Pilots come in many variants and there are many variables regarding the traits and personality profiles. But what are the most important skills for professional pilots? There is a lot that comes into this.
Things like upbringing, country, company culture, training, and personality all impact in what way student pilots develop and what kind of pilot they end up becoming.
Of course, the learning never stops, and any pilot that considers themselves a professional should never stop improving, learning, and becoming better at the flying career they pursue, which is probably why you are here right now!
So let’s jump right in to what traits and skills pilots should aim to embody, whether you are still in training, or a seasoned veteran.
While this list might not be exhaustive, it is based on most research performed by NASA, ICAO, multiple global military bodies, the leading airlines, as well as various PhD research projects in the field of human factors, and Crew Resource Management (CRM). But first, let’s talk about the ‘Big 5’ personality traits that we use to make a map of all the different brains in the industry!
- The Big 5 Personality Traits
- The most Important Pilot Competencies
- Situational Awareness
- Emotional Intelligence and Awareness (EQ)
- Decision Making
- Remaining Calm under Pressure
- Analytical Thinking and Attention to Detail
- Positive Attitude and Reflection
The Big 5 Personality Traits
In aviation phychology, the current golden standard for the testing and profiling of the human mind is called the ‘Big 5 Personality Traits’. Initially developed by Psychologist D.W Fiske in 1949, but expanded on by scientists all over the globe.
One psychologist in particular managed to find over 4000 traits, but after much consolidation and research, they boiled it down to 5 main dimensions that make up the human mind:
- Openness to experience
To give you a rough idea of what a high and low score looks like for each trait, have a look at the table below. On the left is the lowest score, on right is the highest score for that specific trait.
Keep in mind that no score in particular makes you have a ‘better’ mind, but certain personality traits and careers have more synergy than others, as suggested by these research projects.
These 5 combined can explain all characteristics, personalities, and behaviour of anyone in the world! The test to profile someone is called the Revised NEO Personality Inventory or NEO PI-R) and is used by NASA and many other organisations, airlines and militaries to test astronauts, pilots, and many more.
It’s comparable to something like an Enneagram which some military pilots might have experience with, but it can pin down personalities with a lot more accuracy.
What do they mean, and what do we want to see for pilots within the commercial and military aviation industry? The following findings and data is based on NASA’s Langley Research Center’s report on how pilot’s score on each big 5 personality trait, and what NASA looks for when it comes to grading pilots and astronauts.
In addition, substantial research from other organisations, airlines and regulators backup this data as well. You can find the report here if you are interested and you want to read more about this research afterwards. Ready? Let’s have a look!
Most pilots tend to score high on extraversion. This indicates the amount of social confidence and desire to connect to other humans. This is usually paired with traits like being open, talkative and energetic.
While introvert pilots certainly exist, and can still portray the same profile in a cockpit, it will likely cost more effort and mental energy for them compared to pilots with high scores on extraversion.
Neuroticism indicates the amount of emotional stability or liability. High scores of neuroticism indicate a more vulnerable attitude towards negative feelings or anxiety, as well as a poorer ability to cope with them.
Most pilots scored very low on the neuroticism scale, which shows the ability to remain calm under pressure, and coping with unexpected circumstances in a steady, calm manner.
Openness means the willingness to experience new situations. Some people are closed to new experiences, or do not enjoy putting themselves in situations they have not been in before yet. For pilots, the dominant and preferred score is high on openess.
Not only is the craft of flying aircraft inherently variable, but being comfortable with that will make dealing with changing variables like weather and malfunctions much easier compared to someone that struggles with coping to change.
Agreeableness makes people trust others easier, often with more modesty and selflessness. This is a less straight forward one when it comes to aviation psychology.
Yes, we want pilots to get along, and listen to other perspectives and ideas in the cockpit. On the other hand, assertiveness often reduces for pilots who score higher on agreeableness.
