The Possession of a Suitable Temperament

Some of the feedback I got on last month’s article said that you folks got the point about the wrong stuff, but more detail on exactly what’s the right stuff would sure help. As I said last month, putting your finger on that mythical “right stuff,” the thing that makes an expert pilot, is a much harder question to answer. 

One of the coolest things about writing these articles every month is the feedback I get from readers who email comments back to me. It’s a great way to know if I’m hitting my target and providing some useful information to help our fellow pilots stay safe. All the comments and feedback, good or bad, are always much appreciated and I try to answer every one of your emails. Some of the feedback I got on last month’s article said that you folks got the point about the wrong stuff, but more detail on exactly what’s the right stuff would sure help. As I said last month, putting your finger on that mythical “right stuff,” the thing that makes an expert pilot, is a much harder question to answer. Maybe the bigger and more basic question is what makes anyone an “expert” at anything in the first place? Danish Nobel Prize physicist Niels Bohr took a shot at it when he said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes that can be made – in a narrow field.” That might be OK for him, but unfortunately for us, neither pilots nor surgeons have the luxury of making too many mistakes on the way to getting our expert merit badges.

Since the Wright brothers’ first flight, people have been trying to figure out exactly what a pilot’s “right stuff” might really be. Knowing that Mr. Google has all the answers I started clicking around to see who might have come up with the recipe to that magic sauce.  He pointed me to an absolutely priceless piece of aviation wisdom that’s over 100 years old and is the first attempt I could find to come up with a good, objective measure for the formula of that magical “right stuff.” The article was published in the first, and one of the world’s most renowned peer-reviewed medical journals called The Lancet. Thomas Wakley, the English surgeon who started the magazine back in 1823, named it after the most basic surgical instrument, the lancet, a traditional name for the primary surgical tool, the scalpel. It’s a very appropriate image for a journal that’s been on the cutting edge of educating doctors and disseminating medical wisdom for two hundred years.

The article I found was written by T.S. Rippon and L.R. Lond and published in the September 1918 issue of The Lancet, only 15 years after that first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It’s titled, “The Essential Characteristics of Successful and Unsuccessful Aviators with Special References to Temperament.” It’s interesting that the word “temperament” comes up again since last month we talked about something called the “Temperament and Character Inventory,” a measure of some of the “wrong stuff,” and they hit on this idea more than 100 years before the FAA attributed it to pilot error. A link to the original work is here, but there’s a lot of very dated language that’s far from today’s politically correct standards so take it with more than a grain of salt and keep in mind it reflects thinking that’s now over a century old.

Still, it’s a monumental and forward thinking piece on aviation safety and there’s a bunch of true gems in it. My favorite line is, “The authors’ observations led them to the conclusion that the mark of the successful aviator was the possession of a suitable temperament.” That’s a pretty good start and the paper drills down on it. “The enormous number of pilots who have qualified recently is proof that the aviator is not a ‘super-man’ for when we come to talk to them and examine them we find them to be quite ordinary people.” The “character of the pilot possesses resolution, initiative, presence of mind, sense of humor, judgment; is alert, cheerful, optimistic, happy-go-lucky and is generally a good fellow.”

Wow, we’re quite a group but they also think that we’re a pretty rowdy bunch. “Anyone who has lived with pilots for any length of time cannot fail to notice that they possess in a very high degree and fund of spirits. When they have finished flying for the day their favorite amusements are theatres, music (chiefly ragtime), cards, and dancing, and it appears necessary for the well being of the average pilot that he should indulge in a really riotous evening at least once or twice a month. The older men take alcohol freely, but the young, fit pilot serving at home hardly ever touches it. It is not necessary to legislate on the subject of alcohol for pilots; they are well aware of the danger of taking too much before flying. The desire for alcohol comes with nerves, staleness and stress of service, but the fit pilot needs no stimulant.” Someone at the FAA must have found this article too when they started writing all those FARs.

Even though it had been only a little over a decade since the first flight, another important characteristic they cited in successful aviators is “hands.” “The pilot with good hands senses unconsciously the various movements of the airplane, and rectifies any unusual or abnormal evolutions almost before they occur. The skillful pilot appears to anticipate bumps. He is invariably a graceful flyer, never unconsciously throws an undue strain on the machine, just as a good riding man will never make a horse’s mouth bleed. ‘Hands’ appear to be congenital and cannot be acquired, although they may be improved and vice versa.” Perfecting your “hands” skills is a great lead into more recent attempts to figure out this “right stuff” challenge. Anders Ericssonwas a Swedish psychologist who devoted his life to the study of expertiseand human performance. He looked at expert performance in areas like medicine, music, chess, and sports and came up with the concept of “extended deliberate practice.” He called it “high concentration practice beyond your usual comfort zone” and said that’s how performers acquire their superior skills that can eventually make them an expert. Ericsson’s theories on expertise led to other research into cognitive ability, personality, and skills that were predictors of expert performance. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book on it, “Outliers,” describing his 10,000-hour rule that I also talked about in the article on Habits a few months ago. There was also a bunch of information on this topic in the article on “Who Will Guard the Guardians” and reviewing these sources would help reinforce the points.

In a more recent look into this topic Paul Tetziaff and his colleagues worked on discovering the “right stuff” with serial psychological testing of 350 Air Force pilots over a ten-year period. One thing that’s clear in their work is that USAF pilots had IQs measured “well above average.” Although there was a large amount of variation, in general the most successful pilots who achieved full flight status and stayed in the cockpit for the entire 10 years measured high in “affiliation, cognitive capacity, comprehension, and social desirability.” The Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences has also worked on the recipe for the “right stuff” of an expert pilot that’s well summarized in an article calledPersonality Profiles of Experienced U.S. Army Aviators Across Mission Platforms.They divided the men and women they tested into three groups. They found that 21% of the group had the “right stuff” and were the most successful pilots. Their performance was characterized by a perfect blend of aggression and exhibitionism but self-introspection. This in an important point and reinforces the conclusions in last month’s article on the need for accurate self-assessment of our own abilities.

All of this would probably sound pretty familiar to Drs. Rippon and Lond and it brings us full circle back to 1918 and The Lancet. It’s just a bit hard to believe it’s been a century of looking for the magic recipe for the “right stuff,” but we’re getting there. As safe and successful GA pilots we’re a group of highly motivated and bright people but not “supermen” or “superwomen.” We are driven and achievement oriented, we possess unique skills, but we have to practice long and hard to develop, hone and maintain our skills. We know that to do this we need to surround ourselves with competent and critical instructors who make us do it all the right way. We are inquisitive, insightful, a bit aggressive and self-confident but also introspective and self-assessing. This is a big part of our “right stuff,” being self-critical and compulsive about our own safety. In the end, those of us in the GA world need to have the same “right stuff,” the same skills, judgment and safety standards as military aviators and full-time airline captains when we fly our families and friends around the skies. It might be a little harder for GA folks since we have to supervise and maintain our own “suitable temperament” and we have to do it all ourselves. But hey, we’re always up to the challenge!

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS
Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS is an expert in principles of aviation safety and has adapted those lessons to healthcare and industry for maximizing patient safety and minimizing human error. He also writes and teaches pilot and patient safety principles and error avoidance. He is triple board-certified in cardiac surgery, trauma surgery/surgical critical care and general surgery. Dr. Stahl holds an active ATP certification and a 25-year member of the AOPA with thousands of hours as pilot in command in multiple airframes. He serves on the AOPA Board of Aviation Medical Advisors and is a published author with numerous peer reviewed journal and medical textbook contributions. Dr. Stahl practices surgery and is active in writing and industry consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].

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