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A Pilot’s Nature

January 8, 2016  By Fred Jones

Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes fame once wrote, “ . . . airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts, and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened, it is about to.”  

I don’t think that Mr. Rooney’s assessment is completely accurate, but there are a few traits that I have noticed over the years – some we need to embrace, and others we need to resist.

Helicopter pilots and operators like to plan ahead, but the world we live in conspires against advanced planning. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was going on one job, and it was cancelled, or I was redirected to another job – sometimes en route. The work makes us adaptable to changing circumstances beyond our control, but I would argue that our ability to adapt has driven many of us to seek out tactical life scenarios. It is one thing to work well under the pressure of changing circumstances but entirely another to seek them out. Working well under pressure doesn’t necessarily mean that you should go looking for pressure. I tell my wife that I “work best under pressure.” She reminds me that I only work under pressure.

Because we expect things to change constantly, when we actually find ourselves able to relax, we tend to leave behind our inhibitions and behave in a way that is free from social limitations or any code of conduct particularly in the company of others in the industry. We work hard and we play hard.

We love the comfort of predictability when we can find it in the little things we do. My daughter caught me going through a checklist in the car recently, and she has noticed I do a walk around before departing. I had to explain to her the importance of knowing where the vehicle “AOM” was located, and how to look up the meaning of each annunciator light. I hang my keys up in the same location every day when I come home. Doesn’t everyone?


Helicopter pilots are wired to detect circumstances outside the norm. We are tuned to recognize a bearing that is worn beyond limits or be sensitive to an unusual vibration in the tail rotor. Having said that, I am not sure that makes us “introspective anticipators of trouble.” In fact, I would argue that it makes us particularly happy when we don’t detect any problems.

But I would argue most vigorously with Mr. Rooney over his statement that, “They know if something bad has not happened, it is about to.” I would suggest that nothing could be further from the truth. Helicopter pilots are a hopelessly optimistic lot. Like Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, “I don’t think the heavy stuff is gonna come down for quite a while.” We can sit in the eye of a hurricane and convince ourselves that it is starting to clear. Indeed, we are right up there with golfers for our optimism.

In fact, I believe that where we fall down as a group is in our ability to think strategically. We are so focused on thinking tactically, we sometimes miss the big picture.

Admittedly, we need to cope with our immediate circumstances, but we also need to make the time to contemplate where we want to be two years, 10 years, and 20 years from now. That means taking some time to think about our long-term priorities.

That is, how to position yourself or your business for the next phase of your life. The first step is to take the time to determine what it is you want to do. That means different things to different people, but for all of us it means making the time to determine the “destination.” I’ve never had much luck in aviation – or life – when I have an “EDA” or Estimated Destination of Arrival.

Prioritize and invest your energy in high-leverage projects. Allowing yourself to be distracted leaves you vulnerable to chasing shiny objects that pull you away from the core objective, trying to do too many things at once or equating “being busy,” with being successful. We are all pulled in a million different directions: we need to recognize those opportunities that move us closer to our strategic goals.

Finally, Mark Zuckerberg said it best: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk . . . In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

Fred Jones is the president/CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada and a regular contributor to Helicopters magazine.


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