You don’t have to be paid to do something do to it professionally. I’ve touched on this before, but it’s worth repeating, especially when it comes to something as critical as aviation. Being professional (as opposed to being “a” professional) is a matter of attitude—not paychecks. And acting professionally in aviation is critical to becoming a safe and respected member of the flying community. Designing, building, or flying—each element of what we do in Experimental aviation—can be approached in a professional manner, whether or not it earns you a dime.
Thinking and acting professionally means that you are putting the greater good of aviation ahead of everything else. It’s about more than your own satisfaction—it is about growing the field of flight for everyone, saluting the past, supporting the future. It is, yes, a little bit about being our brother’s keeper in the sense that we try to reduce accidents—not just because it lowers insurance rates, but also because it makes aviation a little more mainstream, and hopefully makes others want to join in, growing the activity.
I personally have never called flying a sport or a hobby, but I am OK with those who do, because I understand that most people don’t think of language as a precision tool. I’m an engineer, so unfortunately, I live with an affliction that assigns specific meanings to specific words. To me, a hobby is something that is done casually, for enjoyment. And yes, we certainly are committing acts of aviation for our own enjoyment! But casually? I’d submit that being casual about something is quite a bit off the track of professionalism, and in fact, I know of many cases where guys earning their living as a pilot came to a tragic end when engaging in the lighter “hobby” side of aviation. After all, they could fly the heavy iron in their sleep—so the lighter stuff must be like a professional baseball player tossing a softball. But the sad truth is—you can easily kill yourself in an ultralight, even though it is far less complex than an airliner.
So how do you think and fly professionally? A good start is to continually run a little subroutine in your head evaluating risk and looking for ways to minimize it. Let’s look at intersection takeoffs for instance. Let’s say that you are based at one end of a long runway and have the option of taxiing back to various starting points before taking off from the opposite end. Your plane is one that only requires a fraction of the total runway length to get off. You are, in fact, often flying to short, backcountry strips. So why not simply taxi back far enough to give you just enough pavement to get off the ground? Well…the professional will consider that the runway is for more than just building speed to lift off. It is also there to provide a clear place to land in case the engine lets go at the point of maximum stress—the takeoff roll, or initial climb.
The professional is thinking ahead—on to various possible outcomes of pushing the throttle ahead for takeoff. What are they going to do when the engine quits or a door pops open, or they hear a loud banging outside because the passenger left a seatbelt hanging out the door? What happens when a rush of fuel vents out of the fuselage tank ahead of the windshield, surprising them and their passenger with an avgas bath? When any of those things happen, it is nice to have the option of chopping power and braking to a stop, then turning off at the last exit from the runway.
So let’s say I want to fly professionally —do I ever do an intersection takeoff? Sure I do—but only when I have considered all of the possible outcomes. How about if the airfield is surrounded by flat, firm terrain, where you can land anywhere? The odds are that nothing bad will happen on a routine takeoff—but if you lose that game, the worst that happens is that you have to tow the airplane back to the pavement and out of the neighboring sod farm. On the other hand, if the airport is surrounded by housing developments, that option is not available, so better take the extra taxi time and go to the end.
OK, here’s another one: You’re planning an early morning takeoff on an east/west runway. The wind is three knots out of the east, so the wind-favored runway is going to have you staring into that massive nuclear furnace on the horizon. That makes it hard to see what is ahead, and if you have a few bugs and some dust on the windshield, you might be blind if a dog, rabbit, or deer decides to cross the runway in front of you. Don’t we always take off into the wind? Well…is three knots really a wind? For some very small subset of aircraft, it might be—but for most, you’d never notice it. So how about taxiing to the other end and giving yourself clear vision for this critical phase of flight? (Don’t hit the deer you can’t see while taxiing, of course!)
Being professional is about thinking ahead, thinking about potential outcomes, and looking at how you can minimize the risk—to yourself, and to others. Those “others” are your passengers—but also those surrounding the airfield, those in other aircraft—and the many aviators whose image will be affected by your actions. Thinking professionally might seem, to some, to make things more boring—and I suppose that is true, if you really think that hurtling down a short strip of pavement at ever-increasing speed, then lifting yourself into the sky can ever be considered “boring.”
Fly professionally and you’ll be able to fly all your life—the risks will be minimized, and while others won’t think of you as a wild man daredevil doing ridiculous stunts, they will think of you as a role model for others to follow—someone who ensures the safety of others as well as themselves—and helps promote the future of aviation.