Mark W. Rosenker- Chairman- National Transportation Safety Board’s opening remarks at Bombardier’s Safety Standdown 2007 didn’t fail to grab attention: “Don’t confuse getting paid to fly with being a professional pilot. Professionalism has absolutely nothing to do with the size of a paycheck or the size of your airplane.” For a group of people who endure significant training and sacrifice to fly a passenger on even the most humble aircraft- ...

Dave Higdon  |  01st March 2009
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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It’s not about the paycheck!

Mark W. Rosenker- Chairman- National Transportation Safety Board’s opening remarks at Bombardier’s Safety Standdown 2007 didn’t fail to grab attention: “Don’t confuse getting paid to fly with being a professional pilot. Professionalism has absolutely nothing to do with the size of a paycheck or the size of your airplane.”

For a group of people who endure significant training and sacrifice to fly a passenger on even the most humble aircraft- pilots do make their share of human mistakes… mistakes often too human to understand. Part of this stems from the inherently unnatural nature of flying; most of us weren’t hatched with feathers and a beak; we had to earn our wings.

No matter how high or low we fly in aviation- some of us make mistakes that seem incomprehensibly simple in a realm fraught with inherent complexities. But don’t just take our word for it. Two government websites offer some reading guaranteed to jolt you with the simplicity of- and cumulative nature of the error chains pilots make that factor into far too many flying accidents and incidents.

One site - NTSB Accident Database & Synopses ( - has accumulated probable-cause findings and factual reports assembled by the NTSB. The other comes from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration- which operates the anonymously sourced Aviation Safety Reporting Service (ASRS) -

Replete throughout both are hundreds of reports in which a touch of professionalism might have helped break the chain of errors that end a flight unpleasantly.

As a pilot who’s flown hundred of hours on business- but who has never held a job that paid him to fly- Rosenker’s remark strikes very close to home – and is highly appreciated- as well. “Don’t confuse getting paid to fly with being a professional pilot.” Maybe it was the immersion approach taken to earn this writer’s wings- or the amount of time spent around pilots either paid to fly- or who flew to support a non-flying paycheck- but being natural about- and naturally precise in my flying procedures is important to me.

Every time a flight ends successfully- flying as professionally as possible helped assure that success.

“Professionalism has absolutely nothing to do with the size of a paycheck or the size of your airplane.” Chairman Rosenker is clear on the fact that professionalism has nothing to do with position- institution or job title.

At that same Standdown that Rosenker was pushing his message home- Capt. Gene Cernan- U.S.N. (retired) and Commander- Apollo 17 was adding to it: “Professionalism is a mindset- a state of mind- a commitment to being the best… anything less is unacceptable!”

Professionalism. Just as Chairman Rosenker points out what it is not- Cernan- another Standdown speaker summed up what “professionalism” really is: a state of mind and action that has everything to do with internal motivation for self-satisfaction’s sake. Professionalism- Cernan told the 600-plus pilots assembled- does not depend on any notice or acknowledgement when you succeed.

According to Cernan- the last human to walk on the Moon- professionalism as a personal trait- an individual attitude- “breeds a culture of excellence.” That trait- he noted- is “an absolute requirement of an inherently risky business. There’s no place for complacency.”

You need only review a few of the CallBack or NTSB reports to see stark examples of failures of professionalism. Rosenker highlighted three in his introductory remarks:

“In October of 2004- a Bombardier CL600 operated by Pinnacle Airlines crashed on a Part 91 repositioning flight. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be- in part ‘the pilots’ unprofessional behavior- deviation from standard operating procedures- and poor airmanship- which resulted in an in-flight emergency from which they were unable to recover…’

“The following week- a Jetstream turboprop- doing business as a scheduled Part 121 flight- crashed on approach into Kirksville- Missouri. This CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) accident claimed 13 lives. The Probable Cause statement cited the pilots’ unprofessional behavior during the flight.

“(In July 2007) the Safety Board deliberated on the 2006 Comair regional jet accident in Lexington- Kentucky- in which the crew took off from the wrong runway- killing 49 people. We concluded that non-adherence to FARs- company procedures- and checklist discipline- set the stage for the accident.”

Rosenker continued- “We have had an extraordinary safety record in corporate aviation the past few years… but- my colleagues on the Board and I are disturbed that all three of these accidents – and several others in business aviation during this same time period – have all involved a less than professional approach to airmanship.”

“Professionalism-” Cernan expanded- “is an outgrowth of commitment- knowledge- discipline- courage- passion- judgment and skill.”

Taken as individual points- each consists of several elements working together to achieve the professional state sought. For example- Cernan noted- “passion” is an absolute necessity that drives a pilot to relish the excitement of flying- which drives the desire to excel and the discipline which underpins professionalism.

