Posts Tagged ‘airline crew’

First officer responsibilities

Monday, November 16th, 2015

DC10ChecklistEveryone 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

When to speak up

Monday, December 17th, 2012

I recently read a story in a nonflying publication about a group of people on a resort boat going scuba diving. The tale is related that at one point the captain had to leave his post at the wheel to go below to find his sunglasses. While he was doing so, the boat began to drift off-course enough that it was clear it would crash.

The employee sitting next to the captain began to display obvious knowledge of the impending situation, but did nothing to react, even though all he had to do was put his hand on the wheel to keep the boat going straight. The author explains that it was clear that such action by an employee in the past had led to a pretty severe dressing-down, if not outright embarrassment in front of a boatload of customers. Further, when the captain finally resumed his post, there was no discussion about the danger the boat had been in.

In a crewed environment of any sort—airplanes, in our case—the most important asset is trust. Each pilot must not only trust that the other knows how to fly, and that he or she knows what the job is, but the first officer especially needs to trust that the captain will welcome input that could be necessary but a bit embarrassing.

Now, there is speaking up and there is speaking up. In the simple version, the FO might point out something mundane and obvious. For example, the controller issued a descent clearance and the altitude was set, but the captain forgets to actually start the descent. The FO then pipes up, the captain realizes what he didn’t do, starts to descend, and all is well. That’s easy.

What’s harder is when a judgment call is required. Maybe the controller named Victor gave some bad vectors, and the approach is going to be steeper and faster than it should be. Or, maybe there is some questionable weather ahead. Or, maybe the captain is missing every radio call because he has something on his mind or doesn’t feel well. Calling for a go-around during an unstable approach sounds like it should be easy, but you’d be shocked at how hard it is for an FO to bring himself to call for the go-around.

A captain who is error-prone is a difficult scenario, especially if you don’t the person well. If he or she has a reputation for it, you can at least be prepared. If not, you have to determine if the captain usually operates this way or is just having a bad day.

I’ve always told my FOs that not only should they speak up, but that I need them to. The last thing I want them to do is wonder if it’s OK or if it will offend me. The truth is that it will offend me more if they don’t. After all, it always seems that certificate action follows the dumbest mistakes that are left uncorrected. I hope everyone I flew with will agree that speaking up with me was never an issue.

It’s a harder skill—and it is a skill—to develop than you think. When I first upgraded, many of my captains were my age or older, and they had less reservation about pointing something out, even if it was not a big deal. But as time passed, and my FOs became much younger than me, I noticed that I had to really emphasize that my feelings would not be hurt if they said I was being dumb, or if they wanted a go-around because they didn’t like what they saw. It always seemed to me that being able to talk about it after the fact was better than the NTSB and FAA talking to my family about instead.

But there are some pilots who are just “plane” jerks, and take on a very dictatorial attitude. In my personal experience, these are actually easier to deal with in some respects. Get them alone, and tell them flat out how they are coming across and that they are not being conducive to a safe environment, and (this is important) give them examples of negative behavior that they have displayed. Being called out often makes people realize that they have crossed a line or two, and often brings about the sort of behavior modification you need.

Don’t be the guy sitting next to an empty chair as the ship (or plane) heads for trouble. Be assertive but respectful, and fix the problem now. You can deal with the other person’s attitude later. If things are bad enough, you can always find another job.—Chip Wright