Everyone knows that (almost) every professionally flown airplane has two pilots up front, and the captain is in charge. He or she gets paid the big bucks to make all of the hard decisions and take all of the glory when things go perfectly smoothly.
What are the first officer’s responsibilities?
First, every first officer hates the word “co-pilot,” because that is not the proper term. But moving on.
At the most basic level, the FO is there in case anything happens to the captain. Twice in 2015, airline flights have diverted because of a medical issue with one of the pilots. In one case, the captain died. This is obviously not the norm, but it is a possibility, and with the increase in mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65, it’s not unreasonable to expect that more events like this might occur.
From a duty standpoint, the FO does more than recite checklists and move the lever for the landing gear. Just about every airline and flight department allows the captain to “delegate” certain duties to the FO, and in most cases, it becomes a working assumption that the FO will fulfill these duties. Delegating, per se, doesn’t have to occur. For example, the walk-around is almost always conducted by the FO, and when the weather is lousy, you can pretty much guarantee that the FO will be the one trudging around in the rain and snow to check the outside.
In an environment like the airlines, in which the crew is monitoring two radio frequencies on the ground, the FO will handle most communications on the company “Ops” (for Operations) frequency. This is the frequency used for all non-ATC issues, such as late-arriving wheelchairs, two passengers being assigned to the same seat, catering issues, et cetera. The captain might jump in for a maintenance issue, but the FO usually handles these as well.
In the corporate world or in operations with no flight attendant, the FO is often responsible for tidying up the cabin, disposing of trash, and the like. Fetching paperwork often falls on the FO as well, though at some companies the captain takes care of this so that he or she can review the fuel load and weather with the dispatcher.
In the airplane, crews typically rotate turns flying, and there is no difference in the way the airplane is handled or flown, no matter who is flying. If it’s the FO’s leg, and he wants to deviate 20 miles for weather, then the deviation takes place. The FO generally will run the checklists while taxiing, because the captain is the only one with a steering tiller, but once airborne, the flying pilot is the flying pilot. If something goes awry, company procedures may dictate who does what. Most but not all airlines will allow the FO to continue flying if an emergency develops during the FO’s leg. That said, some situations may arise that require the captain to fly. This is usually a result of aircraft design, and it is not a reflection of the ability of the FO to fly. Nonetheless, the captain always has the option to take over if he or she believes that is the best course of action.
First officers often comment that they work much harder than the captains, and it’s a comment that is actually fairly accurate. FOs often get the grunt work in addition to routine duties. Fair or not, it’s just the way it is, a means of paying the dues. It’s also a learning experience. But when push comes to shove, the FO has just as much authority to question something as a captain does, and if there is something wrong that can only be found on the walk-around, the captain is counting on the FO not only to do the job, but also to do it well.—Chip Wright