The phrase itself also has an ominous
quality; it sounds as if bad news is on the
way, as if it’s part of a large body of research
titled “Personality Disorders: Pilots and
What Is Wrong With Them,” and subtitled
“Sure they get the job done, but why do they
have to be so tightly wrapped?” And you can
be confident that whatever else the
researchers found, one of the main things
wrong with us is our lack of interest in personality questions.
We can include this discussion under
the Light Flight heading because the pilots
of very light aircraft may not have a bunch
of engines to manage or quite so many
gauges to monitor and switches to move,
but we take to the air for most of the same
reasons as the big guys.
We have this thing about certain items being either one
way or the other. We want the landing gear, for example,
to be either “up” or “down,” not “sort of down.”
Pursuing this question, I came across a
blog kept by the girlfriend of a pilot who
emphatically agreed that he was annoyingly
“Pilots are bimodal: on/off, black/white,
good/bad, safe/unsafe, regulations/non-
regulations.” Yeah, we have this thing about
certain items being either one way or the
other. We want the landing gear, for
example, to be either “up” or “down,” not
“sort of down.” When we are going to turn
the prop over before hand-propping the
engine, we do not want to hear that the
ignition is “pretty much off.” After takeoff,
we insist on a “positive rate of climb,” not
something nebulous between “positive”
“Pilots tend to be suspicious, even a little
paranoid.” Yes, well, when scientists are
WHAT WE ARE LIKE DEEP DOWN
There are a number of studies of “Pilot
Personality,” and taken all together, we actually come off looking pretty good. Because
various online sources tend to quote without
attribution, it’s hard to say where these particular descriptions come from. But let’s get
down to specifics (a very pilot-like thing to
do, to judge from all of the studies), together
with some observations.
“Pilots tend to be reality-based.” Most
pilots would not have a problem with that
statement. But what does it even mean? If
pilots are different from the general population in this way, then by necessity most
people are non-reality-based. Does that
mean they hallucinate? Do they try to buy
subway tickets from New York to London,
or try to explain GPS to their dogs?
writing about you in journals, it makes you
think people are talking about you.
Outside the cockpit, this quality shows up
in the tendency of many pilots to set two or
three alarm clocks—even though he or she
may generally wake up before any of the
alarms go off. That’s actually Plan B. Plan A is
to set three alarm clocks and stay up all night.
“Pilots like ‘toys’—boats, cars, motorcycles, big watches, etc.” Whoa. Those are not
toys. Those are necessities. You cannot live
without air, food, water, shelter, boats, cars,
motorcycles, and so on. You could try, but it
would be some sort of horrible, zombie halflife. You couldn’t call it living.
ON THE OTHER HAND…
Let’s make a valiant effort to look at the other
side. On the “reality-based” question, how
reality-based can we be if we climb into a craft
and take it thousands of feet into the sky even
though it is so frail that it can be blown over
and damaged by a strong wind? How well
plugged-in are we to the world around us?
Actually, we may be reality-based—
whatever that means—but at its heart, flying is
not a rational activity. Not counting those
who fly solely because they are paid to—and
I have never actually known anybody like
that—we fly for reasons we find hard to put
into words. You hear about the spirit of aviation, the magic of flight, of having a passion
to fly. Those are not hardheaded, rationalist,
For most of us, flying is time-consuming,
difficult, frequently dirty, often noisy, sometimes dangerous, and always expensive. How
do personality researchers account for that?
Maybe we are incurable romantics. Maybe we
just want to be like the guy in the drawing.
Dave Matheny, EAA 184186, is a private pilot and an FAA
ground instructor. He has been flying light aircraft, including ultralights, for 30 years. He accepts commissions for his
art and can be reached at DaveMatheny3000@yahoo.com.