New Pilot on the Block, Part 3

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In Part 2, we discussed preparing for your flight evaluation and familiarizing yourself with your employer’s SOPs.

There is an old saying in both military and civilian flight departments that generally holds true: "Hire the person first, the pilot second." Of course, a basic level of pilot performance is assumed, but people skills tend to be more important than pilot skills. If you can't get won't.

Your first few weeks in a new job can be critical; they can set you off on the right foot that will win allies and ease your progress from novice to master. Or they can earn you enemies who will unconsciously (or consciously) throw roadblocks in your way. Which way you go depends both on you and them. As is often said, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.

Making a good first impression in a new environment is a learned skill. I find that some people are natural at it--others, not so much. But those who lack the skill may not realize just how bad they are at it. Take, for example, the basic handshake.

Some men consider the handshake to be an early chance to establish alpha male status and have perfected techniques to get the "upper hand" in the handshake. Their techniques involve moving their hand toward yours quickly and starting the grasping motion early, so as to put you in the embarrassing position of having only your fingertips grasped in the so-called "limp fish" handshake. Here’s how to avoid that:

  • Stand up straight.
  • Make and maintain good eye contact.
  • Offer your open hand so the palm is out vertically and the thumb is pointing straight up.
  • When you first feel contact, push your hand forward until the webbing in your hand makes contact with the webbing in theirs.
  • Grasp firmly but not so much as to cause their hand to deform.

Shake twice, release.

In these days of pandemic pandemonium, we can avoid the competitive handshake altogether with a fist or elbow bump. But if a handshake is offered, you need to reply in kind. No matter how you do this, make sure you make good eye contact.

The art of maintaining good eye contact isn't as simple as you might think. In general, you want to be looking at another person's eyes when first introduced and whenever they begin speaking or say something with added emphasis. Should you look at them when you are speaking? Usually, but maintaining a "laser lock" as you speak can be seen as a bit creepy or as an attempt to intimidate.

You know you should "stand up straight" but often end up with your shoulders angled forward and neck angled down with your head in an unattractive tilt. You are also probably aware that none of this looks good. Whenever you are being introduced, having the conscious thought, "shoulders back," can do wonders for your posture and the chances of making a good first impression.

You are who you are and changing your facial expression to be someone else can do more harm than good. Somebody who never smiles can be seen as someone who will never be pleasant; but somebody who only smiles can be seen as somebody who doesn't take life seriously enough. Clearly there must be a balance. A genuine smile shows up in your eyes. If you have difficulty with his, stand in front of the mirror and tell yourself to smile. Now do the same thing while telling yourself something that genuinely pleases you or makes you laugh. The next time you are introduced to someone, duplicate the latter, not the former.

You know what a confident voice sounds like. You also know what your voice sounds like. If the two ideas don't match, there are ways to fix any problems. In the short term, realize that volume, tempo and articulation are things you can fix right now if you are conscious of your deficiencies. Record your voice and play it back. Would that person impress you?

  • Volume. A person an arm's length away from you should be able to hear everything you say. If not, you are speaking too softly. A person two arm's lengths away should not be able to hear you. If so, you are speaking too loudly.
  • Tempo. Most of us can comprehend around 120 spoken words a minute. Slower than 100 words a minute will try the patience of most listeners. Faster than 180 words per minute will be hard to understand and may make the speaker seem nervous.
  • Articulation. Does she sell seashells by the seashore? You don't need to be a master of tongue twisters, but if you've ever been accused of mumbling, try to finish every word with an emphasis on each ending, especially those with consonants.

Expect the Best From Others; Present Your Best to Them

As you make your way from novice to seasoned pro in your new flight department, it makes sense to seek mastery of your aircraft and the operating procedures needed to fly the aircraft safely. But the minute you think you have all the people figured out, you will discover you are wrong. I try to remember that everyone I am working with has their own motivations that may or may not align with my own. Part of my role as a leader, a peer or a friend is to help steer those motivations toward those of the group, while trying to help each individual along the way.

Of course, this isn’t everything you need to go from the newest kid on the block to the seasoned master, but it should get you started. The extra effort you show in your first few months will set you on the right path and should make the rest of your tenure in the new job go smoothly. Now, go out there and do it!

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…