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[This article originally appeared in Sport Aerobatics magazine,  a publication of the International Aerobatic Club, a division of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Inc. and is reprinted with permission.] 


Aerobatic Pilots

Why do they fly that way?

by Bruce C. Ogilvie, Ph.D., and Champe C. Pool, M.D.

Aerobatic flying, the sport, is precise, demanding, and highly competitive. The pilots are judged as they loop, spin, and roll their small, specially constructed aircraft through intricate geometric patterns, performing a sort of ballet in the sky.

Who are these aerobatic pilots, what are they, and what motivates them? They are, among other things, the introverts of the athletic world.

Four psychological tests were administered in a collaborative study designed to measure the personality traits of aerobatic pilots. This report is a summary of the psychological profiles, which were averaged for each of the individual personality traits.

A number of traits found in earlier studies of the best race drivers1, 2 , the best parachutists, and other professional athletes also appear in this one. There are, however, trends that are uniquely descriptive of the people who match their skills in competitive aerobatics.

Materials and Methods

The tests included the Cattell 16 PF3 , which is used to measure 16 relatively stable personality trends and seven other derived scores that suggest more basic personality dimensions. The second test was the Edward Personal Preference Schedule4 , which measures 15 personality traits. Third was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory5 , administered to measure personality characteristics that may be pathological. And the fourth test, designed at the Institute for the Study of Athletic Motivation, was used to measure sports-specific traits6.

By using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, we sought data that would allow us to reflect upon the generalizations so often heard about men who engage in stressful, risk-taking activities. And in risk taking, few sports surpass aerobatics.


The literature in psychiatry and psychology contains many subjective interpretations. As in every other group of competitors that we have studied, however, once again we found a sample of emotionally healthy, reality-oriented human beings. Individuals with neurotic or overcompensatory behavior traits were exceptions in this study.

The emerging psychological profile shows aerobatic pilots to be cool, reserved, critical, and perhaps more emotionally detached than any athletic group yet tested at the institute. Race drivers and parachutists, though less extreme, are similar in personality.

Pilots fall at the extreme high end of the abstract reasoning scale, and may be the highest sample of this trait. They are enterprising, decisive, imperturbable, yet creative and inventive in the areas in which they have ability and training. Predictably, they face reality in a calm and deliberate manner.

In examining personality traits, whether tough-minded or tender, pilots move to the tough-minded end of the scale, suggestive of self-reliant, no-nonsense individuals. In measuring forthrightness versus shrewdness, they are inclined to be artless, natural, and sentimental by nature. They tend to be self-sufficient, rather than group-oriented.

They also score high in the need for order and organization, indicating that this is a highly developed aspect of their personalities.

On the inventory measuring 16 major psychological needs, the pilots demonstrated a need for achievement exceeding that of all other athletes in our studies. Their drive to be successful, to accomplish tasks requiring skill and effort, to achieve something of great significance, to be recognized, to do a job well, placed them in a class by themselves. They are, clinically speaking, a collection of extremely driven men.

They rate high in deference, which is the inclination to take or accept suggestions, to follow instructions, praise others, and to conform to customs. They also score high in the need for order and organization, indicating that this is a highly developed aspect of their personalities. Within this trait is a concern for detail, a tendency to plan ahead, to jive by some system. But there is a definite trend toward exhibitionism.

Independence ranks high as a need among the pilots. They like to make their own decisions, often to do the unconventional, and to criticize those in authority. They also tested extremely high in psychological endurance, an old-fashioned trait of tenacity. They are able to work long periods of time and avoid distractions.

The pilots tend to resist becoming joiners or members of groups, and are reluctant to study or interpret the motivation and needs of other people. On the other hand, they exhibit little interest in having others take care of them. Neither do they seek to dominate or control other individuals.

Although they don’t seek emotional support or even special understanding from others — they would resent being pampered — they are not likely to feel guilt for wrongdoing or accept personal blame, nor would they feel an inner need to be punished for failures. But these traits are consistent with our profiles of coaches at all levels — high school, university, and professional7 .


There is no single sign, or collective sign, to indicate that aerobatic pilots are less emotionally healthy than educated people in general. Anxiety or tension characteristically is turned toward some physical outlet allowing total physical release. There is, moreover, an elevated level of ego strength.

The pilots can be described as highly integrated individuals, stable and sound. Social status is important to them, and they have a tendency to gravitate toward activities that will reinforce status.

Successful competitors appear to be ambitious, organized, autonomous individuals with an unusual capacity to apply themselves over long periods of time.

They are not especially interested in others, but their independence enables them to derive satisfaction through personal achievement rather than seek social approval. The fascinating contradiction would seem to be their need for the spotlight. They enjoy attention and recognition, but it is an inner reaction rather than an outward exuberance.

Independence and an enterprising, decisive personality structure seems once again consistent with what we have found in the successful high-level competitor.

Dr. Ogilvie was professor of psychology at California State University, San Jose, and co  ordinator of the Institute for Study of Athletic Motivation.

Dr. Pool was chief of the department of orthopedics, Harrisburg Polyclinic Hospital, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was medical consultant and team physician for the U.S. aerobatic team in 1972.


1. Johnsgard KW, Ogilvie BC: The competitive racing driver. A preliminary report. Int J Sports Med Phys Fitness 3:87-95, 1968 2. Ogilvie BC: Psychological consistencies within the personality of high level competitors. JAMA 11:205, 1968 3. Cattell RB, Eber HW: Handbook for the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire, IPAT, 111, 1957 4. Edwards AL: Edwards Personal Preference Schedule (Manual), New York, Psychological Corporation, 1954, p 36 5. Hathaway SR, McKinley JC: Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (Manual). New York, The Psychological Corporations, 1951 6. Ogilvie BC: Personality traits of competitors and coaches medical aspects of the Olympic games. Modem Medicine, June 26, 1972, pp 61-68 7. Ogilvie BC, Tutko TA: Self-perception as compared with measured personality of selected male physical educators, in Kenyon J (ed): Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Sport Psychology, 1968 They also score high in the need for order and organization, indicating that this is a highly developed aspect of their personalities. 18 Sport Aerobatics March 2017

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Originally published in The Physician and Sportsmedicine. Vol. 2, No. 11, November 1974, McGraw-Hill Inc.

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