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Professionalism is the Key to Safety

In business aviation, acting professionally is not an option, it’s mandatory.

The quest for the best possible flight outcomes is never-ending, with safety being the foundation of the entire industry. For the vast majority of those who make their living in business aviation, professionalism and safety are synonymous.

“Professionalism is not an option, it’s mandatory,” said Eric Canup, vice chair of NBAA’s Domestic Operations Committee and director of flight operations for Live Oak Bank. “No one is exempt.”

Canup noted that unprofessional behavior in business aviation can lead to tragic outcomes, with implications for the entire industry.

“We all pay the price – in addition to loss of life and destruction of assets – in the form of higher scrutiny from regulators and bigger [insurance] premiums. That’s why it’s so important that we reach those who don’t strive for professionalism every day.”

Eric Canup Director of Flight Operations, Live Oak Bank

“We all pay the price – in addition to loss of life and destruction of assets – in the form of higher scrutiny from regulators and bigger [insurance] premiums,” Canup explained. “That’s why it’s so important that we reach those who don’t strive for professionalism every day.”

Mike Whannell, chief pilot for Jack Henry & Associates, agreed.

“We’ve all heard about doing the right thing every time, no matter who is watching, and especially if no one is watching,” said Whannell. “It’s so important that we strive to make our entire profession better and hold each other accountable. We must push ourselves to make ourselves better versions of each other.”

Prepare for the Unexpected

Whannell suggested that spending even just several minutes debriefing honestly about a flight will really help people move forward. “Put egos aside, and speak honestly about how we can improve,” he said. “We really only want to make mistakes once.”

According to Whannell, this applies to everyone on the team, not just pilots.

“Professionalism by everyone in the flight department is crucial,” he declared. “Details must be in order. Everything has to be right. It’s very much a team effort. Preparation is one of the keys to professionalism.”

Having systems in place to prepare for the unexpected also is critical.

“Proper planning prevents poor performance,” said Jeff Wofford, director of aviation for CommScope. “That applies to everyone throughout aviation.”

Following policies and procedures is also a key leadership trait and a foundational piece of professionalism, according to Dave Ryan, vice president aviation for MI Aviation Holdings.

“It’s critical to know your SOPs, your platform, and to do everything you can do make the trip and presentation world class and as safe as humanly possible. Following procedures is key to all that,” said Ryan.

Reaching out to those who may not be as professional as they can be is a duty everyone in aviation has, according to industry experts.

“Be a friend, tell a friend,” suggested Lee Blake, chief pilot of shuttle operations for Cummins, Inc. “That can mean you tell a colleague about a situation that could have been prevented or improved upon,” he noted. “It is important to be proactive and raise these concerns.”

Blake noted that this is important for every facet of the business aviation industry, and that there are numerous opportunities and ways to bring up topics on social media sites, messaging apps and other on-going discussion forums. Filing risk assessments on appropriate sites is key.

Blake added that transparency is also important in setting an example for others.

“I don’t expect anybody on our team to take me seriously if I wasn’t willing to say why I made a certain decision. Admitting your mistakes goes a long way toward letting people see that, if this person can share this, it’s OK if I do,” he said.

Lead By Example

Indeed, leading by example is often raised as being key to promoting professionalism.

“Being a true professional comes with a lot of responsibility,” said Ryan. “So it’s important to raise the bar and set the example, all day, every day.”

Ryan encourages aviation leaders to take advantage of any opportunity to help someone start or continue down the path of professionalism. “Engage with the next generation, plant that idea early on,” he exhorted.

But experts agree that it’s not necessary to be in a leadership role to display leadership.

“A title does not a leader make,” said Whannell. “When my crew members are on the road, they are the leaders. It’s important to see yourself as a leader and flagbearer for professionalism.”

Wofford of CommScope agreed.

“You have to do things the right way and walk the talk,” he said. “Consistency is important in professionalism. You must follow through, or you won’t be taken seriously.”

Show Respect, Demonstrate Humility

Showing respect to others in your professional realm is also a sign of professionalism and helps to promote communication and safety. According to Whannell, there tend to be walls of pre-conceived notions between groups of people, such as between pilots and maintenance technicians.

“Respect is key to breaking down those walls,” he said. “Lead with respect and understand the other side of the conversation.”

Ryan noted that respect doesn’t just happen; you have to develop it and be deliberate about behaving with respect, even from your first waking moments.

“You’ve got to practice it to stay good at it,” said Ryan. The aviation VP also noted that it’s important to learn from your own mistakes, and to be transparent about that.

Learning from others’ mistakes is also critical. Once a month, Ryan’s flight department discusses the lessons learned from other accidents. “We don’t want to learn a lesson more than once,” he declared.

Demonstrating humility and being able to take constructive criticism is also key to safety-first professionalism.

“There is no such thing as the perfect flight. It’s important to be humble and to look at ways that you can be better. Continuous improvement is key.”

Jeff Wofford Director of Aviation, CommScope

“There is no such thing as the perfect flight,” noted Wofford. “It’s important to be humble and to look at ways that you can be better. Continuous improvement is key.”

Canup agreed, noting that there is opportunity for learning after every single flight.

“But in order to improve, you have to first admit that you are not perfect,” said Canup. He also suggested not always focusing on things that went wrong, but also on things that went right.

Referencing a quote from former FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, Whannell concluded, “You don’t become a professional by earning certificates, adding ratings or getting a paycheck for flying. Rather, professionalism is a mindset. It comes from having the attitude, the ethics and the discipline to do the right thing – every time, all the time, regardless of who’s watching.”

Review NBAA’s business aviation professionalism resources at

Lessons from a Kern Award Winner

Mitch Launius is a 2020 winner of NBAA’s Kern Award, which recognizes excellence in professionalism. He also is the owner of 30 West IP, which provides pilot training on international procedures. A former U.S. Army aviator and business aircraft senior captain and IS-BAO project manager for JCPenney Aviation, Launius spent 34 years in the cockpit, accumulating more than 13,000 flight hours.

As a pilot and safety proponent, Launius thinks that aviation operations – primarily because of their smaller size – have to work extra hard to achieve a high degree of professionalism and safety.

“It’s important to know that your department and your boss have your back,” he said. “When people know that others care, you also care, and then it extends to how you act.”

Good leaders empower their employees because they trust them and have faith in them to make the right decisions, he added. “Leadership begins at the top.”
 According to Launius, operators should have a framework for encouraging self-analysis and continuous improvement.

“We need to be constantly asking, how could we have done that better?” he says.


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