Mentoring: What is a mentor?

With all this talk about mentoring, we need to clear the air on just what it means to be a mentor.

Unfortunately there isn’t a manual or rule book that tells you how to be a mentor, at least not in the aviation world. The good news is that most of the core competencies are common sense.

Let’s start with the clinical definition:

Mentor: Someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.

It is simple to define, but we should explore the nuances that aren’t covered in the dictionary.

  1. It doesn’t take decades of experience, or any special skills to be a mentor. The key trait is a willingness to help others. If you are a freshly minted private pilot, you are light years ahead of someone who is just starting out. If you can leverage your experience and passion to contribute to someone’s success, you can mentor.
  2. Mentoring can be formal or informal. Some prefer a framework around it and others might be more comfortable with a less structured approach. In either case, it should unfold naturally in a way that suits both parties. It’s important to note that in most situations a personal relationship formed before any mentoring began. This allows for trust, respect and mutual admiration to anchor the mentorship.
  3. Leadership is a major factor in being a mentor. My friend Rob Burgon at and I have discussed this many times. He’s an F-22 driver and leadership has been drilled into him from day one in the military. As civilian aviators, we unfortunately don’t receive any formal leadership training. Therefore, one of the biggest contributions we can provide as a mentor is to teach leadership, much of which happens by example. If you feel like you aren’t fully qualified in this area, there are plenty of good online sources on the topic. The fact that you are taking the initiative to be a mentor probably means you have many of the qualities already.
  4. Being supportive is key. Mentors need to be good listeners and they need to encourage and coach where needed. It is not enough to just offer sage advice and then walk off. You have to be able to help them achieve their goals. Of course struggles will occur and as mentors we need to be there to provide encouragement and motivation. Having someone that believes in you is powerful stuff. In many cases it can be the difference between success and failure.

Being a mentor should not be taken lightly, but it doesn’t have to be daunting or nebulous either. The hardest part is knowing how much or how little is required, something that is completely situational. Like anything, you get better with practice so get going.

Don’t worry we’ll cover the role of the mentoree in a future article.


  1. Phil "Kaiser" Wilhelm says

    I guess I must be the odd guy in the crowd. I grew up in a small town and I’ve done a lot of my flying from small airports. I got my private and commercial without a formal ground school, just the Jepson self instructional text. But when I came upon something that just didn’t click, all I had to do was ask some of my flying buddies for help and I got it, sometimes more than I wanted. They would talk for hours about the subject I needed help with, and then some, actually not some but a whole lot. Maybe the key to my luck with getting help was the “small airports”. What makes me really sad is that more and more of those small airports are disappearing. But, that only makes them harder to find, because they are still out there with the look and smell of aviation. And where there are planes, general aviation, there are pilots complete with hours of free hanger time.

  2. says

    As the number of certified pilots in the U.S. seems to dwindle, it becomes more important for those of us who have our “wings” to build and mentor others – especially the generation that will replace us in the air! The passing of corporate knowledge has long been something that sets the aviation community apart from others – we are not competing with each other, but helping each other improve and become better pilots thereby making the entire community safer and better. If we lose the tradition of mentoring and passing experience to others in favor of seeking financial gain (“get an instructor!”) that is a huge foul. Instruction and mentorship are different and I would hope no one charges for providing mentorship. I also firmly believe our diligent instructors need to put food on the table and fuel in the tanks, so instruction should be appropriately compensated. Let’s not confuse the two and provide mentorship when and where we can. Great article, it’s made me think how I can help improve the aviation community in whatever way I can.

  3. Norman Davis says

    Lack of mentoring has really soured me on flying. I asked back when I was a freshly minted Private Pilot if there were any folks who would like to impart their knowledge on me. I was considering mostly those who could no longer be PIC, but could ride along and give me pointers. The reply I usually got was to get an instructor. Well, I couldn’t afford that just to go up for an hour’s fun.

    As a ham radio operator, those of us with years of experience thrive on helping the new ham. I don’t understand why the aviation community is so against giving someone a hand or befriending and imparting knowledge especially to keep the newer pilot safe.

    • says

      Norman, I am sorry to say that your experience seems to be the norm rather than an exception. I stay away from some pilots, because their complaining about everything simply makes me depressed. I’m glass-half-full kinda guy and being around them would likely shatter my glass.

      Having said that, I have several pilot friends who are very much the kind of people you were looking for. The key for me was to find people with similar interest in flying. As an avid ham, you have your preferences in mode of operation and gear, I’m sure. Flying is not an exception. It is worth finding the right connection — I did.

    • says

      That’s terrible. I must echo what Edward said, it probably happens all too often. I appreciate what he did by surrounding yourself with the right people. That makes all the difference in the world.


  4. Tom says

    I once had a mentor named Kate,
    She treated me just like a king,
    When we flew up high on a date,
    She taught me a couple of things.

    She said don’t confuse the mixture,
    With the carburetor heat knob you see,
    Or we will end up as an aluminum fixture,
    Down there in that large grove of trees.

    The other thing that she said,
    Was the gauges you must cross check,
    Her flying, by the book, so well read,
    And in other things too I suspect.

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