Ethnography of Commercial Airline Pilots: The Almost-Finished Version







Captain’s Charm School

Ethnography of Commercial Airline Pilots

























Ethnographic Methods: Anth 220

Dr. Arnold Spring 2014

Sarah Myers

This ethnography focuses on commercial pilot micro culture, specifically from the Captain’s point of view. Ethnography is an important way for a student to learn the ways and beliefs of someone who does not share the same ones as they do. The goal of this ethnography is to show the culture of a commercial airline pilot with cultural themes of determination, continuation of study, stress, and uniqueness while showing the depth of the culture itself. This is only one small part of a much, much larger culture.

The nature of this investigation is to gain insight of a culture from an insider’s perspective. The insider is the informant who will be providing their point of view. Ethnography is used to discover and uncover culture from such perspective.

This ethnography was conducted through ethno semantics, which is a form of interviewing practiced by anthropologists. Informants are people who share their way of life with others. Ethno-semantics involves gathering cultural information from the use of language.

Culture is how someone interprets the world based on what’s around him or her. Informants share information about the culture they represent. Interviews with my informant took place over eight interviews through ought a three month process.

What makes ethnographic interview different from a typical interview style is the questions. Ethnographer asks the questions while the interviewee, also known as informant, responds by teaching a culture to the ethnographer. Questions asked in an ethnographic style are not leading; this is called an open ending question.           

Through ethnography students learn a cultural perspective different from the insider’s point of view. When conducting an ethnography it is important to choose a culture that the student knows little to nothing about, this allows the student to approach the ethnography with less bias to the culture in research.

This ethnography will focus on a particular type of subculture called micro culture. Micro culture:

Examples of microculture include, being a university student, hunting, and long boarding. Ethnocentrisms: Beliefs that your culture is superior to all others, issometimes presents a challenge for the ethnographer by encouraging them to make their own assumptions about a culture they know little to nothing about.

hroughought conducting this ethnography I was amazed to learn how many assumptions I make everyday about cultures I think I know- but in reality there is no way to know which assumptions are true or wrong without the insider’s perspective.

Finding An Informant

To find an informant I looked to the people I knew. My sister skies competitively but that micro culture did not fit the parameters of being a culture I knew nothing about. I was too familiar with it. So I called up a friend of mine who was training as a fitness instructor and asked her to be my informant. I thought this would work out great.

This did not. My informant had not participated in the culture long enough for her to be actually be established in the culture. Having an informant who is established in the culture he or she represents is a key component when finding an informant because later on throughout the ethnography I’d find myself researching a structure that was yet to exist.

I thought of my dad who has been a pilot for over twenty-five years. There is an established micro-culture I know little to nothing about. Then it was three days before the 1st interview and I was sitting in the back of class in a sudden panic realizing I have no informant and no one to interview. At home that weekend I said, Dad: “You’ve been a pilot for 25 years I’ll be interviewing you for the next eight weeks.”


I’ve never in my life conducted an interview before and I was nervous. Formality is new to me. Then I became obsessed with folk terms, and every fact was golden, and every curiosity I had I thought I should expand on, wrong- that got me off track, way off track.

Each interview got a smoother as I became more comfortable with the structure involved with asking ethnographic questions. My informant was open, clear, and thorough with each question throughout the entire interview. He gave me examples to go off of for nearly every topic I brought up and put up with my obscure questions. I appreciated the time he gave me, but I wouldn’t have minded spending another month interviewing.




My informant is the Captain of a Boeing 737 at United Airlines. Captain is the kind of pilot he is and also a type of cockpit crewmember. Boeing is the kind of airplane his flies. 737 is the sequence number of the plane, and it is also the type. United Airlines is a major airline, it is also a commercial airline, and it is the type of airline my informant is a part of.

When first hired by United, my informant was a flight engineer (this position no longer exists.) He then became a first officer, and then captain. He did this through building time and seniority. Seniority determines the amount of control a pilot has over his schedule, what kind, type, and size of planea pilot can choose to fly, and whether he or she will fly internationally or regionally. (If the pilot is hired by an airline that flies both, some airlines like, SouthWest Airlines, only fly regional.) An international pilot has a unique experience because he gets to experience many different cultures around the world. Once a pilot is hired by a major airline he has check rides and medicals every nine and six months. Pilots are continually studying for check rides and must keep themselves healthy for medicals. Check rides are stressful. If a pilot does not pass he could lose his job. If a pilot gets a sudden illness such as diabetes, he is done flying.



Building Time

“…Almost 30,000 hours- I don’t keep track anymore.”


Pilots do no get out of college and get hired by a major commercial airline. Pilot’s “build time.” Building time is how pilots get hired by bigger airlines. The amounts of hours they accumulate by flying in the sky are the hours a pilot has built.


“ I graduated from F.I.T. (Florida Institute of Technology), I had a bachelor’s of Science in Air Commerce Transportation Technology, that is my degree. I had commercial license with an instrument rating, and I had my flight instructor’s certificate. So that’s what you get when you get out of college, and that gets you no airline job.”


