Revised Ethnography







Captain’s Charm School

Ethnography of Commercial Airline Pilots

























Ethnographic Methods: Anth 220

Dr. Arnold Spring 2014

Sarah Myers

Dear Adam, The ethnography you are about to read focuses on the micro culture of commercial airline pilots. Culture is complex. It includes the knowledge, habits, and customs of man as a member of society. Micro culture is one of the layers that culture is broken down into. What this means is I did research on a smaller culture that was within a bigger culture, that was within an even bigger culture. Given the time limit of one semester, we had to research the smallest kind of culture there that we could. Research was gathered through a representative of the chosen culture and a series of interviews that followed.

The goal of this ethnography is to show the culture of a commercial airline pilot through the cultural theme of continuation of study. There are also themes of determination, bodily hardships, and an experience that few others are able to share. The depth of this culture is outstanding; originally when I started the project it was simply ‘micro-culture of pilots’ but over the course I came to realize that this was too big of a culture for me to tackle. There were smaller cultures within the culture of pilots. I chose to focus on commercial airline pilots because that is the job of my informant, but really I could have focused on the micro-culture of commercial airline captains to break down the culture to its most micro level.

The type of class I am writing this paper for is called Ethnographic Methods, a class that is teaches students a method of ethnography. This course focuses on the ethnographic method of ethno-semantics, where anthropologists gather information through language, like interviewing. Ethnography is an important research method for anthropologists to gather information on a particular culture.

The nature of this investigation is to gain insight of a particular culture from the perspective of an insider. When makes ethnographic interviewing different from a typical interview is the type of questions that are asked. Interviewers ask the interviewee, also known as their Informant, open ended questions. If an ethnographic question is asked properly, it will never be leading.




Finding An Informant

When asked to find an informant I looked to some people I knew. I thought of my sister who skies competitively but after some consideration, I realized that micro culture did not fit the parameters of what I needed. The main reason being tat I was too familiar with it. I was looking for a culture I knew little to nothing about. So I called up a friend of mine who was training to be a fitness instructor and I asked her to be my informant. She agreed but after some further reading I realized this micro culture was too new to for me to gather concrete information from. When looking for a micro culture it is important to find one that is established because that means the structure of it is concretely formed. Without a cultural foundation there would be no foundation for your research. The information I gathered would not be accurate because the culture has yet to identify its particular patterns.

After learning this, I thought of my dad who has been a pilot for twenty-five years and and I thought to myself, well that is definitely established and I know little about the culture. Even though I knew little about the culture I still knew enough to make assumption which may have gotten me off track later during the interview process. How I found my informant was simple because I still live in his house. At this time I was panicky because I should have had an informant two weeks beforehand…so at home that weekend I said, Dad: “You’ve been a pilot for twenty-five years and that’s established and I’ll be interviewing you for the next eight weeks ok? ok.”

I conducted eight interviews with my informant over the time of three months. I had in my life conducted a typical interview before and never an ethnographic one…I knew they were different but at that time I had no idea how, and I was nervous. Being formal was probably the hardest part and I don’t think I ever actually achieved that. In those beginning interviews I became obsessed with folk terms, being all those words my informant used that described his culture. Every curiosity I had I thought I should expand on, which was wrong, and got me of track completely for two weeks of interviewing.

My informant was great. He was helpful, open, and he gave me examples nearly every topic which aided in my understanding of the culture. He even answered my really obscure how-would-I-even-know-that questions. I appreciate the time he gave me, but I wouldn’t have minded if we had another month to spend with interviews and questioning.




My informant is the Captain of a Boeing 767 at United Airlines. Captain is the kind of pilot he is, Boeing is the type of plane he flies, 767 is the sequence number, and United Airlines is the company he was hired by. When pilots start out at a major airline, they are hired as a first officer. Captain and first officer are members of the cockpit crew. Augmented crews are cockpit crews that fly on flights longer than eight hours; double crews, over twelve hours.

Civilian pilots start out as a flight instructor and move up to a commercial airline by building time. At United, my informant was first hired as a flight engineer (this position no longer exists.) He then became a first officer, and then with enough seniority, he became captain. Currently pilots hired by major airlines are hired as first officers. Pilots move up positions by seniority.

