Let’s start with a quite well known joke: “A foolish pilot wanted to sound cool on the aviation frequencies at the airport where he was used to fly. So, while approaching the field during the night time, instead of making any official requests to the tower, he said: “Guess who?” The controller switched the field lights off and replied: “Guess where?”

If this joke is real or not, it gives anyway a very nice and sharp picture about pilot’s large ego and his typical behavior.

Here some real examples occurred in my flying carrier.
Backgroud events:

1) Cruising flight. Very wide storm front ahead of us: Captain: “Don’t turn on the radar because I actually don’t need it.”

2)Approaching the International airport at Nice, air controllers very busy and communications with them very rapid. The French airplanes were communicating in French as also the controllers very often were too; as a consequence I was understanding nothing (in France, sometimes communications are made in French thus making it impossible for the airplanes from other countries to understand what the other airplanes are doing, especially while approaching big airports). Captain: “French is the universal aeronautical language so if you want to fly in France, learn French; since you don’t speak it, I will do the talking.”

3) During take-off at maximum take-off weight, the standard procedure for the kind of airplane we were piloting was to keep the autofeather on until the safety altitude over obstacles and the established speed were reached, so I did not switch it off; Captain: “The autofeather has to be switched off immediately after reaching rotation speed since it doesn’t do much anyway, so I will switch it off.”

These are three examples of three different captains that I flew with several years ago, and who always showed an especially strong ego in their general attitude; it was also quite often spiced up with a good deal of self-love. Considering that there is nothing worse than having a colleague at your side who doesn’t want any suggestions from you since, according to him, you are inferior while he is the one who knows everything, how can you establish an atmosphere of constructive collaboration so as to maintain an adequate safety standard?

In the situations I have described above, here are my responses to each of the three captains:

1.The radar might not help much, but I’m not very good and I’d like to get a bit of practice, so if you don’t mind I’m going to turn it on; then in case I don’t understand something, can you maybe help me?

  1. Well unfortunately, I really can’t take an accelerated course in French at the moment so I’d really appreciate it if you could please translate what the controllers are saying. (He did not do this so I kept quiet limiting myself to checking all the parameters and the procedure that at this point the captain decided to do on his own, communicating them to the tower as well). So of course hearing French, the controllers continued speaking to us in French
  2. I didn’t answer right away. When we arrived at our destination, I went to get the aircraft’s manual and I had him read the page where the procedure of autofeather was explained exactly as I had done. His answer was: “You women always want to be right.” So despite the fact that the manual told him he was wrong, he indirectly put the blame on me, actually even denying the evidence.

I don’t know whether my answers and my reactions were the best, but in any case they allowed me to avoid an argument which, with personalities of this kind, is often the only thing you obtain. A massive ego, or at least one that tends towards the excessive, could cause severe problems of communication within a work context. Communication inside the cockpit is one of the basics for maintaining an atmosphere of collaboration while carrying out one’s job, and when a co-pilot has to deal with a captain who has this kind of personality, it can be very hard for the co-pilot to interact constructively with him. Those people who have very large egos usually tend to have more or less numerous narcissistic aspects that make up his or her personality. Their minds generally have limits that prohibit them from really looking beyond themselves, and their world is almost entirely limited to within. They constantly are in need of being admired, they often seem to display great self-confidence which in fact they really do not have; they are quite often very insecure deep down inside themselves which they show on the outside as exactly the opposite. A large ego often leads the person to want to challenge others, putting other people to the test and, since in their mind they are always right, they just have to find someone to blame when something happens, and the person to blame in our case is the co-pilot. Since the narcissist usually has a large ego and vice versa, always thinks exaggeratedly well of him/herself, he or she will almost always consider his/her colleague as inferior. Getting on the good side of such a personality is possible only for a short time, it is extremely difficult to impress this kind of a person for long because they are basically people who crave attention and need achievement and success Therefore, by trying to be somewhat of a psychologist and actually consoling ourselves in the fact that their behavior is only a sad consequence of their problems of self-esteem, the first strategy to use on them is to humor them, listen to them while trying to ask them questions about what we know to be their favorite topics. Without flattering them too much if the situation becomes too challenging, but limiting oneself to smiles and trying never to contradict them. In flight it is always better to suspend any kind of argument until the de-briefing on ground. Even in that case, if you foresee having to deal with that captain for several days it is always best to be diplomatic. Never criticize him, but make him believe that he is always in control of the situation; this is the only way to try to build up a dialogue with him. Feeling taken into consideration for what one believes is one’s quality brings a person closer to you and makes him a bit more vulnerable.

Here’s an example: in the middle of a night of heavy rain and high winds, landing on the main runway would have been beyond the allowed limit of tail wind, but since there were gusts of wind, the captain told me that it was, in any case, possible to land with an acceptable margin of risk of a gust. The wind and the gusts were, however, decidedly beyond the limit allowed, so I asked if I could try the circling procedure since I had done very little of that at night (even if it wasn’t true) and that his supervision would have been very helpful to me. He accepted a bit unwillingly because my suggestion was different from his decision, but underneath it gave him the possibility to shine in my eyes as an instructor and so he agreed. Of course this does not always work, there are very stubborn personalities, so when in no way are you able to find a stable equilibrium, you will have to ask your superiors or colleagues for help; safety is a priority and if incompatibility with certain people compromises it, it is legitimate to ask someone else for help, while however always starting off on the right foot, avoiding confrontation and arguing; being a sort of psychologist and in fact more intelligent is half the battle. This is only my experience but I would like to know about the experiences of other people, how they dealt with this type of personality and whether they were more or less successful.