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Personalities in the cockpit


Knowing your flightdeck mate’s character can be crucial to flight operations safety.

Depending on who you’re paired to fly with, the cockpit may at times make you feel like you’re at a zoo. Read on to learn about the types of “animals” you may encounter in the cockpit.
By David Ison
Professor, Graduate School Northcentral University

Do a Google search using the key word “animal” along with “personality style” or “leadership,” and you will come across a wide range of theories and commentaries as to how we, as humans, have been compared to or associated with particular animal types that describe our demeanors and actions.

We have all used wildlife terms such as “snake,” “bear,” or other not-so-nice descriptors equating people we know with animals.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about how first officers (FOs) really must behave like chameleons, adapting to their environments and crew pairings to get their jobs done with the least amount of drama or conflict. This got me thinking about what other types of fauna I have encountered over my years as a pilot.

The more I pondered things, the more analogies made themselves apparent. And I’ve seen my share of personality types and habits that some might confuse with those you’d encounter at a zoo.

I recall the captain who, like Mr Rogers, would change from a formal uniform into a cardigan sweater and comfortable shoes each time we reached cruise.

Another would offer tidbits of wise advice on each leg such as “you can judge the true age of someone by looking at their hands,” and when he or I would grease a landing, he would claim “even a blind hog can find an acorn now and then.”

A fellow pilot would make the same exact 5-minute loquacious, patriotic speech before pushback, while another one would bring his cockpit cleaning kit to tidy meticulously the various switches, gauges, and controls that were in much need of such attention – although one time, after cleaning under the parking brake handle, he left it engaged, which we found out upon landing.

Among FOs, I encountered an equally diverse variety. One who was a fashion model as her side occupation provided insights into an industry about which I knew nothing. I met another one who never wanted to upgrade, spending more years as SIC than many spend as PIC before retiring – and he always got the schedule he wanted. And I had another cockpit partner who seemed to be able to read my mind, and was so far ahead of the airplane that I sometimes thought he could have been a psychic.

While some of the aforementioned crew members were outliers – and thus I can remember flying with them as clear as day – there do seem to be commonalities in many of the folks with whom I (and likely you, too) have flown over the years.

The following descriptions are not by any means all-inclusive, but they represent some of the best and worst of the most encountered typologies. These comparisons, in addition to applying to captains and copilots, can be related to many other positions in the aviation industry.

Elephants, labrador retrievers, ravens, and octopi

Among the positive experiences I have had in the crew member jungle, many have been with the elephant-like personalities. These individuals are social and intelligent, have a good memory, stay focused on tasks, and lumber confidently ahead even in the face of adversity.

They can also be aggressive when needed, defending what they know is right – although they can be stubborn. For the most part, elephants are pleasant to work with, and are indispensable powerhouses of knowledge in both normal and abnormal operations.

Labrador retrievers have been the most popular dog breed in the US for almost 30 years for good reason. They are easy to train, have an excellent demeanor, are smart, and make good companions. Who would want anything different in the cockpit? Labs are the best of all worlds – they are fun to fly with and know their stuff.

One of my favorite L-1011 captains was a labrador type. He was always able to tap his deep knowledge of procedures or systems to shed light on a circumstance that benefited greatly from such advice. He was also steady, dependable, and pleasant to be around.

Ravens are like elephants in terms of their intelligence, but they’re much more reserved and a bit less intimidating. They also tend to observe much more before speaking or acting. They also see things many do not. I recall one occasion when a raven listened patiently to a range of communications among maintenance, operations, and other involved parties while these individuals tried to figure out a solution to an aircraft issue.

Finally, the raven swooped in with an ingenious resolution that was well supported by policy and procedure. Moreover, all of this was done in a laid back, professional manner.

Octopi seem to be able to get everything done, and then some, doing so without complaining. They are also brilliant, so they don’t need a lot of guidance or oversight. They tend to be more solitary, like the raven, if not overtly aloof. Their personalities can run the gamut, but they tend to be more reserved.

They don’t advertise their skills by being braggarts. I’ve flown with many octopus-type FOs, and it was almost like having 2 extra people in the cockpit. They’re amazing and make life a lot easier.

Having a dog in the cockpit can be good or bad, depending on the precise breed. Labs are favored over golden retrievers.

Yellow jackets, bears, peacocks, and golden retrievers

On the flip side, there are personalities that are a little more challenging to work with regularly. One sting that I remember clearly was from a posse of yellow jackets. They do not like to be messed with, are aggressive, and will react accordingly with some spice.

I have flown with my share of yellow jacket captains and FOs. Do not dare question something they have done, and do not touch their side of the cockpit. Thankfully, there are fewer of these types than in the past, but they are still out there. I think we can all act like a yellow jacket at times, although it’s not our go-to way to operate.

Bears are similar to yellow jackets in that they have a propensity to attack, but differ in that they’re more predictable. They tend to be calm until they are not, but will only lash out if there is more than a whim of a reason. To get the bear going usually requires crossing a line of some kind, such as a pet peeve or something of the sort. Thankfully, bears are mostly calm and competent, so managing their occasional awkward spurts is easier.

Everyone knows a peacock. They brag a lot and think they’re better than everyone, like God’s gift to aviation. Maverick from Top Gun is a good example. Peacocks can be skilled – or not. Most peacocks I have met lack some sort of ability, like stick flying, book knowledge, or both. Maybe the fluffing of feathers is to make up for something. As long as you know their shortfalls, peacocks can be reasonable to work with.

You may think I’m mistaken to suggest that golden retrievers have anything potentially negative associated with them. Yet, as friendly and docile as they are, they are not the sharpest tools in the shed. They’re very social, get along with everyone, and are fun to be around. I’ve flown with many of them, and some ranked highly on my list of favorite people to fly with – although I always kept note of their weaknesses, often having to babysit them through certain procedures, for example, visual approaches.

Playing safe with the animals

So what is the point in all of this classification and categorization? Well, naturally, it helps us deal with the people who are confined with us in the small place we call a cockpit (and with whom we may have to spend lots of time outside the cockpit). It allows us to plan and be mentally ready for whatever may come our way.

As I mentioned, there would be some pilots with whom I genuinely enjoyed flying but had to be on guard in some form or another to ensure things never went sideways in a bad manner.

Let’s face it, there may be cases when we try to avoid certain types altogether by being sure to be unavailable to hang out after a flight, or even trading trips to prevent unwanted melodrama. If negative personalities cannot be circumvented, it is helpful to enter the ring knowing what you’re in for, playing the role needed to keep the beast at bay.

All joking aside, we must do whatever we can to ensure that all of our flights are as safe as possible. This requires effective resource management both inside and outside the cockpit.

Knowing the types of people with whom you work best can help you adjust how you act and respond at work – and in life. Coming full circle back to the chameleon, being able to adjust to fit into your environment is a necessary and helpful ability for all of us to hone.

Being able to conduct ourselves in any situation, physical or otherwise, fosters safe and effective flight operations. So, next time you feel like you have a wildlife encounter in the cockpit (or elsewhere), take a step back, harness your inner chameleon, and respond accordingly to the situation.

David Ison, PhD, has 33 years of experi­ence flying aircraft ranging from light singles to widebody jets. He is a professor in the graduate school at Northcentral University.