The dominant range in the NASA study showed that most pilots (as well as the desired range) are situated in the slightly lower scores on agreeableness – mainly due to having to make difficult decisions and having to be assertive in flight without feeling like you are ‘stepping on someones toes’.
Conscientiousness represents a pilot’s ability to stay organised, committed, disciplined, orderly, and reliable. Persistence is deeply rooted in conscientiousness as well.
The desired range (and also the average pilot) scores high on conscientiousness, which allows them to be cautious, have high levels of awareness, and be deliberate decision makers.
Pilots should have a drive and motivation to go the extra mile when it comes to personal excellence. Knowing your aircraft, knowing the regulations, procedures, airspace and general environment. Challenging yourself to be better and improve starts with having a certain amount of conscientiousness. It can also help with staying away from complacency.
The most Important Pilot Competencies
Now all of this probably sounds a little bit intangible and impractical. So let’s connect the dots and link these to very practical concepts most pilots and other aviation personnel are very familiar with!
The green bubbles are the big 5, which all influence the most crucial skills (purple boxes) in certain ways. The purple skills are based on numerous research papers, NASA, ICAO, individual airline selection processes and more (a full reference list is attached below).
As you can see, there are quite a few to break down, let’s have a closer look!
Communication is of crucial importance in aviation. Plenty of terrible accidents have happened in the past (and will in the future), because of pilots (or air traffic controllers) not taking communication serious enough.
The reason we all got so used to reading back a clearance, or simply a QNH or callsign, is because failure to keep the crew on a shared mental model can or will eventually result in incidents.
Pilots will need to be able to have efficient barrier-free conversations where factual information should be to the point but not come across rude at the same time.
It’s a delicate balance between efficiency and respecting your colleagues. Be clear, your communications should stipulate a purpose, a when, what, how and where. Attitude and tone should not be ignored.
Situational awareness is defined by famous aviation psychologist Mica Endsley in 1995 as:
The perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.
In easier words: it’s the difference between what you think goes on around you vs what is actually going on (now and in the future). The smaller the difference, the better your situational awareness. It comes from a variety of personality traits, but is also a knowledge based skill.
This is a crucial skill for pilots, as not being aware of one’s surroundings on the ground or in the air can result in accidents and strings of errors and slips, which will not be corrected for until they actually get detected!
In case of pilots, SA mainly refers to having an accurate mental picture of (but not exhaustively):
- Time lapsed and to come
- Systems on board
- Spatial surroundings
- Autopilot modes
- Environment / Traffic / Weather / Comms
Pilots who score high on conscientiousness generally demonstrate a higher level of SA.
Emotional Intelligence and Awareness (EQ)
This is the massively overlooked one for most rational / black and white thinkers (and therefore often pilots). It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking as long as you ‘perform’ well on the technical items like hand eye coordination, analytical thinking, or acing a landing, that you are now crowned the king of pilots, but not so fast..
Emotional Intelligence and Awareness is now becoming more of a focus point for the entire industry since around the 1980’s. The cockpit tends to very much be a multicultural place, with loads of different minds, all in different emotional states, having to work together using the same company and aircraft manufacturer SOP’s.
How? By being aware of other people’s emotional state, manners, expectations, and difficulties. But not just other people’s, it’s also crucial to be aware of the emotions you as a pilot are experiencing. You could summarise it as the awareness of the entire crew’s mental state.
Emotions can be ‘contagious’, and the strongest expressed emotion within the cockpit will quite often be felt and acted out by others within the environment. Pilots who score high on extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness generally have an easier time reading their own and other’s emotions.
Another one that often gets ignored or diminishes over time in the wrong company environment or culture. History has proven that excessive cockpit hierarchy can lead to deadly accidents.
To the point where newer FO’s will simply not speak up about a critical error of the captain, even if it can result in devastating consequences, as proven by many fatal accidents in the past.
