What skills do I actually need to be a pilot?

There are a lot of misconceptions around the skills that pilots need, but skills are learned through training. Very little about flying is innate, unless you’re a bird. However, there are definitely habits and traits that you can work on before you set out, that will not only make learning to fly easier, but will make you a better pilot too.

Growth mindset

Learning to fly is demanding. You need to learn a lot of theory, along with some practical skills that are often not intuitive, and that learning never really stops. So you need to be really at home in what psychologists call ‘stretch’; that feeling of being slightly out of your comfort zone. Don’t expect to be a natural, but also don’t expect theoretical study to translate straight into practical success. The book will teach you how things work, and your instructor will show you how it’s done. But the only thing that will teach you how to fly is your own mistakes.

The people who are the easiest to train to be good pilots are those who accept that there will be challenges and come prepared to try, not expecting to find it easy. According to the psychologist who literally wrote the book on growth mindset, tenacity and self-control are better predictors of success than IQ. Speaking of self-control…

A Stable Temperament

Flying is an exhilarating experience, especially early on. But it is extremely dangerous if this exhilaration becomes the reward mechanism for the pilot. Whether an airline captain or a display pilot, professional aviators take their satisfaction from a job safely done, rather than how close they get to the edge. So, if you rely on an exposure to risk to feel a sense of reward, you must be able to satisfy this away from the cockpit.

Flying is exhilarating, but try to get your adrenaline rush away from the cockpit! Unsplash stock photo.

This doesn’t mean monotony and lack of character, but it does mean having a level-headed mindset. Taking up a past-time that requires a methodical approach is an excellent way to train this self-discipline if you feel you need to. You must be able to overcome the temptation to take the time-saving short-cut. Just as predictability is designed into aircraft, so consistent behaviour is a desirable trait in those that fly them.

That said, pilots are human beings, not machines. This means that you need to be comfortable with the fact that you, and those around you, will make mistakes. Being able to accept mistakes is a powerful ability whether you’re starting out learning to fly or you’re an experienced pilot. This plays into…


One of the most important ways to avoid mistakes is procedure and process. So you need to be comfortable operating within a set of rules that are often complex, and sometimes won’t align with your own priorities. Your fellow aviators and the rest of the team will be relying on you to stay within those boundaries.

Procedures, checklists, process and regulation. Flying demands attention to these details and thorough preparation. Jon Duke photo.

Reliability doesn’t mean being faultless, but it does mean having a strong link between what you say and what you do, especially when nobody is supervising you. It’s also vital that you can rely on yourself, and that means being prepared. A lot of the hard work in professional flying happens on the ground, particularly in training. 

Desire and commitment

That’s not to say that the flying is easy. Almost everybody who trains as a pilot finds an aspect of the job that challenges them. You will need grit and determination when things are tough, but a highly competitive mindset also may do more harm than good. 

Instead, being professionally inquisitive will allow you to make the best use of the expertise around you. As you advance, those people will include pilots with less experience than you and you will need to set a good example for them to follow.

I don’t think I possess any skill that anyone else doesn’t have. I’ve just had perhaps more of an opportunity, more of an exposure, and been fortunate to survive a lot of situations that many other weren’t so lucky to make it. It’s not how close can you get to the ground, but how precise can you fly the airplane. If you feel so careless with you life that you want to be the world’s lowest flying aviator you might do it for a while. But there are a great many former friends of mine who are no longer with us simply because they cut their margins to close.

Bob Hoover – Fighter pilot, test pilot, flight instructor and record-setting aviator. Read more in his book.

High quality aviators constantly want to learn, and pass their own experience on to others. Not because they want to become ‘the best pilot’ –  aviation is so diverse that it is impossible to experience it all – but because they know they can always be better. Flying training will teach you everything you need to know in order to control an aircraft. But coming prepared with these characteristics will not only enable you to get the most out of your training, but will also prepare you for your life as a qualified pilot. Whether you want to become a professional aviator or a recreational pilot, these characteristics will ensure that you stay safe, keep improving and are able to contribute positively to the aviation community.

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