Seniority has nothing to do with the experience, but by the pilot’s date of hire. Seniority also determines the amount of control a pilot has over his schedule, when he can move up from first officer to captain, where he is on the airline, where he is on a particular plane, and his choice of planes.

A pilot within a major airline has check rides. These occur every 9 months, (possibly 6 months, my informant noted that things at United are changing.) Passing a medical and a check ride determines that a pilot may keep his job. Lasting about three days, check rides tests pilots on emergencies and procedures. The main goal of a check ride is for the pilot to demonstrate that he can keep everything safe and that he can work with his co-pilot. Pilots are continually studying for check rides because he or she will continue the cycle of being tested for the duration of his or her career.


Building Time

0 – 30,000 hours


When a civilian pilot graduates college a major commercial airline, or any airline does not hire him or her. Pilot’s “build time.” Building time is how pilots move up and get hired by bigger airlines.


“ 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.

My informant put in 1,200 hours of flight instructing and moved to a charter service, which is a small twelve-person airplane, with one pilot, the pilot in command. Pilots start out by riding along with the pilot whose flying until they are able to fly the plane themselves.

Pilots build another couple thousand hours flying charter airplanes and then the pilot gets hired at a commuter/regional airline. 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. Beginning with regional/commuters pilots will be hired as a first officer and build time to becoming a captain. Once a captain then they may be hired by a major airline.

“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.”


Types of Services/Airlines a pilot flies when building time

Charter Services















When hired by a major airline, pilots do not have a choice as to which plane they are placed on. It is usually the smallest plane the company has.

After flying commuter jets my informant was hired by Flying Tigers, and flew a Boeing 747 cargo airplane. Flying Tigers is a major airline just like United but for Flying Tigers my informant flew cargo planes as opposed to passenger planes. (Planes can be manufactured either way depending on how the company orders them.) My informant had 8,400 flying time built up at this time.

Once at a major airline, the pilot decides whether he wants to move to bigger planes within the company but this doesn’t happen right away. If a pilot wants to move to a bigger airline within the company, he or she goes with the flow of seniority.



Positions a pilot moves through when building time

Flight Instructor





Ride along with pilot






Pilot in Command






First Officer































Types of Cockpit Crew Members



First Officer

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. Before I can talk about Seniority I have to explain cockpit crewmembers.


The Crew

Basically what the captain says goes


Kinds of United Airplanes
















There is a 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. That is the captain’s job. Pilots must know how to think for themselves but know how to work together.


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. I haven’t explained check rides yet but pretend a captain and first officer in a simulator practiing an emergency: “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.

            “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 operate aa airplane that size- he has to have a good first officer.

Augmented and Double Crews

When pilots fly international trips there has to be more than the captain and first officer as a part of the cock pit crew because of how long these flights are. A flight that is up to 8 hours has just a captain and first officer. But a flight that is longer than 8 hours has an augmented crew, which is a captain, first officer, and relief first officer. A flight that is longer than 12 hours has a full double crew that includes a captain, first officer, relief captain and relief first officer.

“Stress on the body is another factor pilots deal with- that’s why there are qugmented crews, 3 person crew on a European trip and a 4 person crew on an Asian trip- because you don’t want the same guy landing the plane that took off 17 hours ago.”

Types of Cockpit Crews

Cockpit Crew

Augmented Cockpit Crew

Double Crew





First Officer




Relief Captain




Relief First Officer







“When are you gonna get off the plane, Will!”


The date a pilot is hired is and when his seniority begins. It is common to think seniority is gained by experience but for pilots, this is not the case.

Things Seniority Determines

Airplane pilots gets to choose

Where he is in the airline

Where he is on the airplane

How much control he has over his schedule

When he can upgrade



“Airline seniority is and begins on the date of hire. Example: Pilots A,B, & C are hired January 1, 1989. They are placed in their class by the last four digits of their social security number, lowest #1 A, #2 B, #3, C. Then three more are hired January 15th: D,E,F…in that class D is first, E next and F last. So all through their airline careers with that airline the seniority will be for those six pilots ABCDEF.

