Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Virtues of Aviation Culture

Aviation is unequivocal: flying your own airplane is forty-nine times more likely to result in your death than being a passenger in a commercial airliner. The facts of reality force an ethos on pilots. The virtues of aviation are Intelligence, Self-Control, Independent Judgment, and Honor.  Within these overlapping spheres are other concepts, often shades of meaning with arguable differentiations among them.

What is the culture of aviation? In what ways do pilots think, talk, and act differently from other people? What is good etiquette in aviation? When is a pilot behaving in a non-aviation or anti-aviation manner? What mechanisms inform us of aviation's unwritten rules and by what means is our behavior corrected when it strays from the expected or normal?

(This essay originally appeared on two webstites, www.studentpilot.com and www.aviatorwebsite.com in 2001 when I was learning to fly. My first flying lesson was in 1984 after reading The Right Stuff, but it was not until 1997 that I seriously pursued the requirements. I wanted to write a newspaper story about our local airport in Howell, Michigan, but getting the pilots to talk to me as a reporter was difficult. So, I started taking lessons. After half a dozen or so, meeting the local fliers became easier. I eventually sold a multi-page front page story for the Sunday edition of the Livingston County Press. From there, I continued writing and flying.)

In a Schleicher sailplane
One way to draw an outline of aviation culture is to look at its virtues. We all might want to be virtuous according to every standard.  However, humility is simply not a virtue in aviation. Bragging is not a virtue, either, and displaying humility is not necessarily wrong.  However, nothing in aviation implicitly demands and specifically rewards humility--even though a good dose of it might be a blessing. Other virtues such as charity or fidelity also might be nice to have, but aviation does not require them of you.
  • Intelligence The primary virtue of any human. More than being born "smart" it means using what you have. Intelligence is thinking things through, knowing a tool when you see one and knowing when and whom to ask for help. Accompanying Intelligence are honesty, foresight, wisdom.
  • Self-Control Aviation is scary. The question is whether or not you are ruled by your viscera. Other aspects of this are courage, fortitude, pride.
  • Independent judgment The first Federal regulation of flying is that you can break any rule in order to maintain or achieve safety. This derives from the undisputable fact that the pilot is in command. Objectivity, conjectivity and integrity are corollaries.
  • Honor The above are personal virtues. These here are social virtues. Generally speaking, the unequivocal nature of aviation—the fact that you can get killed—is the source of these honorable attributes. Other aspects of Honor are responsibility, trustworthiness, forthrightness, magnanimity, respect, courtesy, and humor.
 As an attribute of intelligence, honesty means more than not lying to other people.  It means recognizing the “primacy of existence”—in other words admitting what you know to be true (about the plane, about the weather, about yourself) no matter how much you wish it were not.

Pride is an aspect of self-control. Ultimately, pride may be considered the source of self-control.  In either case, the pride referred to is not just the external show of proper respect for your own achievements but the inner strength that causes and is rewarded by self-control.
Preflight inspection
Integrity makes independent judgment possible.  Not all pilots practice it, but aviation rewards it, nonetheless. Integrity is being who and what you are.  Independent judgment requires the objectivity (honesty) of recognizing the facts.  Conjectivity is the virtue of being willing to try something—especially when you are in trouble—to see if the effect is beneficial to you.
"We lived in fear of the mountains of Spain
over which we had to fly,
and in awe of our elders." 
Antoine Saint Exupery on France 50 Franc Note
The list of social virtues under Honor stem from the fact that no one else's opinion of you is as important as your own opinion of yourself.  We tend to gloss over this.  We are shy and we do not like to brag.  The bottom line is that every flight is a test flight. Flying is unequivocal: you cannot argue the facts away. We are reality-based and this colors all of our relationships. 

To act dishonorably, or irresponsibly, or disrespectfully is to fall from grace. Pilots act like angels because we live in the sky.

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