“Knowledge” is also fundamental as another pillar in the foundation of professionalism- and while training is important- exposure to the real world is imperative to the accumulation of knowledge. Similarly- “courage” is required in order to accept the responsibility of flying; courage to respect the challenge of an unforgiving environment- and the courage to recognize that mistakes will happen. Conversely- it’s not courageous to be stupid.

“Judgment” is a vital element in safe flight- one that training and discipline can inform but not replace.

“It’s as important to know that no matter how good you know you are at what you do- you’re smart enough to know you can get better-” Cernan said. The professional aviator possesses the inherent commitment to improve- to learn from every experience and add that knowledge to the mix that produces excellent judgment.

“Quite simply- professionalism means doing the right things- even when no one is watching-” said Rosenker. In the Comair accident Rosenker referenced- the crew missed many clues that should have alerted them to their position at the departure end of the wrong runway.

For example- the desired runway had operating lights; the runway they mistakenly took was not lighted. Three cockpit indicators showed a compass heading consistent with the wrong runway – not the desired runway. Despite these significant mismatches- the crew lined up and started the take-off roll- realizing too late that they were on the wrong runway.

Said Rosenker of this accident- “in spite of all the cues that the Comair crew had when taxiing for takeoff- we recommended that all Part 91K- 121- and 135 operators establish procedures requiring all crewmembers on the flight deck to positively confirm and cross-check the airplane’s location at the assigned departure runway before crossing the hold short line for takeoff.

“I mention this because even with all the information provided to pilots via cockpit displays publications and air traffic controllers- the final line of defense is you- the pilot.”

“Many times- the initiation of the chain of events that leads to corporate aviation accidents begins before the aircraft even leaves the ground-” Rosenker highlighted- and backed up citing a number of other accidents that occurred- ultimately- because of improper preparation before the flight crew even started an engine.

Properly preparing for a flight- for the entire flight- is among the simpler marks of a professional.

“Inadequate preflight preparation can lead to an unhappy ending- and our files are too full with these types of accidents-” Rosenker added. “For example- in February 2005- a Challenger CL600 ran off the departure end of runway 6 at Teterboro Airport at a ground speed of about 110 knots… and into a building. The two pilots were seriously injured. The cabin aide- eight passengers- and one person in the building received minor injuries.

“The probable cause was the pilots’ failure to ensure the airplane was loaded within weight-and-balance limits and their attempt to take off with the center of gravity well forward of the forward takeoff limit- which prevented the airplane from rotating at the intended rotation speed.”

Weight-and-balance stand as one of the fundamentals of flight that instructors drill into students starting with their primary training – and continuing right through the top ratings. Weight-and-balance can be so critical in some aircraft that performing both start-of-flight and end-of-flight calculations are critical – something a professional attitude will catch.

Rosenker continued- “Two years later- a Citation jet departed controlled flight and impacted terrain while attempting to land back at Van Nuys Airport in California. The Part 91 positioning flight was en route to pick up paying passengers- and the two professional pilots on board were killed.

Witnesses reported that- during the preflight- the co-pilot loaded bags into the left front baggage compartment- but they did not see him latch or lock it. A few minutes later- the airplane was started up- taxied out- and took off. Witnesses at the end of the runway said that the baggage door was open- as the airplane was climbing about 200 feet above the ground- and they said it was ‘slow’.

“One of the pilots radioed that they wanted to return to land at the Van Nuys Airport. The witnesses observed the airplane turn slightly left- descend- turn steeply to the right- and impact the ground. Examination of the front left baggage door indicated that the key mechanism was in the unlocked position-” Rosenker said. “If some of you are cutting corners on your pre-flight preparation out of complacency- or to please your passengers- then you are playing with fire.”

He added- “Professionalism in a mindset that includes hallmarks such as precise checklist usage- precise callouts- precise compliance with SOPs and regulations- including sterile cockpit compliance.”

Getting burned is not only unprofessional; it’s risking the aircraft and everyone on board!

To the pilot- every success shares an accompanying sense of accomplishment with all the other successful flights: a safe flight- memorable not because of its unmemorable nature- but a flight memorable for its level of preparation- for hitting the marks correctly – and for handling any unexpected elements with the same sense of professionalism and calm as all those mundane aspects.

Whatever sense of success or pride of accomplishment will generally be a solely solitary experience. The people in the back of a business jet aircraft generally won’t know how to recognize professionalism in flying – although they may be able to identify the absence of the trait.

And so to pick up on our usual concluding sentiment- in the end- one of the highest complements a pilot can receive from passengers is a comment that the flight was “uneventful.”

Assuring the highest percentage of ‘uneventful’ flights requires thinking professionally- preparing professionally and flying professionally. Only you may know of your efforts; but the satisfaction of knowing should be enough.

You can hear lectures and attend workshops on this and other safety related issues in business aviation at Bombardier’s annual Safety Standdown. Find out more from


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