Openness and extraversion play a huge role in someone’s ability to work together in a team. Low scores on each of these give personalities that can struggle with working together in diverse, multicultural teams that gets put under pressure.
Pilots who score high on agreeableness and openness generally perform better in team based challenges.
When facing unexpected variables, pilots need to be able to act promptly and accurately. The most popular cyclic model for any decision making process within aviation looks like this:
- Situation: Recognise what is going on and identify what needs dealing with. Doing this step without accuracy basically screws up the entire process, which is why this is tied to the pilot’s amount of situational awareness.
- Options: Essentially compiling a mental list of options for any appropriate actions. The speed at which this mental list is generated usually dictates the quality of the decision, as more options result in a more appropriate pick for the situation.
- Choose: Pick the most effective option.
- Act: Carry out the actual steps to complete the chosen plan.
- Evaluate: Did I make the right decision, what are the considerations now that the decision is made?
For smooth decision making, we are looking for a pilot with low scores on neuroticism, high scores on conscientiousness, and a high score on openness and a lower score on agreeableness.
Remaining Calm under Pressure
This is where neuroticism comes in. Pilots with high scores in neuroticism will find it more difficult to remain calm when shit hits the fan. Some personality traits will have a more natural tendency to follow Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) without getting too emotional while doing so.
That isn’t to say that getting emotions involved is always a bad thing, the majority of them just tend to get in the way of making accurate judgments and decisions. A good pilot will still listen, and value the opinions of other crew onboard, while others get tunnel vision and fixate, anxiously dismissing relevant data!
Analytical Thinking and Attention to Detail
Conscientiousness has a massive impact on the ability to be punctual, knowing your aircraft, having an accurate picture of the world around you and its smaller details, and interacting with it in the most appropriate way. We can summarise this as attention to detail and being inquisitive.
Attention to detail can make the difference between the wrong or correct final approach track, the correct DH setting, detecting an error your PM or PF’s cockpit setup, and thousands of other relevant items that are crucial in the day to day operation for a VFR or IFR flight.
While training and testing can take the burden for some of it, personalities will have a big influence on someones ability to focus and expand attention at the right time. It’s a fine balance that needs to be managed at all times.
Analytical thinking is not possible without a certain degree of attention to detail. Acquiring all relevant variables, and then using both knowledge based systems as well as being able to think on your feet, is what makes a pilot efficient and information processing, which is crucial in the day to day job. Openness is also required to avoid confirmation and automation biases.
Discipline is a very broad (and sometimes vague) term that actually has multiple facets of relevance for pilots. It is a pilots behaviour in relation to the rules of conduct, his or her willpower to operate an airframe safely, having a professional attitude, and following SOP’s appropriately.
Aviation discipline can be trained and is not a fixed personality trait. Having the right company and industry culture is crucial, and dealing with differences in culture can be a challenge. For instance, in some cultures, having to wear a uniform is a topic for jokes and ridicule. In others, it’s a tool to embody a professional attitude.
The culture you’re in as a pilot shapes your perspective on various topics within your organisation, but also outside of it. If you’re used to coming to work with holes in your clothes, you’re probably not going to see the value of a uniform, as it does not synergise with the way you’re wired.
A lack of discipline can foster negative or hazardous attitudes if not corrected for, the main ones talked about in aviation human factors all the time these days are:
- Anti-authority (consciously or unconsciously ignoring rules and SOP’s)
- Impulsiveness (doing before thinking)
- Invulnerability (feeling like nothing bad can happen to you)
- Macho attitudes (watch-this actions)
- Resignation (my actions won’t matter)
- Complacency (lack of care)
Pilots who score higher on conscientiousness generally have a higher level of discipline.
Positive Attitude and Reflection
Another grossly overlooked trait by some. A positive attitude within the cockpit can work miracles on both yourself and other crew or even ATC. Any career will come with its difficulties. You will make mistakes, you might forget certain things, you might give the ‘wrong’ answer on an interview or checkride and not get the recommendation or signature you need, but there’s always the option to learn from our mistakes and strive to be better in the future.