            So A would get first choice of an opening of a type of airplane also down the line A will have first choice to upgrade to captain that/his number becomes time to upgrade.

            [informant’s example of himself] I was next to last in my class of 12. High last SS number…but UAI was hiring 60 pilots a month. I had 1200 pilot behind me in one year. It took about 10 years to upgrade to Captain. Everyone is moving up because people are retiring and having medical problems and stop flying. My latest seniority is 1,987 out of around 6,500 pilots [at United Airlines].

            It also determines where you are on a particular plane. My seniority number places me #50 out of 130 Captains on the B767 out of Washington. I’ll move up a number every month or two.”

            There is a seniority list for Captains and a list for First Officers. When a First Officer is able to upgrade to captain he goes to the Training Center otherwise known as TK and as Captain’s Charm School, to those pilots going in for an upgrade course.

When my informant flew United’s 737 instead of choosing a bigger airplane when his seniority allowed him, he chose to stay on the 737 and by doing that he continued to gain seniority. When pilots switch planes, they go to the bottome of their seniority list. By by staying on the plane his seniority increased.

            “When I was number 1 captain on the 737, you know in the softball days and stuff, I had complete control over my schedule, everybody would look at me and be saying, “Okay Will, when are you gettin’ the hell off the airplane.”

Pilots move up seniority lists depending on how many pilots are retiring, how many planes the company is added, and how many pilots are hired after them. My informant was hired at a time when many planes where being added and many pilots where being hired after him, so he was able to gain seniority pretty quickly, but things have slowed down since then. In the airline industry in the United States, this is just the way things are set up. There is more to seniority than what I have explained, this is really just one aspect of it but what I am demonstrating here is that seniority is not determined how well a pilot performs.

“I was trying to tell Dr. Shu that. He was shaking his head. He was understanding but he was saying you mean, it has nothing to do with performance. I said, unfortunately Dr. Shu, once you hired in theairline, and you are able to pass your checkrides you do not move up with performance.”





Check Rides

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


Pilots prepare for check rides by studying the Flight Manuel and they study flight operations manual, each about 1300 pages. They review procedures they don’t normally di everyday but will be expected to know on the check ride. Lately, my informant told me, check rides themselves have been changing in the lat 10-15 years or so, now they are not just checking to see what you know but checking to see how well you relate to your co-pilots. He told me pilots who have not gotten along have been in accidents because they haven’t gotten along and- “You just gotta get along with the guy next to you.” 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.

            On the actual check ride there is an element of unpredictability, out of the manuals, they could be tested on anything. “Someone on the outside probably doesn’t know how much continuous training you have to go through, to you know, keep your job.” The main point of a check ride is that the pilot keeps everything safe- did they demonstrate safety- that’s what matters.


“II mean that’s one of the nice things- the food is good. That was one of the better- you get to choose- I mean get to, at that point, experience different cultures.”










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


Says the hardest part about flying is that a pilot doesn’t have a normal schedule, so it is hard on their body. This is something pilots just deal with, “its part of the job.” Excecising, eating healthy, and sleep helps. “Your normal circadian cycle is out of whack. People generally do better when they wake up at the same time and they go to bed at the same time.” That’s not how the job of a pilot goes. That puts a lot of stress on the body.

Flying is like being on top of the Canyons (The Rockies) for 9 hours. There is less oxygen, that is why pilots get more tired, just by being up there. It is very dry. Sinuses dry out. People get dehydrated quicker. Pilots tend to get kidney stones, if they don’t drink enough water. Radiation exposure from the sun is higher- the windows in the cockpit.

            Pilots see sights that nobody else gets to see. One time he said he was flying over to Europe, over the middle of the Atlantic and he saw Aura Borealis- “it looked like it was all around us” in the cabin the passengers could only see one side of it, but pilots have a 360 degrees view in the cockpit.

            It is fun to bring the power up, he said. A lot of power going into that airplane when you get it rolling. “That’s the other thing passengers don’t see- just how fast you are rolling down the runway before you take off.” Also, he notes, Zurich Starbucks has really good coffee.





Final Thoughts

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.

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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