The Virtues of Aviation Culture by Michael Marotta

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?

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.

The virtues of aviation are those positive character traits that are implicitly demanded and specifically rewarded by the nature of aviation. They are: Intelligence, Self-Control, Independent Judgement, and Honor. Within these overlapping spheres are other concepts, often shades of meaning with arguable differentiations among them.

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.

Aviation is scary. The question is whether or not you are ruled by your viscera. Other aspects of this are courage, fortitude, pride.

Independent judgement
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 the pilot is in command. Objectivity, conjectivity and integrity are corollaries.

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.

Integrity makes independent judgement possible. Not all pilots practice it, but aviation rewards it, nonetheless. Integrity is being who and what you are. Independent judgement 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.

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. Can you imagine pulling into an FBO station late at night, refueling, and before you take off, stealing the coffee maker? The thought is ridiculous — but for most people in most times and places the thought (if not the deed) is very real. Can you imagine having a line jockey tell you about a problem with your plane and then making the problem “go away” by belittling the jock for not being a pilot? We do not act like that. We act like angels because we live in the sky.

Michael E. Marotta
Technical Writer