So what does all of this have to do with anything? Loads! Blaming others, making excuses, or pointing fingers for things you don’t want to be blamed for, might feel like the easier thing to do for some. However, it won’t help yourself to grow and improve, and actually increase your competence in your craft.
How you relate to things around you, whether it’s your company, your colleagues, students, the aircraft you fly, determines how you treat them and will affect you in some way or another.
It’s not just about you though, you egomaniac! Helping others grow with you is just as important. Help someone out, take the time to explain topics to colleagues who might struggle, contribute to a safer just culture. Don’t ridicule people who are trying to get to your level, elevate others without expecting anything in return, it will pay off in the long run.
Pilots who score high on agreeableness and openness generally find it easier to constructively self-criticise and reflect.
Different aviation organisations and companies have very different ideas and definitions for leadership. But usually it comes down to either your effectiveness to complete the mission, or influencing colleagues by giving them purpose, direction and motivation.
Inspiring a shared vision is probably the most important thing when it comes to leadership in aviation. Whether you are a HEMS captain, helicopter fire fighter, an airline pilot, an air traffic controller, or ground crew.
At the end of the day, we are all contributing to the aviation industry in our own way. Being able to setup others around towards the same goal is what separates a good leader, from a poor one. This quality ties well with emotional intelligence.
You won’t be a good leader unless you understand the perspectives and emotions from both yourself and others around you. After inspiring a shared vision, enable others to act and encourage them to push themselves to the max.
Pilots who score high on openness, low on neuroticism, high on extraversion, and high on conscientiousness generally find it easier to be a competent leader.
While confidence can be a slippery slope, it is definitely a requirement for all of the above to truly make a difference. Some personality traits are grounded in confidence, while others struggle with it. In order to be a competent and efficient pilot, confidence is an absolute requirement
Over confidence and a lack of self-reflection and openness is also a contributor to excessive cockpit gradient, which still a huge issue in today’s industry, highlighted by this accident report that came was published recently for India Express Flight IX-1344 from Dubai, landing at Kozhikode on Aug 7th 2020, which overran the runway and fell into a valley where 18 people died, including the pilots.
Have a look at the highlighted AAIB remarks in the screenshot below, which stipulates cockpit gradient and a first officer that did not feel comfortable challenging the captain. This is obviously not the only cause, but that does not mean it should be ignored. Addressing this cultural issue would be a very cost efficient variable to address and will have a huge impact on yearly fatalities.
Pilots who score very low on agreeableness and neuroticism tend to have a higher risk of being overconfident.
Overconfidence can lead to complacency and a poor company and cockpit culture. Statistically, extraverts have a natural tendency to be more confident in social settings compared to introverts. This does not define you though, as confidence can be hugely variable throughout a person’s life and is based on a lot of external influences as well.
Remember the 5 points in the discipline section? Resignation is sometimes caused by a lack of confidence. Thinking ‘what I do can’t possibly make a difference to the situation’, is often grounded in emotion and a lack of confidence, not in facts.
The same counts for the anti-authority attitudes, which tends to be grounded in overconfidence. Having the right balance on this scale is crucial and it’s every pilots duty to self reflect as the years pass by. Assess yourself and ask which side of the scale you are on, and apply this knowledge to improve yourself.
So there we have it, a full list of all the most important pilot personality traits and skills and what they are based on. Please keep in mind that some of this data is based on research, but that there are always exemptions to averages.
Also, what research points at, and what real life points at, might clash at times. No amount of research will 100% encompass pure reality. However, the field of aviation human factors will always be constantly evolving. Massive efforts have been made to learn from past mistakes, and it will continue to do so, but more on that in a future article!
If you are interested in taking a Big 5 personality test to learn about your own mind, you can do so for free, without having to register or anything else by clicking here!
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