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  • Erin McWhirter

The Delicate Balance of Humility and Confidence

My return to aviation over the past few months has been exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. My range of emotions at any given minute has run the gamut from Christmas morning-like excitement to “maybe I should just go work at Starbucks” fear! I may be exaggerating… a little.

As I considered a return to my flying career, questions like, "will I remember how to do this? Can I memorize numbers and rules like I did before? Will I be able to learn and make sense of all the changes? Am I crazy for thinking I can do this again???" plagued me.

But as I reflected on my old career and remembered the thrill of maneuvering a large aircraft and conquering tough crosswind landings, the adventure of exploring new cities, the pride of walking through the airport in uniform, the excitement of the possibility of what could be over-powered the doubt that sometimes still creeps in.

While many years have passed since I was flying regularly, I still retain a lot more knowledge than I usually give myself credit for. Additionally, the life experience I’ve gained in the years since have formed my decision-making skills that easily translate to the cockpit. I’ve found that my stick and rudder skills have remained largely intact (praise be!). The bottom line is: I have a solid foundation from which I’m working.

However, there are still quite a few things I need to learn, or in many cases, re-learn: my cockpit management skills can be tightened up; the GPS world is completely new to me; approach charts look very different as a result of the GPS movement; I need to brush up on my general knowledge of regulations, chart symbology, etc.

The adventure of reclaiming my dream of flying professionally has been a careful balance of humility and confidence. It certainly is humbling finding out how much I don’t know anymore! Humility in the cockpit is vital to open, effective communication between crew members. Being brave enough to admit where a lack of experience or knowledge exists is essential to safety. Recognizing one’s own limitations and remaining teachable leads to growth, both personally and professionally.

When I got in the simulator for the first time just 2 months ago, I was scared. Thankfully, life experience has taught me that I am not defined by what I do or how I perform. I gave myself a little pep talk that mostly consisted of, “You have absolutely nothing to lose, but everything to gain. Get in there and let’s get this thing started,” and that’s exactly what I did. The first sim wasn’t pretty – partly because I hadn’t flown in 18 years, partly because the simulator wasn’t functioning properly. Each sim session got progressively better, for the most part. Some weren’t so great, but recognizing that even failures are part of the process of learning made the tough sessions more bearable.

While maintaining a healthy amount of humility is essential to safety and growth, confidence is equally important. When I started this process, I kept focusing on how long it’s been since I last flew professionally. And yes, it’s important to acknowledge that. But the education and experience I have is not to be dismissed! I possess skills and a knowledge base that took years to develop and solidify. Again, I have a solid foundation from which I’m working. Remembering that I am not defined by what I do or how I perform, I am free to walk in confidence and trust the training and experience that have shaped my skills.

I began writing this in the days leading up to my Instrument Proficiency Check. If you want to know how I was feeling, reference paragraph #1. This would be my first time flying an airplane since January of 2003. Would I pass it on the first attempt? Would I need more time and therefore need to schedule a second, or even third flight? I had no idea, but I decided that any of those outcomes would be just fine because all of them were leading me to my ultimate goal of being an airline pilot again. I decided ahead of time to walk in confidence, and do my best, but seize the opportunity to learn and figure out where the gaps in my learning were that need to be filled in.

I’m finishing this article one week after successfully completing my IPC! I’m still riding the high of that flight. I didn’t know everything asked of me, but I took notes so I can brush up on those topics. I knew a lot more than I expected. My stick and rudder skills were solid. Cockpit management required concentration, but will become stronger the more I fly and practice approaches. It was a beautiful flight that affirmed that I know more than I think, I still know how to fly an airplane and most importantly, that I absolutely love flying.

It can be scary returning to the world of aviation after a long break. But with a healthy balance of humility and confidence, it can be an enjoyable and fulfilling process. Playing small serves no one, least of all yourself. Be confident, stay humble and enjoy the journey!

Erin is a professional pilot with a degree in Aeronautical Science with a minor in Air Traffic Control from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She “retired” from aviation to take on the most esteemed titles of Mother to the 3 coolest girls she’s ever known and Wife to the most supportive husband ever. She’s currently working on coming out of retirement and returning to her dream career of being an airline pilot. Starbucks is her love language, and you can find her exercising or hanging out with her family in her free time.

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