A pilot uses his Flight Instructor’s certificate to teach individuals to get their private pilot’s license. They do this until they have built up enough hours to move on, keeping in mind their goal of an airline job.

My informant put in 1,200 hours of flight instructing and moved to a charter service, starting out by riding along with another pilot in a charter plane.(Its called ride along because Charter’s are usually one pilot airplanes.) After enough ride alongs the pilot becomes the pilot in command, so he is now the one who flies the twelve-person charter.

Pilots build another couple thousand hours flying charter airplanes and then pilot gets hired at a commuter/regional airplane. An example of a regional/commuter airline, is Pocono Airlines. These planes fly short distances, and carry 28, 30 or 35 people. This type of plane is different from a charter because it is a two-person cockpit, which is where the pilots sit when they fly.

“When you first start out, you could make more in heating and air conditioning thenn you are in the right seat of a regional jet. You know when I was a fist officer…I think I told you this, I grossed 8,900 dollars back in the- you know it was 30 years ago or whatever, but I think the poverty was 12,500 that years, so I wasn’t making anywhere near the poverty level, but you always have in the back of your mind well why am I doing this. Its you know… you know your not going to stay there. Keep on thinkin’ well, this is not gonna be the same, you know, I have a goal. So that’s you have to be dedicated in that way, or you know you would say, well screw this I can go, get a heating and air conditioning job.”


A two-person cockpit requires two pilots: Captain and First Officer. The pilot is hired as a first officer then builds time to become a captain, then builds more time, and is hired by a major airline. Like the commuter/regional the pilot is hired as a first officer (my informant was hired as a flight engineer but that position no longer exists). When hired pilots do not have a choice as to which plane they are placed on. It is usually the smallest plane the company has. If a pilot has a goal to reach a major airline they must build enough time to be hired by that kind of airline.

After flying commuter jets my informant was hired by Flying Tigers, and flew a Boeing 747 cargo airplane. Flying Tigers is a major airline but it is different from United’s passenger planes because it was specifically manufactured for cargo. (Planes can be made either way depending on how the company orders them.) My informant had 8,400 flying time built up at this time. “Flying Tigers was a very nice airline, but its extremely hard to fly around the world in two weeks.” Some pilots like that they don’t have to deal with passengers on a cargo airplane. Some would want a family with being gone for two weeks at a time. There are a few other reasons not all pilots like to fly international I will touch on later.

Steps in Building Time

Flight Instructor

Pilot in Command


Ride Along

Charter Pilot


First Officer



Cargo/ Passenger


First Officer


Bigger Planes w/in Major

First Officer


Once at a major airline, the pilot can decide to move to bigger planes within the company. if a pilot wants to move to a bigger airline within the company, he or she has to with the flow of seniority. Once a pilot gains seniority, he can choose to move to a bigger airplane where he will get paid more but lose seniority or, he can stay where he is at and gain more seniority and more control over his schedule. I will discuss seniority later in the paper.





After flying commuter jets my informant was hired by Flying Tigers, and flew a Boeing 747 cargo airplane. Flying Tigers is a major airline but it is different from United’s passenger planes because it was specifically manufactured for cargo. (Planes can be made either way depending on how the company orders them.) My informant had 8,400 flying time built up at this time. “Flying Tigers was a very nice airline, but its extremely hard to fly around the world in two weeks.” Some pilots like that they don’t have to deal with passengers on a cargo airplane. Some would want a family with being gone for two weeks at a time. There are a few other reasons not all pilots like to fly international I will touch on later.

Types of Major Airline Companies










*In the last 10-15 years major airlines companies have been merging in order to compete with subsidized foreign airlines.




Kinds of United Airplanes

















New hired pilots do not get to choose where they are based and they do not get to choose which plane they are placed on and they do not have control over their schedule. Where a pilot is based is based on the last four digits of his security number. Control over a pilots schedule comes down to Seniority. Seniority has nothing to do with who has been flying planes the longest. For now, that was building time. Once a pilot gets to a major airline he can choose to change to a bigger airplane within the airline, but this also comes down to Seniority. From the chart above it is shown that there are many planes for a pilot to move to if he chooses, but again this is based on Seniority. Before I can talk about Seniority I have to explain cockpit crewmembers.

“What the Captain Says Goes”

The first thing I learned was that the micro culture of pilots can be broken down further that just Pilots. Pilot seemed more like a sub culture to me with tinier cultures within it. There’s the culture of military pilots or the culture of civilian pilots. There’s the culture of pilots who fly charter planes, then bigger planes such as commuter/regional- then there’s the biggest in the business- the commercial airlines. This is where the focus of the Ethnography will be. The culture of Pilots itself has a couple different directions. Someone could even branch off into the culture of a pilot who flies cargo airplanes vs. someone who flies passengers. My informant told that cargo planes fly anything from packages to flowers to cars and horses. One more cultural expansion- the culture can be broken down again between those who fly regional jets to those who fly international. My informant flies both but he emphasized international flight during the first interview so this ethnography will focus on some aspects of a commercial pilot who flies internationally. One final breakdown, is the difference between first officer and captain. They are both pilots, they both fly the same plane and they both fly commercial airlines- but they’re roles on the job are different, their tasks vary, and one of those two pilots always has the final say. Pilots must know how to think for themselves but know how to work together.

