Pilots are arrogant, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Confidence is what you feel inside while arrogance is what others interpret you to have. The fearlessness given off by a pilot’s aura is projected onto others when they are completely confident in their decisions and in an emergency situation, their ideologies never waiver. Pilots need confidence, but they have to earn the right to be arrogant.
Pilots need arrogance as they walk across the tarmac, knowing that there are thunderstorms brewing at their destination, a tricky MEL onboard that they have to deal with, and busy airspace they have to worm their way through. Pilots have to project outward arrogance to make others believe that there is no doubt that they will get there safely, but a good pilot’s internal confidence bows down to humility and contemplates the safety of each action.
There are reasons why aviation attracts those who contain a higher level of arrogance, but the pilots who thrive and stay safe in the aviation industry learn how to have humble arrogance. A 2004 NASA study found a thread of commonality in pilots (Amy Fitzgibbons, Donald Davis and Paul Schutte. Pilot Personality Profile Using the NEO-PI-R. Langley Research Center, VA). Pilots scored high in being conscientious, competent, dutiful, self-disciplined, and assertive while generally keeping emotion out of the cockpit. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a storm brewing inside their brain, it means that outwardly, they control themselves and the situation. Of all the scores, assertiveness rated the highest among all personality traits. The high scorers are dominant, forceful and socially ascendant and this is where the pilot herd is sorted into those pilots you love flying with and those that give other pilots ulcers. Whether it’s in the cockpit of a commercial airliner or in the cockpit of a Cessna 152, arrogance, when applied to another personality trait, is the difference between life and death.
The other kind of assertive arrogant pilot will draw conclusions based on their own thoughts, regardless of other input, and make decisions based solely on their own instinct and image of themselves. Since they are not actively present in the situation, their decisions often result in bad outcomes. They will chant to themselves, I know what I’m doing because I’ve done this before, but life and events don’t have carbon copies. Sure, one time he made it through icing conditions and lived to brag out it. What he doesn’t know today, even though the weather briefer and other pilots were trying to tell him, is that the icing conditions are at all levels this time, not just one. This time, the ice might follow him all the way down to the ground and the arrogant pilot will tell himself that it just can’t be happening because he assumed he could just do it again. His pilot’s license says IFR rated so he flies IFR, even if it’s a little wet and colder…I can do it because my license says I’m an instrument rated pilot.
Thankfully, the separation of the pilot herd is disproportional. The majority of pilots will continue on with humble arrogance and they will be a joy to fly with. They will keep themselves and those around them safe while having fun. They will laugh and tease about what life hands them and will wake up each morning excited to see what happens next. The minority will continue onward on the backs of these humbly arrogant pilots. It will be the good copilots and the shear will of life that will keep the other pilots moving onward until their demise. Too often, after an accident, people shake their heads at the sadness, but aren’t surprised at the outcome. It’s bound to happen, but no one is bound to their arrogance. Arrogance is fine. Earn it. Use it. But, never use it alone. Always be a humble arrogant pilot.