Pilotspotting: The Art of Recognizing a Pilot On Sight

I can spot them. It’s not as easy as planespotting because each make and model are only slightly different from a distance, but on closer inspection, pilots behave, dress and present certain personality traits which helps me spot them in a crowd. I enjoy freaking my friends out because I can see someone and suddenly my pilot radar activates. I quietly gather clues and enough information to conclude that my radar was correct: that’s a pilot. My friends are in awe when I’m usually correct and then I’ll verify by asking the target “So, what do you fly?” They’ll raise an eyebrow and ask how I knew they were a pilot, but I don’t like to reveal my secrets. Often times, the clues are so overwhelming, I can ask, “Who do you fly for?”

The private pilot. They’re the easiest to spot. No matter the age, they have the most enthusiasm about aviation. Their love is pure and their motivation to be around aviation is endless. They read aviation publications and light up when someone asks about their flying. Since they passed the student pilot phase, many have already been weeded out from the crowd. Many people say they want to be a pilot, but most don’t obtain the actual license. Private pilots have officially entered the pilot herd and from here forward, they start maneuvering to other pilot corrals. Many pilots will stay here, loving everything about being in the air, and wouldn’t want to ruin it by being told where and when to fly. For others, they won’t be able to imagine not living without departing the earth on a regular basis, and getting paid for it. Either way, these pilots buy a pair of Ray-Bans and are constant optimists.

The instrument pilot. These flyers are slightly more confident than the private pilot because this is one of the hardest licenses to earn. Pilots at this level are still learning how to fly and then they add another level of skill and safety by being able to purposely fly in the clouds. This level of pilot can sometimes be bogged down by overconfidence, but usually one or two scares in the clouds with icing or low visibility approaches puts a healthy fear into their mindset. These pilots go from loving aviation to loving and respecting aviation. Those who don’t give it the respect it deserves are often discussed in the newspapers and NTSB reports. These pilots have coffee tables overflowing with aviation magazines, but are still detail oriented and self-disciplined.

The commercial pilot. No turning back from here. These pilots have made a commitment, but they’re at the point in their training where they might need to be committed. With the magic number of minimum hours raised to 1,500 for even the commuter airlines, I recognize the signs of a pilot with about 500 hours. Their savings accounts are empty and they’re questioning their career path while pondering how long a bank robbery conviction would stay on their record. It’s just a rating in the sequence so they can take the next step, but it’s nice to say you’re a commercial pilot. These pilots have to keep reminding their parents that a commercial pilot is not an airline pilot. The first set of bags will appear under their eyes and temptations from the outside world will push hard on pilots during this phase. By this point, these pilots do not have enough hours to get hired anywhere, but too many hours to let go. These pilots are holding on to the dream by a thread, but that thread is unbreakable. They’ll try ag/spray piloting, banner-towing, traffic reporting and nonprofit volunteering. Somewhere along their timeline, they’ll have to fit in that pesky bachelor’s degree too. At some point, between private and commercial, they’ll own a manual transmission car.

The multi-engine pilot. Walks with a straighter back by having stronger calf and thigh muscles. These pilots have learned that multi-engine does not necessarily mean safer. Stomping on the rudder pedal on the good engine, repeatedly, will increase leg as well as brain muscle strength. Grabbing a fistful of throttles is thrilling while going higher and faster which pulls the ego a bit higher too. Having a lighter wallet will allow you to climb that much higher. A new addiction to wanting jets behind you begins. These pilots have a leather jacket somewhere in their closet.

The certified flight instructor. The new instructor is enthusiastic and has not yet had their first bowel movement in their pants when a student unintentionally tries to repeatedly kill them. Experienced fight instructors are the sharpest pilots in the industry. They are able to mind meld and determine which idiotic move their student will perform next. The best pilots I’ve met are professional flight instructors. They have chosen this path out of the reward of teaching and they know everything there is to know about their chosen field. They’ll admit they didn’t do it for the money. Their closets are full of khaki pants with grease stains.

The second-in-command. This is what all those other steps were about. This seat is the desire and the most important yoke to get behind while in the pilot pipeline. Once you’re here for the first time making money, you’ve made it. This is where you start your pilot worthiness. Hours and operational experience in the Part 135 world will open doors for you. When the phone rings at 0200 and it’s -22F and you’re asked to fly an air ambulance flight, you’ll be there in ten minutes with a smile on. And, you’ll do it again and again…for years. You’ll wake up in a shack in North Dakota and see your captain sleeping in the La-Z-Boy next to you and you’ll have a moment where you wonder where you are why you’re doing this, but you’ll keep doing it. These pilots chant “1500 hours” in their mind, repeatedly. They are happy zombies.

The Airline Transport Pilot. Yes, it’s capitalized, unlike the others. These pilots are all the other pilots wrapped into one. They are either flying charter, corporate or are at the airlines and ironically, the bigger the airplane, the less they talk about aviation unprovoked. If they are sitting captain of a heavy, they have spent tens of thousands of hours, either in the air or on the ground, embraced by aviation. When they leave the cockpit, they often need to detach from years of aviation overload. They need their quiet time. But yes, they will still light up and can, and will, tell you endless stories about this extraordinary industry. They are highly intelligent, but don’t spend too much time being intellectual. The work-style demanded by the cockpit environment is unlike any other so one of the side effects of aviation is learning how to deal with people on every level and in every situation. Not too many people have to sit next to their co-workers, for hours at a time, and deal with life and death decisions on a routine basis. One fatal mistake means hundreds die. Crew resource management is not just a phrase, it’s a mindset. They learn to be assertive without being aggressive, unless it comes to safety – then you’ll learn the true meaning of stubborn. These pilots have the fancy watch, the gadgets and will splurge on one unusual hobby or item – usually involving four wheels or a boat. ATP pilots have a permanent, mischievous grin on their faces.