Types of Pilots






Types of Cockpit Crew Members



First Officer

The pilot of United Airlines, a major commercial airline, is broken down in two ways. The pilot is either First Office or Captain.


Captains and First Officers do many of the same tasks, checklists, procedures, but during an emergency the Captain has the final say. The captain is the person who is doing the call outs, he is telling the Customer service agent its ok to close the doors, he is coordinating with the flight attendents, and he is the pilot who taxiis the airplane. Unlike the movies, the captain does not fly both legs. The captain flies about half the flight, one leg, and the first officer flies the other. “Let’s say your flying along and you get a fire in the #2 Engine, it’s the Captain that’s gonna have to start commanding orders, its not the first officer that does that.”

Commanding orders means calling for a certain checklist- if it’s the wrong checklist. First Officer can suggest another but then the Captain still calls for that checklist. First Officer can suggest another but then the Captain still calls for that checklist.

Things that the Captain dos that the First Officer learns when he becomes captain- taxiing, coordination with customer service agent, coordinating with flight attendants.

            “If there’s a mechanical, or let’s say, a weather delay, you know sometimes it comes down to ‘Well Captain, do you wanna keep the people on the airplane or do you wanna get them off.’ Decision the Captain has to make. A captain cannot fly- cannot operate an airplane that size- he has to have a good first officer.



When commercial pilots start out they have no control over their schedule. They could be flying at all times of the day. Pilot gain control over their schedule as their senority number moves up. Senority has nothing to do with how much experience a pilot has. Senority has to do with the pilots Date of Hire. For example take a pilot who is on a 737 and now he wants to fly a 747. The 747 is only allowing pilots whose Date of Hire is ….before January 1989. So this pilot could













Check Rides

“If you can’t do ten things at once you’ll never make it”


Every 9 months (Its changing at United maybe going back to 6 months), pilots have to go back to the training center for what’s called a check ride. Everybody at each different airline is a part of this cycle and has to go. At the training center pilots train emergencies, updated latest things happening in the industry. They are checked by oral exams then checked in the simulator. They are also checked by written exams. Pilots have to perform emergencies and have certain procedures [to follow].

“…like when they fail an engine on take-off there is a procedure to perform to keep everything safe. And you have to do that, and you have to do that in parameters, acceptable to the FAA and United, or you don’t pass.”

Then a pilot has a check ride with a first officer, working together as a crew. And if that goes well (and it usually does). The Pilot is good for the next cycle. Check rides are to let United and FAA know you are doing okay. Not all are emergencies. Examples of non emergencies include but are not limited to: Engine out on take off, single engine landing, different approaches, no-precision approach, and Auto-land, down to runway with visibility as low as 300 ft. The captain always flies category three approaches. First officer is mostly doing all the same emergencies as the Captain, but a few, like the category three approaches, are specifically executed by the captain.






“Zurich Starbucks has good coffee.”

“You don’t have to be big and burly to be a good pilot.”















Final Thoughts

I drowned in information once or twice. I must have had two questions for every one sentence my informant said. I felt like I was on Pandora. I also felt like I opened Pandora’s box. This project caused me great stress, but it was worth it. The formality was hard for me to uphold, I ended up getting super frustrated once I realized I was not asking the last questions…so eventually I threw down all my stuff and said, Look dad, I know I’m not supposed to ask you this- but what does that MEAN. Obviously, well…that was a learning experience.

The quality is average, unorganized, and sporadic. Most of the time I spent throwing up ideas in random places and trying to understand what a taxonomy was. I felt I didn’t have enough time but was glad when the project was over. I would have liked to expand more! There is so much to talk about; someone would spend years explore the micro culture of pilots. I hope I learned how to ask a better question- the most exciting part for me was realizing that I now know how to ask people about their work. I had read The Langoliers recently and the story is centered around a pilot, a plane, and a time rip. At the end of the last interview I was asking my informant., so…. I’m reading this book and is says this, and that, about pressure and is that true? And Dad was like no, no none of that is true- that’s why I hate movies about pilots, “I can’t watch them, -they never get anything right.” Which got me thinking what else do I think I assume about culture that is completely and totally and outlandishly incorrect? That’s such a scary thought.

PS. Other aspects of this micro culture I had to leave out: Hub & Spoke System, Air & Ground Emergencies, medical emergencies, weather delays and emergencies, operations, layovers, international hardships; also Air Traffic Control systems, unruly passengers, cockpit instruments, plane layout, and other assorted checklists/procedures. I gained a lot of respect for pilots after this project. I should have asked; how do pilots keep there sanity. I wanted to take everyone through a 3-day international trip but that will have to be another ethnography.


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