“What’s considered a good pilot amongst fighter pilots?”
When I read aloud this question from viewer Charles Howard, I confess—I was caught off guard. It was early January 2019 and I had been at this podcast thing for over a year. This was my second live appearance on the Generic term for any aircraft crew member, whether at the flight controls or not. Interview YouTube channel and I thought I knew what to expect… that is, I was ready to answer the usual questions like “do you only ever fly the jet with your name on it” or “what’s it like to land on an aircraft carrier at night?”
What struck me about Charles’ question is that, instinctively, I know what makes a ‘good’ fighter pilot—I’d seen dozens, maybe hundreds, over my 25-year naval flying career. But I had never stopped to ruminate on the attributes of those in my profession I admired most. The ones who are considered good at what they do. I bet I’m not alone.
Okay, pop quiz, ready? Camera’s rolling, hundreds of people are watching, you want to appear polished and articulate: what’s considered a ‘good’ _____________ [insert applicable profession] in your industry? And go….
Not so easy, is it?
In a rare moment of clarity, I suddenly conjured several traits that I knew, viscerally, were key to success both in air combat and—equally important—in the A common area where squadron aircrew congregate, socialize, and brief & debrief missions.. Some may dispute these responses. Others may argue these unimaginative answers are key to success in any pursuit. But, hey, for a public education I thought I did pretty well:
Good Situational Awareness. The perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time and space.
The first trait that rushed to mind was that a ‘good’ fighter pilot must have good situational awareness. See, there are three types of SA: good, bad, and none.
Good SA means you have an accurate mental picture of your position, velocity, and status in time and space, and identical information on other aircraft or assets that matter in the moment. A podcast listener once asked whether good SA can be bred or is otherwise naturally adapted. I believe it results from experience.
Bad SA means you think you have an accurate mental assessment of what’s going on but, in fact, reality is far different. This is the most dangerous of the three.
No SA means you’re clueless and don’t even know it. We all know people who spend most of their lives with no SA.
Fine Motor Skills
I don’t know why this popped out second but some amount of fine motor skills is certainly important to be a good fighter pilot. While it may seem to the layperson that flying a fighter is exclusively an exercise in brute force—horsing the aircraft around the sky under heavy Gs—in reality, the ability to finely manipulate the controls is also vital, whether precisely placing an aiming reticle over a target on a FLIR display or in the HUD, or gently engaging a refueling basket.
Naval aviators, particularly, require the ability to finely manipulate flight controls when landing aboard an aircraft carrier—particularly at night and during inclement conditions. YouTube is full of sensational videos depicting what happens when fine motor skills are absent or lacking in these instances.
Confident, but not Arrogant
The third attribute stems from my personal crusade to battle Hollywood and social media’s stereotyping of fighter pilots in general. Like water, the proper amount of confidence is important—in fact, it’s vital. Too little and a pilot is dangerous, untrustworthy. No one wants to fly with him. Too much and, well… we’ve all seen examples of people who have no trouble with their self-confidence.
To question which is worse, too much confidence or too little, is like trying to choose between drowning and hypernatraemia (death by dehydration). The end result is the same. That’s why the good fighter pilots maintain a healthy dose of each.
Related to the previous tenet, a good fighter pilot does not let ego or any other hindrance restrict the ability to learn from mistakes. There is no such thing as the perfect fighter pilot (although some, like Robin Olds, have surely attained “legendary” status). No one has seen or done it all. Everyone can learn something, every time they go up.
Able to Teach
As important as being teachable is being able to teach others, whether peers, juniors, or—possibly the most difficult of all—senior pilots. The hang up for many pilots is they feel they cannot effectively teach others until they “get it together” themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Good fighter pilots begin by identifying their own mistakes and the ways to correct them, they then tactfully points out suboptimal performance of other members of the flight—whether wingmen or flight leads. It’s not about belittling, posturing, or any other ulterior motive but simply making others better.
No amount of skill or talent can overcome a poor disposition. Whether particularly skillful or agonizingly challenged, good fighter pilots must possess the ability to effectively interact with others no matter the circumstances—in the air, around the ready room, on liberty, at home, wherever.
(Curiously, during my YouTube answer I seemed to key in on a pilot being approachable by children, as if our primary duty is standing in front of static display aircraft at airshows all day long. This is important too, but secondary to the above.)
Mindful of Others
Okay, I admit I was reaching by now but we all remember what happened when Maverick left his wingman in Top Gun. Most would agree this attribute is important in virtually any profession and a fighter pilot is no different.
…Same for this one, although I tried to make the case that a fighter pilot should not consider any assigned task to be beneath him.
This, too, seems obvious but I was not simply referring to respecting those we work alongside—in true Sun Tzu fashion, I was suggesting you must also respect your enemy. The “enemy” may be as obvious as an actual adversary but it could also be the weather, fatigue, or even a well-intentioned controller who is trying to help you but, if followed blindly, will get you killed. As a young pilot I was once told to assume everyone and everything was trying to kill me. It served me well.
I have said before on the podcast that I qualify military pilots as equally professional and respectable as doctors and lawyers (although, an attorney later wrote to suggest I give his profession too much credit!). I have never been a doctor or lawyer, but I trust they too are dedicated lifelong learners who endure long years of training and experience to qualify and excel in their professions.
Whether reviewing aircraft systems, revisiting tactics, or learning the latest enemy capabilities, there is always something for a fighter pilot to learn and the good ones must perpetually hit the books (reference Teachable paragraph above).
…Charles nearly won the “stump the chump” challenge but I was feeling pretty good about my impromptu answers and made it through the remainder of the Q&A session with no further surprises. Later, reflecting on the question, I decided it would make an interesting Musing post but that a second opinion would be beneficial to ensure I wasn’t too far off the mark.
For this I turned to a furtive Facebook group comprised of grizzled former fighter pilots. I naively thought it a valid question but based on the fact that most of the group’s posts are political rants and pin ups—I probably should have known better.
To say the immediate responses were colorful would be a mild understatement and for the reader’s sake I will refrain from reiterating them here (you’re welcome). However, a few submissions were useful, such as one respondent who suggested the ‘good’ fighter pilot must possess the unending ability to accurately self-assess and make quick decisions. No question.
Another response was “the ability to integrate, process, prioritize, and act on a lot of information,” which I lump into my aforementioned SA category. Check.
But two responses ultimately restored my faith in the group: one, the “determination to win irrespective of the odds or the enemy’s capabilities,” was spot on and central to this whole exercise. In air warfare, you don’t get a trophy just for participating—you fight to win / fight to survive. The winner lives to fight another day; the loser not so much. This YouTube video is an excellent example.
And finally, one respondent provided the succinct essence of what being a fighter pilot, particularly a ‘good’ one, is all about: “silent confidence — an evolved form of humility which embraces the idea you can kick ass, but will accept criticism.”
Take that, Hollywood.