The Inner Art of Airmanship

Aviation Human Factors

In ground school we learn about rules and regulations, weight and balance, weather and Bernoulli’s law, and we might have to memorize a schematic of the electrical system. All good stuff (except for the Bernoulli air molecules rubbish). But very few ground schools teach a pilot about really being a pilot. The recent emphasis on Crew Resource Management is super, but how do we learn to make the best of ourselves, when do we learn how to utilize our inner resources rather than our outer team? These books all deal with the human pilot:

Discipline is the foundation of airmanship. With it, a flyer or an organization can safely and systematically build towards excellence. Without discipline, we cannot hope to mature to our full potential as aviators or aviation organizations. In fact, without a solid foundation of flight discipline, we are always on thin ice, consistently flirting with tragedy. Failures of flight discipline can — in a single instant — overcome years of skill development, in-depth systems knowledge, and thousands of hours of experience. Without discipline, none of these attributes can protect us against a sudden loss of judgment.

The 400 pages that follow his powerful first paragraph will make you a better pilot. Indispensable reading full of well researched examples and practical advice. Complete with full bibliography for further research.

Redefining Airmanship

Tony Kern (again)

[Airmanship is] the notion that flyers have a separate professional identity beyond their official rank or aeronautical rating …. Most aviators intuitively understand the existence of this unofficial hierarchy of airmanship but are unsure how to advance within it. In the words of Tom Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff, this so-called “pyramid of professionalism” defines our prowess as aviators.

big book clearly and systematically leads you to understanding airmanship, and sets us on the path to actaully acquire it. Dr. Kern was a major in the USAF and their former Chief of Cockpit Resource Management Plans and Programs amongst other aircrew training assignments. A classic pilot book.

Blue Threat: Why To Err Is InHuman

Tony Kern (yet again!)

The battle is complacency and apathy verses action and improvement, and it is a battle we all fight every day whether we recognize it or not. If you don’t recognize you are in the fight, you are losing it.

A personal, practical guide on “how to wage and win the battle within” every pilot is fighting against errors. It’s not about airline CRM theory or organization business ideas or stricter rules or better instruments — this book is all about our own biases, habits and expectations. It’s all about achieving and maintaining a professional excellence mindset. Not as expansive as the above two books, but this is more recent and brings together lots of pratical ideas Kern has developed working with pilots in what he brands as a ‘Global War on Error’.

Human Factors in Flight

Frank Hawkins

Since 1940, data have been published periodically showing that three out of four aircraft accidents apparently result from inadequate performance of the human component in the aircraft man-machine system. This proportion has persisted in spite of years of exhortation to pilots to perform more consistently and with fewer errors.

For my money, this is still one of the best introductions to aviation human factors for pilots. Written by a KLM captain and noted educator, it explores the interface between humans and the flight environment.

Safety Differently: Human Factors for a New Era (2nd ed.)

Sidney Dekker

The pace of sociotechnological change is not likely to slow down any time soon, nor is the growth of complexity in our world. If we think that World War II generated a lot of interesting changes, giving birth to human factors and a discipline, then we may be living in even more interesting times today. If we in human factors and safety keep doing what we have been doing, simply because it worked for us in the past, we may become one of those systems that drift into failure. Pragmatics requires that we too adopt to better cope wit the complexity of the world facing us now. Our past successes are no guarantee of continued future achievement. This is why we need safety, differently. This is why we need to develop human factors for a new era.

University professor and airline pilot Sidney Dekker has written many excellent books. This one is dense but hugely rewarding. Amazing insight into the latest thinking on situational awareness, pilot non-compliance, differences between complicated and complexity, procedural drift and much more. Builds on seminal work by Reason, Perrow, Wundt, Kuhn and many others. Should be required reading towards the end of a university degree in safety systems.

Artful Flying

Michael Maya Charles

Artful Flying begins in the mind of the pilot, long before he or she sits down in the cockpit. It is more philosophy than procedure, more art than craft, more attitude than aptitude. It is more about human understanding than the challenges or faults of our systems or machinery.

Wonderful book, the perfect companion for contemplating Inner Airmanship. Michael — a former MD-11 check airman and Flying magazine editor who now flies light airplanes and helicopters — smoothly shares his 20,000 hours and a lifetime of learning about beginner's mind, awareness, flow, perfection and flying.

The Mind of the Sailor

Peter Noble & Ros Hogbin

The mind of the sailor is so many things: inquisitive, at peace, in turmoil, happy, determined and free. Above all, it is open to the unknown and whatever it finds there, within the wind and the waves.

Very readable book on a subject close to a pilots world but with a much longer history. Chapters cover the human stories behind adventures and misadventures of a nautical nature. Easy and exciting to follow for the average land-lubber, while still offering a different history and perspective on cockpit (incidentally a nautically derived word) decisions.

Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot

Richard Restak, M.D.

Merely thinking about doing something brings about changes in the brain’s patterning. PET scans reveal that the mental rehearsal of an action activates the prefrontal areas responsible for the formation of the appropriate motor programs. And if you then mentally decide to do something a different way by employing different muscle groups (using your right hand instead of your left hand, for instance), the PET scan changes again.

This is a nice little introduction to our brain, and unleashing its potential. Covers a lot of ground in a very readable format. However the ‘Fighter Pilot’ in the title is meaningless (the closest we get is a 1950’s attention and concentration exercise given to U.S. Air Force personnel on page 141) and the book sadly lacks references and an index.

Tuning is a slow process. I once estimated that, in virtually any complex activity, it takes a minimum of five thousand hours to turn novice into an expert. That is about two years of full-time effort. In fact, five thousand hours isn’t really enough. You certainly would not be an expert violinist, skier, or tennis player in only two years. You wouldn’t have reached true experiential modes of behavior.

Abn exploration of how humans and modern technology interact at the cognitive level. Where Restak’s book (above) covers the full spectrum of the brain, this well-known professor of cognitive science and talented author covers in more depth the differences between man and machine. Very readable with many interesting examples, along with copious notes and references for further study.





The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.

Baron Manfred von Richtofen
aka ‘The Red Baron’.


It's not our hands that are killing us, it's our heads…. Uncompromising discipline is the cornerstone of professional airmanship. It's better to be disciplined a thousand times than to be dead once.

Tony Kern


The richness and variety of the sailing experience exists because of the challenges that the wind and waves afford us. The common sense, ingenuity and skill we use in harnessing air and water to propel us to our destination are part of the joy of sailing, and we adopt a sloppy attitude at our peril.

Ros Hogbin


I’m a great believer in hard work if you want to be successful. Practice gives you command of what you already have in your mind. Most of what I do, I think out in my mind. Then, you can go over to the guitar already knowing you can play it.

Les Paul


Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.

William Faulkner


Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success.

Vince Lombardi


Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn't have it in the beginning.

Mahatma Gandhi