From the cockpit, KC-135 ready for take-off
Wikipedia tells us that the term “professional” comes from the french “profession libérale”, or liberal profession. After a little more internet surfing, I have concluded that these words come from the specialized knowledge base and general scholarship required of the true professional.
You “profess” a world view that you hold in common with your fellow professionals. That is, you have a certain knowledge base that makes you helpful to society. Based on their specialized knowledge, the doctor can prescribe a useful course of healing for his patients. The lawyer has the best advice for his clients. The teacher can ensure students have every chance to learn. That’s all that’s needed, right? No.
The other term, “liberal”, seems to hark back to the time when a well-rounded, educated person would have a “liberal education”. A person would have an education that covered all subjects. That meaning seems to have drifted a bit today as degrees are awarded in very specialized fields, driving a gulf between arts and sciences. But a true professional is a well-rounded person, able to understand and use any knowledge required in support of his specialized knowledge.
In other words, you know the best technical answer. But you also have a solid enough understanding of areas outside your expertise to be able to plot a course that has the best chance of success for those who depend on you. So “profession libérale” pretty much covers the definition of being a professional.
Or does it? Perhaps there is one more component.
It was 1981. I was aircraft commander on a KC-135Q and sitting at the end of the runway awaiting the right conditions for takeoff. With me were my co-pilot, navigator, and boom operator. I was leading a two ship formation to support an operational mission for the SR-71 Blackbird Spy Plane. So that second KC-135Q and 4-man crew were waiting there as well.
We needed to take off within the next few minutes to make sure we could successfully complete our mission. But I was not ready to give the order for my formation to takeoff.
There was a thunderstorm traversing the field. Taking off under those conditions was not safe.
My navigator was giving me constant updates on our timing. If I did not take off soon, our mission, given to us by the top leadership in our nation, would fail.
I had the base weather officer with me on the radio as well, giving us constant updates on the movement of the storm.
And we had the full colonel commander of the base in the tower ensuring this young captain (me) had all the information I needed.
I took it all in, and made the call with seconds to spare. Our two-ship formation took off safely, delivered the fuel, and the mission was successful.
Later, I had a crew member compliment me for not bending to the pressure from the colonel to take off earlier. I was honestly startled. I was so busy focusing-in on the problem at hand and the decision to be made, that I did not even perceive the colonel’s pressure. The crew member assured me that subtext was there the whole time. The colonel wanted me to take off NOW. But of course he could not order me to do so. As aircraft commander, that was my call.
Was the reality that the colonel was pressuring me? Or was it only perceived pressure? It really does not matter. What matters is what happens.
I started this article with a definition of “profession libérale” that implies quite a bit of education and training is needed to start in a profession. And that education includes a liberal dose of all subjects.
That is not all that makes a pilot a professional.
Some pretty knowledgeable people go through life concerned each second about what others may think. They thrash one way or the other, stressing and bending under their perception of that pressure. They expend energy and worry, trying to understand where they stand in others eyes.
The professional pilot knows the right course, makes the call, and lives with the results.
What other ways do pilots exhibit professional behavior? Comments below.