always err on the side of safety. This
ethic defines of the concept of 'GOOD AIRMANSHIP'.
3. The legal position of the pilot in command of an aircraft is defined under
Civil Aviation Regulation (CAR) 224 which states that "the pilot in command
shall have final authority as to the disposition of the aircraft."
4. The title "Sui Generis" , which means 'unique', was used to describe the
position of Airline Pilot during a 1954 Arbitration Court decision.