Posts Tagged ‘first officers’

The short list

Monday, August 20th, 2012

As much as pilots like hanging out with pilots, the fact is that in every population group, there is a small percentage that the larger percentage wish just wasn’t there. One of my favorite questions for folks I fly with is, “Who’s the worst captain you’ve ever flown with?” I ask this in part just for my own entertainment, but also because sometimes you can learn something from the stories.

As you might expect, certain names tend to be fairly common, making up what I call the short list. When I was a first officer, there were four or five, maybe 10, names that every FO wanted to avoid. That hasn’t changed much. Sometimes, a name comes up that others are surprised to hear.

When I was flying the right seat, I got stuck flying with a fellow for five days—my first five-day trip. By the end of the second day, I wanted to tar, feather, and set him on fire. We just didn’t get along. He was arrogant, cocky, and totally dismissive of any suggestions from someone who wasn’t…him. At least, that was how he presented himself to me. Others were shocked. Then again, other pilots complained about captains whom I would have been willing to fly with every day. Go figure.

But the one on my short list was also an owner of one of the out-of-nowhere airline pilot training schools that sprung up in the nineties. He quit to go to work for the school full time, and a few years later, one day after taking $80-100 thousand dollar deposits from several students, they shut the doors. It was an evil thing to do, and I hope he’s in jail for it. If he isn’t, I sure hope I never have to fly with him again…because I won’t.

But the list of those captains that people don’t like is so predictable that, as an FO begins to tell me a story, I can write the name down of who I think it is, show him the paper, and be right most of the time. The obvious question is, “What makes these guys so bad?” In a word, it is certain eccentricities. There is usually one trait that becomes overbearing to other crew members.

For instance, one was notorious for wanting certain numbers interpolated to make them as exact as possible. It was a ridiculous task; it wasn’t approved (nor required) by the FAA or the company; and it drove FOs nuts. Another would file ASAP reports over the most mundane items. The chart has a typo? ASAP report! Can’t read the mechanics’ writing? ASAP report! Another simply didn’t handle certain distractions well, would get flustered, then stutter.

A lot of times, it comes down to trust. If a captain is not a confident individual—and by that I mean if he doesn’t really trust his own ability to do his job well or his knowledge of it—he will trust the FO even less and scream and yell and carry on whenever the FO so much as sneezes. The biggest source of contention among FOs is the captain who claims to be standard and fly by the book, and then proceeds to list a series of “except for…” statements. You’re either standard, or you aren’t.

One was unpopular because all he did was break wind…the smelly kind. One would insist on eating tuna out of a can. One gave so many PA speeches it’s a wonder he had time to fly. But all were easy to fly with, and were good pilots and otherwise well liked. It’s the ones who come across as not-so-good that make you shake your heads.

I’ve been on the jumpseat of other airlines, and similar stories have come up. A name gets mentioned, and everyone on the flight deck knows who the individual is. Sometimes that notoriety is good to have, but other times…not so much.

The disappointing thing as a captain is to find out an FO you flew with has turned into one of the guys nobody likes. That makes me feel like I did not do as much as I could have to help mentor that individual. But the fact is that some guys are just destined to be on the short list, and sometimes it’s very predictable. Other times it isn’t, and when it isn’t, you try to explain how easy the guy or gal was to fly with when they were FOs, and you have to really argue your point. All you can do is sigh.

But one my favorite captains once said to me when I was a new hire, “You will learn far more about how to be a good captain from the (unmentionable name goes here) than you will from the good guys. The good guys make it appear so easy and fun because that’s what it should be. The (unmentionable name again goes here) just show you how to make life miserable.” Truer words were never spoken.—Chip Wright