Aviation is not just about the pilots. Enthusiasts don’t even need to put a hand on the yoke to be an important cog in this machine. There are tens of thousands of people who work in and around the industry who are passionate about how aviation has changed the world and they will never lay their hands on the throttles. They are just as important because they educate, fund and create the romance for an industry that is defined by its ups and downs. Mergers, takeovers and furloughs often sour the lives and attitudes of those involved, so we need others to be detached and remind us all that aviation represents the genius of human creativity. We need to crane our necks to peer up to the heavens and see the result of human collaboration screaming above the clouds. Magnificence. If you understand this, then always remember that you helped put that machine up there…

Erika Armstrong has been in aviation for twenty-five years and is a self-confessed aviation geek. From the front desk of an FBO to the captain’s seat of a Boeing 727-200, she has experienced everything in between. Her book A Chick in the Cockpit has been purchased by a publisher and will be out nationwide in 2015. She can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Erika Armstrong



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  • Dexter Dorfman

    My favorite “pilot spotting” event was in a bar in Waikiki. Three guys walked in and I saw them walk around the bar. Because it was busy, they ended up standing right next to me against the wall across from the bar. I leaned over to the guy closest to me and asked “who do you fly for?” He gave a surprised look and kind of stammered “how do you know we’re pilots?” Well…there are three of you, you’re dressed in blue jeans and polo shirts with tennis shoes–while it’s typical layover attire for an airline pilot anywhere in the world, it really doesn’t fit into the local scene of hawaiian shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. He really didn’t say much, so I tried another tack. “We,”I said, pointing to the two others I was with, dressed in polo shirts, blue jeans, and tennis shoes, “left Houston this morning. Where did you leave from?” “Chicago,” he said. “Okay, you’re either American or United.” He finally broke down and told me which one he flew for…

    • Mocoondo

      Chucks Steakhouse?

    • Doug M

      Ha ha – The layover clothes are the easiest to spot!

      My wife once pulled that line, “Who do you fly for?” on a Delta pilot at a restaurant bar in Amsterdam. The guy was shocked, despite the fact that he was wearing a polo shirt with an aviation logo on it (freebie from a trade show or golf tournament), tucked into faded “dad” blue jeans, complete with his dress uniform belt and a cell phone holster, and finished off with dingy white tennis sneakers. Not sure why he was surprised.

      The other dead giveaway is three guys, all staggered in age, and with the oldest being the most portly, all making airplane gestures with their hands while dining together. If you pick up every fifth word from their conversation you will hear, “crew desk,” “gate,” “ILS,” “the Guard” and “minimums.”

      Face it – we are a dead giveaway!

  • Dave

    Great article. I work in the engineering business and we have some of same tendencies for group recognition. However, we don’t change much during our career and are born with our determining characteristics.

  • Wayne Thebeau

    Um, “Stomping on the rudder pedal on the dead engine, repeatedly, will increase leg as well as brain muscle strength.”
    It will increase leg strength but only for a short time because stepping on the dead engine can kill you. I think you meant to say “Stomping on the rudder pedal on the GOOD engine”, that is proper protocol. Other than that, good read.

    • jtak101

      Dead foot..dead engine..taught day one of multi engine training..and this chick was a 727Captain??

    • bubs

      where does it say dead engine?

      • We have made the correction. Thank you for pointing it out! ^PD

        • Wayne Thebeau

          No problem.

      • Roeh

        LOL. Love it!

      • Wayne Thebeau

        It did say it, they corrected it.

  • 72driver

    What airline do the guys in the picture fly for? I know it’s not a U.S. carrier due to the Captain’s beard.

    • Good question and good eye! This was a tock image of ours, and we are not quite sure what airline it was. Stumped!

      • BOAC

        It’s British Airways.


          And a B744.

          • Doug M

            That is ABSOLUTELY NOT a 747-400.

            It is a 777. Here’s why: First, there are only two engine fire handles under the Captain’s left hand. On the 747-400 there are 4 engine fuel control valves there, but the fire handles are overhead. Also, the touchpad input device in front of the copilot’s left knee is unique to the 777 and is usually not installed on the 747-400.

            There are a ton of other differences, but those two are the easiest to spot.


            Absolutely correct – the picture was unclear as received. Just went by the view and distance, from the cockpit of the tarmac.

  • A very interesting read. I know I have this talent as well, spotting them pilots in a crowd, but you did a great job putting it all down in writing. Thanks

  • Ken White

    But can you spot the commercial seaplane pilot in a crowd?

  • j brown

    Reminds me of the old quote: Q: What does a pilot use for birth control? a. His personality. Or: How do you know he is a pilot? a. He will tell you.

  • Curt Miles

    You can always tell a pilot, when you see one. He is the guy asking an A&P Mechanic for his autograph.