I enjoy freaking my friends out because I can see someone with a certain characteristic and suddenly my pilot radar activates. I quietly gather clues and enough information to conclude that my radar was correct: That’s a pilot. My friends are in awe when I’m usually correct, and then I’ll verify by asking the target, “So, what do you fly?” They’ll raise an eyebrow and ask how I knew they were a pilot, but I don’t like to reveal my secrets. Oftentimes, the clues are so overwhelming, I can ask, “Who do you fly for?” Sure, the old joke goes: How do you know if someone is a pilot? They tell you. But, it’s more fun figuring it out on your own.
The Private Pilot
They’re the easiest to spot. No matter the age, they have the most enthusiasm about aviation. Their love is pure and their motivation to be around aviation is endless. They read aviation publications like Plane & Pilot and light up when someone asks about their flying. Since they passed the student pilot phase, many have already been weeded out from the crowd. Many people say they want to be a pilot, but most don’t obtain the actual license. Private pilots have officially entered the pilot herd, and from here forward, they start maneuvering to other pilot corrals. Many pilots will stay here, loving everything about being in the air, and wouldn’t want to ruin it by being told where and when to fly. For others, they won’t be able to imagine not living without departing the earth on a regular basis, and getting paid for it. Either way, these pilots buy a pair of Ray-Bans and are constant optimists. Every birthday gift is aviation-related, and aviation magazine companies have their name on every list.
The Instrument Pilot
These flyers are slightly more confident than the private pilot because this is one of the hardest licenses to earn. Pilots at this level are still learning how to fly and then they add another level of skill and safety by being able to purposely fly in the clouds. They have red marks and indentations on their face from “Foggles.” This level of pilot can sometimes be bogged down by overconfidence in the beginning, but usually one or two scares in the clouds with icing or low-visibility approaches puts a healthy fear into their mindset. These pilots go from loving aviation to loving and respecting aviation. Those who don’t give it the respect it deserves are often discussed in the newspapers and NTSB reports. Even though they’re able to fly in the clouds, they have enough respect for Mother Nature that they prefer to fly around them. These pilots have coffee tables overflowing with aviation magazines, but are still detail-oriented and self-disciplined. If the weather is bad, they’ll know what it’s like up there, so they’ll stay safely on the ground.
The Commercial Pilot
No turning back from here. These pilots have made a commitment, but they’re at the point in their training where they might need to be committed. With the magic number of minimum hours raised to 1,500 for even the commuter airlines, I recognize the signs of a pilot with about 500 hours. Their savings accounts are empty and they’re questioning their career path while pondering how long a bank robbery conviction would stay on their record. It’s just a rating in the sequence so they can take the next step, but it’s nice to say you’re a commercial pilot. These pilots have to keep reminding their parents that a commercial pilot isn’t an airline pilot. The first set of bags will appear under their eyes and temptations from the outside world will push hard on pilots during this phase. By this point, these pilots don’t have enough hours to get hired anywhere, but too many hours to let go. These pilots are holding on to the dream by a thread, but that thread is unbreakable. They’ll try ag-spray piloting, banner towing, traffic reporting and nonprofit volunteer flying. Somewhere along their timeline, they’ll have to fit in that pesky bachelor’s degree, too. At some point, between private and commercial, they’ll own a manual transmission car, not necessarily by choice.
The Multi-Engine Pilot
Walking with a straighter back by having stronger calf and thigh muscles, these pilots have learned that multi-engine doesn’t necessarily mean safer. Stomping on the rudder pedal on the good engine, repeatedly, will increase leg, as well as brain muscle strength. Grabbing a fistful of throttles is thrilling while going higher and faster, which pulls the ego a bit higher, too. Having a lighter wallet will allow you to climb that much higher. A new addiction to wanting jets behind you begins. These pilots have a leather jacket somewhere in their closet and a gym membership to improve those leg muscles.
The Certified Flight Instructor
The new instructor is enthusiastic and hasn’t yet had their first bowel movement in their pants when a student unintentionally tries to repeatedly kill them. Experienced flight instructors are the sharpest pilots in the industry. They’re able to mind-meld and determine which idiotic move their student will perform next. The best pilots I’ve met are professional flight instructors. They have chosen this path out of the reward of teaching and they know everything there is to know about their chosen field. They’ll admit they didn’t do it for the money. Their closet is full of golf shirts (although they don’t golf), khaki pants with grease stains and lots of underwear.
This is what all those other steps were about. This seat is the desire and the most important yoke to get behind while in the pilot pipeline. Once you’re here for the first time making money, you’ve made it. This is where you start your pilot worthiness. Hours and operational experience in the Part 135 world will open doors for you. When the phone rings at 0200 and it’s -22º F and you’re asked to fly an air ambulance flight, you’ll be there in 10 minutes with a smile on. And, you’ll do it again and again…for years. You’ll wake up in a shack on an airport in North Dakota and see your captain sleeping in the La-Z-Boy next to you. As the drool creeps down the captain’s chin, you’ll have a moment where you wonder where you are and why you’re doing this, but then you’ll remember. You’ll remember this is the trade-off for being able to look down on the world for a living as you slip through the clouds and into the sunshine. These pilots chant “1500 hours” in their mind, repeatedly. They’re happy zombies, and flying is their nutrition.
The Airline Transport Pilot
Yes, it’s capitalized, unlike the others. These pilots are all the other pilots wrapped into one. They’re either flying charter or corporate, or at the airlines, and ironically, the bigger the airplane, the less they talk about aviation unprovoked. If they’re sitting captain of a heavy, they have spent tens of thousands of hours, either in the air or on the ground, embraced by aviation. When they leave the cockpit, they often need to detach from years of aviation overload. They need their quiet time. But, yes, they will still light up and can, and will, tell you endless stories about this extraordinary industry. They’re highly intelligent, but don’t spend too much time being intellectual. The work style demanded by the cockpit environment is unlike any other, so one of the side effects of aviation is learning how to deal with people on every level and in every situation. Not too many people have to sit next to their co-workers, for hours at a time, and deal with life-and-death decisions on a routine basis. One fatal mistake means hundreds die. Crew resource management isn’t just a phrase, it’s a mindset. They learn to be assertive without being aggressive, unless it comes to safety—then you’ll learn the true meaning of stubborn. These pilots have the fancy watch and the gadgets, and will splurge on one unusual hobby or item—usually involving four wheels or a boat. ATP pilots have a permanent, mischievous grin on their faces. They’ve earned it.
One trait all these pilots share is a humble confidence. They all continuously challenge themselves and test their abilities against a million variables that aviation can offer. This merited confidence transfers into a person’s character, never to be separated again. These traits become a pilot and a pilot becomes these traits.
So, the next time you’re in a room full of strangers, see if you can pick out the pilot. If they display these traits and they’re not a pilot, give them a subscription to Plane & Pilot.
Erika Armstrong has been a captain of a commercial airliner and has sat behind the front desk of a small FBO. She also was a Red Cross, cargo, international corporate and 24-hour air ambulance pilot. Find Erika on social media as A Chick in the Cockpit.