Who can be a professional pilot?

Being a professional pilot does not mean that you work for an airline or fly a jet.

In fact, even a student pilot can be a professional. This is because professionalism is not a job or a set of skills, it is a choice.

What is professionalism?

There are many ways to define professionalism. Here is my favorite:

“Professionalism in aviation is the pursuit of excellence through discipline, ethical behavior and continuous improvement.” –NBAA Safety Committee

There is a lot of good meaning in this single sentence. Let’s go through it piece by piece.

First, notice that we are talking about the “pursuit” of excellence rather than the achievement of excellence. This means that excellence cannot be fully achieved because there is always more that can be done. It also means that one does not have to be excellent to be a professional. This is why a student pilot can make the decision to be a professional and transform the way that they conduct themselves through training.

The pursuit of excellence is not an outward appearance, it is an inward conviction and commitment to professionalism.

There are three parts to this pursuit: discipline, ethical behavior, and continuous improvement.


A disciplined pilot is calm under pressure. They follow the procedures every single time.

The biggest temptation against discipline is usually laziness.

Become alert and learn to love the procedures. For student pilots, there are many things to do procedurally that are often too easy to overlook. For example, that pre-landing checklist must be done every time before you land. It is too easy to forget because in most light airplanes there really aren’t too many critical items that will cause a problem. But this is a world of habit, and if you let yourself skip the pre-landing checklist then you are building a habit against professionalism.

Do you want to be a professional student pilot? Go through every checklist when you fly! This habit will not just impress your instructors, it will help you to build the discipline of a professional.

Ethical Behavior

Professionals don’t take shortcuts. They do not accept risks on behalf of others. They follow the rules and never compromise safety.

A professional pilot is trusted by passengers and will not betray this trust in any way. Part of this trust is to make sound decisions, even if they go against the passenger’s wishes. For example, you might be ready to make a decision to cancel today’s flight because of marginal weather. A professional will stick with this decision even when their passengers become insistent or even hostile about it. Your decision should not be changeable unless the weather itself changes.

Have personal limitations that are more restrictive than they need to be. If your airplane can handle a 12-knot crosswind, but you can only handle a 10-knot crosswind, then I recommend sticking with a 5-knot crosswind or less. You shouldn’t need 100% of your skill to complete the flight! Fly with an instructor to improve skills where needed.

Continuous Improvement

The professional pilot is constantly learning. They do not see their career as an arrival but as a departure. They are constantly seeking new answers and new challenges. This means spending time studying and practicing. They can be found deep in a technical manual or out practicing maneuvers. They do not forget about aviation when they aren’t flying! Instead, they devote a considerable amount of their free time to this improvement.

This AOPA article lays out the concerns over automation causing a reduction in pilot skills and professionalism. I would argue, however, that a lack of professionalism is what allows for a pilot’s skills to lapse because of automation. Many of the examples cited relate to the pilot having little recent experience in flying the airplane by hand.

The antidote to this is the professional attitude of continuous improvement. Take every chance you get to try exercise your skills in your airplane.

A professional will think through every possibility they can. To this end, I highly recommend studying accidents. I do NOT enjoy studying accidents. It is depressing and uncomfortable. But I force myself to study every accident I can to learn how things can be done differently.

Make the decision

When you get into the airplane, you can decide if you are a professional or not. It doesn’t matter if you are flying a Cessna 152 or a Boeing 787. Your attitude and behavior, in and out of the plane, determines your level of professionalism.

Make the determined choice to be professional and stay professional. If you don’t want to behave as a professional for some reason, then I strongly recommend that you quit aviation! Pilots who don’t behave in a professional manner contribute significantly to the accident rate, especially in general aviation.