Updated: May 29, 2019
Peas and Carrots.
Peanut Butter and Jelly.
Stick and Rudder.
Teterboro and Delays.
Pilots and Sport Bitching.
Whether by design or chance, some fit neatly together. If you're a pilot (or have stood next to one longer than two minutes) you'll likely agree that "sport bitching" is an easy pairing for the profession. By "sport bitching" I'm not talking about the deep angst, soulless 1-star Yelp hate missile you aimed at a subpar eatery type of complaining, but cynical banter born of many hours riding shotgun in a cockpit. Pilots are the only group I know that would gripe about finding a $100 bill on the sidewalk ("no one around here will break a $100..."). Search your feelings pilots, you know it to be true.
Nature or Nurture?
I spent many years in the Air Force beating on my craft. Long deployments to beaches with no water (Qatar and Saudi Arabia), a couple thousand hours of left hand turns in the KC-135, and oceanic crossings before controller-pilot data link (we listened to HF radio static for 5 hours and we LIKED it; turned it all the way up!) were as vital as salt to soup for my growth as a professional complainer. It wasn't until later in my career that I started to consider the balance between nature and nurture to the development of elite griping. Are pilot chromosomes preloaded with a predisposition towards witty repartee or is it an acquired skill? I believe it is the latter. Fly early and often in your career with pilots displaying sound judgement and discipline and you are apt to exhibit the same. Similarly, fly with pilots running roughshod over company procedures and utilizing non-standard terminology and you will likely imprint off those odd ducks. Is it reasonable to assume the seasoned pro's propensity for quick wit and sarcasm will shape the outlook and behavior of newbies? I think so.
As I started to grow as a leader, another question about creative complaining loomed large. Were there unintended consequences within my cockpit and organization? When does "sport bitching" evolve into a graveyard spiral of cynicism that threatens to poison the cockpit and extend to the organizational climate? I don't have scale for measuring that progression, but this pilot's interaction with air traffic control is clearly off-scale awful:
The Cessna pilot fails to land a sarcastic joke about the controller's pay while turning the transmit dial on his radio to the "maximum asshole" setting. On the other hand, the "24.6, Good luck buddy!" was a well executed clean-up from an audience participant...perfect brevity and tenor! :-) That's how you do it! The example is extreme, but you don't have to YouTube very hard to find these radio rages. They are unprofessional and clearly reflect a pilot that has entered the clouds in with an unrecognized 60-degree bank angle. But what about equally humorless, if less extreme, sport bitching within the cockpit or office? Can it be just as detrimental? I think so. The graveyard spiral won't develop as quickly, but a small unrecognized bank will eventually result in the same problem...an organization at risk of an uncontrolled descent towards mediocrity.
Don't get me wrong, I think there's room for a little levity in the cockpit. A witty remark can diffuse a tense situation or ward off boredom. Humor is also an instructor's best friend. You've likely had a teacher that opened lessons with a funny video clip right? Contrast it with others that simply cranked up the monotone lecture machine. Which did you prefer? Humor when used in conjunction with a small gripe can soften the landing. But mixing a sarcasm-humor-complaint cocktail that's pleasing to the palate while safe for long term consumption requires knowledge of quality ingredients. Luckily, I'm here to share a few of my pro tips.
Pro Tip #1: Know your audience; when in doubt don't bitch about.
Think before you speak. Pause to consider what you are going to say between the flash (triggering event) and the bang (what comes out of your mouth). If you haven't built in that pause yet, congratulations, you possess the same emotional intelligence of the average teenager. Younger pilots in your organization may (or may not) have the same experience and knowledge of other factors bearing on the problem...but they'll learn (for better or worse) from how you handled the situation. When I flew heavy aircraft with Air Mobility Command in the U.S. Air Force, dispatchers from our central control facility near St. Louis, Illinois drew frequent criticism from pilots for their bone headed flight routing, crew rest locations, and recovery plans when we had an aircraft on ground (Code 3 for my military pilots). It wasn't until I was on the other side of the telephone, working as a planner in St. Louis, that I understood the factors driving their decisions. Did I intuit some of those factors as a young Captain? Maybe, but after many years as a First Officer listening to Captains talk about those idiots in St. Louis that didn't know what they were doing I sometimes parroted the same lines. Of course I didn't cut them any slack; I learned from the best! Take that approach and multiply it by every outside organization you work with on a day-to-day basis: air traffic control, line service, FBO customer service reps, company maintenance, etc. The number of things you fully understand is dwarfed by the things you don't. So before you get a full head of steam built up about how "they" are screwing up by the numbers,...consider who is listening. Teammates might be imprinting off you. In other cases, they might know you are wrong and silently categorize you as an idiot. Both situations can easily be avoided by inserting a strategic pause between brain and tongue. Yet another option is simply sport bitch less...because no one likes a Debbie Downer.
Pro Tip #2: Don't be a Debbie Downer. No one wants to hang with Debbie.
Please read "How Full is Your Bucket?" by Tom Rath. It won't take you long and it gives you the lowdown on why no one wants to hang with Debbie. Mr. Rath's thesis: we impart positive or negative energy to every person with which we interact. Did you ever have a coworker that brought a storm cloud with them to the office? It's the person that complains frequently and typically pumps gloom into a sunny day. Common social responses from others in the room include avoiding eye contact and slowly rotating to identify an escape path. Mr. Rath would categorize the person as a bucket "dipper." These individuals drain the happiness from those around them one negative comment (dip) at a time. On the other hand, bucket "fillers" are those with a quick smile and easy disposition. They listen well, offer encouragement when appropriate, and are generally fun to be around. We like hanging around them because we are happier after the interaction. If you are going to gripe (and we've established that pilots are prone to it), then try to inject a little humor. At the very least, be cognizant of how much you bitch. Allow me to make up a statistical goal for you...96 percent. Be positive as much as possible. Use your sport bitching like red pepper flakes on pizza...sparingly if at all and only if the spice makes it better.
Pro Tip #3: If you got a problem yo I'll solve it. - Vanilla Ice
Sometimes there are real problems. As pilots we've never been hesitant to identify them. I think we fall short when it comes to recommending fixes. It's not just pilots though. It's the human condition. We have plenty of people in the "artfully identify the problem" tent, but the "help fix it tent" is emptier than a fireworks trailer on the 5th of July. These days there are plenty of ways you can help solve problems. Many companies have safety and quality reports that can capture problems so they can be worked; but you have to take action and get them in the system. If it's a company issue, why not go have a beer or scotch with the Chief Pilot to discuss how you would fix it. My point is this, you can still get some wise cracks in, but if it's truly an issue...help bring it to the attention of someone and take a stab at offering a solution. I think that's a much more effective way to inspire others around you and avoid the Debbie Downer label. So you can keep the sport bitching humor...just add a helping of here's how I'd "fix-it."
So that's it; pro tips on sport bitching from a pilot that learned from the best. Sport bitching can be like using the The Force; you can marshal forces for good or evil. Have fun out there and make those around you happier for having had the interaction. Until then, watch this line guy "filling buckets" on the left side of an airplane as it taxis out. Think your actions don't have much of an affect on others? Think again.