We aviation enthusiasts the world over revere our pilot heroes. We celebrate the victories and achievements of fellow flyers who have accomplished great things.
They have won international aerobatic competitions, stood on Red Bull air race podiums or flown countless world-class formation displays.
They could be pilots who have saved lives in a crisis, faced great danger in combat, as well as those who have logged several tens of thousands of immaculately professional airline hours over a lifetime.
But what makes them so admirable?
Is it their innate talent, their superior coordination? Perhaps it’s their sound judgment, precision in the cockpit, their artistry or understanding of how to present an aircraft in flight in a way that stirs the emotions of an air show crowd? All of these are admirable skills, but there are underlying traits that run far deeper than mere physical talent.
I am fortunate to know most of our South African hero pilots, and a few international ones too. Many are friends. And while I have marvelled at their inherent skill, there is so much more to them than that.
Their strength of character impresses me far more than any naturally endowed physical skill they may possess. I am inspired more by how they’ve overcome immense challenges (economic, physical and often psychological) and the sacrifices they’ve made, than by their actual achievements.
The character traits I’ve identified in flying champions
It is passion that drives these pilots towards perfection, and passion that leads to tears at award ceremonies − shed by victors and their competition.
I have seen a pilot taxi in with wet cheeks and red eyes after a breathtakingly brilliant flight that was as close to flawless as one can get. So intense was the emotion required for that flight that it literally drove that pilot to tears.
This reminds me of seeing Luciano Pavarotti cry after one of his powerful opera performances. Flying can sometimes be that emotionally demanding, and just as noisy!
These pilots train very hard for years, with what sometimes appears to be an almost inhuman persistence. I have watched pilots repeating the same complex, disorientating and often physically painful figure again and again scores of times, seeking unattainable levels of precision. They land exhausted, bathed in sweat, with bruised thighs and bloodshot eyes. After a brief rest they head up once more to repeat the same routine over and over again.
These pilots make massive sacrifices to overcome challenges; their progress is not only fuelled by passion. Before they enjoy achievement or satisfaction, most have experienced significant pain, grief and disappointment. They have overcome a wide range of challenges, often financial and sometimes emotional, and have made financial and personal sacrifices.
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Many are generous and think about others before themselves. I have never seen a high-achieving pilot decline to generously guide, coach and mentor junior pilots on the air show circuit, in the competition arena, with career advice or just stepping in when needed. I have experienced this generosity myself.
I was once part of a five or six-ship formation returning to Rand after a contest in Parys. The weather was appalling and deteriorated rapidly as our flight progressed. We called Rand when we had the field in sight and so, despite the worsening conditions, they had to let us land.
The then-national champ literally took over from the tower and went into an orbit over the field, calmly and patiently guiding everyone down in terrible visibility. Incredibly, after we were safely down, he flew back into the bad weather in order to shepherd in another pilot who was flying a much slower aircraft than the rest of us. Only when every plane was secure in the hangar did he finally relax. That’s a hero.
Integrity in tough times
Perhaps the most admirable quality of these high achieving pilots is their ability to do the right thing in challenging times. And possibly the most difficult is the decision to step away from flying for a time.
Sadly, this is very common today, with the careers of so many brilliant pilots impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many have turned to new careers, and although they miss flying greatly, I know they will succeed in whatever they have turned to and will, one day, return to the skies victorious.
How do I know this? I am certain because the passion and resilience that drove them to achieve great things in aviation, will serve them well in anything that they set their minds to. It is simply who they are.
I do not believe that these hero pilots exhibit all these admirable character traits because they are recognised as high achievers. Instead, it is the other way around − they are high achievers because they exhibit these traits.