What makes a good first officer? It’s easier to talk about what makes a good captain, since the captain is the boss and has the ability to make everyone miserable.

At my first airline, I was an FO for only two and a half years before spending the next 12 as a captain. Now, I’m back in the right seat, and I find myself applying a lot of what I looked for in my own FOs, as well as some of my own ideas along with a healthy dose of common sense. Most of this is not in order, but the first one is.

  • Be on time. This is a big one, especially when it’s time to leave the hotel. Most pilots excel at being on time, if not early. It’s easy at the beginning of the trip, but some folks have a hard time being in the lobby on time for the van. Most pilots will try to be in the lobby at least five minutes early. Nobody likes to be rushed at the gate—and the van driver doesn’t like to be rushed in traffic—so make it a point to be punctual. As a captain, I really appreciated an FO who was early to plane on the first leg of the trip (assuming we didn’t bump into each other in the crew room). So, I always try to be the first one to the airplane now.
  • Be a chameleon. Unfortunately, this is the life blood of being an FO. You’re forced to learn (quickly) the habits and quirks of each captain you deal with. It can be as simple as knowing when the first checklist is read to something as strange as the way a piece of paper needs to be folded. (I’m not kidding.)There was a captain at Comair who was legendary for the origami-like way he wanted to fold the piece of paper from the release that we used for the ATIS, clearance, et cetera. He wouldn’t let anybody else touch it, and FOs quickly learned to just hand it to him. It’s also necessary to learn quickly to what extent a captain is going to help out with certain duties. Some captains will insist on doing some of the walk-arounds, and others will not even entertain it. Worse, some will not do the walk-around, but also will do nothing in the cockpit, figuring that they are “staying out of the way.” It’s true that two pilots loading the FMS can lead to confusion and make the process take longer, but it’s not so bad that he or she needs to totally back away. This is just someone being a jerk or lazy (or both). Fortunately, this is also rare.
  • CRM quirks. Some captains are over the top with crew resource management, and fortunately, they expose that early, so you can figure out that you’ll be double- and triple-verifying everything you touch, say, and do, even after you’ve already verified it. Just don’t forget something, because you’ll likely hear about it if you do. One way to minimize any conflict is to save all the paperwork until the captain says it’s OK to toss it. On the 737 that I fly, the printer is running nearly nonstop with messages, ATIS updates, performance info, et cetera. I keep everything until I figure out if the captain is a “read it and toss it” kind or wants to hold it until we land. The best ones only print out critical info.
  • Standard operating procedures. Most pilots follow most of the rules, and a few follow all of them. But some only follow a few. Ironically, most of the ones who do things their own way will tell you that they do things their own way, but they will follow along if you want to go by the book. In a way, these captains are both the easiest and the most difficult to fly with, because you can pick up some very bad habits, but they will not stop you from doing what’s right because doing what’s right keeps them out of trouble. That said, most captains try to follow company and FAA procedures, and they expect the same from the FOs. A good captain can address this diplomatically when a conflict occurs. A good FO will just follow procedures from the get-go, and if there is a conflict, he or she will simply ask there is a new procedure. Along the lines of SOP is keeping up with changes. It used to drive me crazy when the company would put out updates and FOs would drag their feet on reading them or implementing them. Now, as an FO, I try to make it a point to bring them up during our initial meeting to make sure we’re on the same page, which I’ve found captains greatly appreciate.
  • Prevent mistakes. Most captains will ask that you point out something they might be doing wrong or a mistake they may have made, and most of them mean it. We’re all human, and what may look like a deliberate act of non-compliance is almost always just a mistake or a misunderstanding. FOs saved my bacon more than once, and will eventually do so again. I’m simply returning the favor.
  • Ask questions. Captains love to both teach and pass along tidbits and institutional knowledge. Take advantage of it. It may not have anything to do with the airplane, but every little nugget of knowledge you pick up can make your work life much easier. In fact, ask your captains what FOs do that they like and don’t like. You’ll hear some interesting stories. Soon, you’ll be talking smack about your own FOs!
  • Relax, and have fun. Flying is a lot of fun and a great way to make a living, but if you don’t relax, it’s a lot more stressful than it should be. There will invariably be the rare few that you don’t like or get along with, but there is always a topic of conversation that you can agree on. If there isn’t, then you need to just accept that it will be a quiet trip. Thankfully, those days are rare indeed. Most of the time, there is an easy banter and a rapport that settles in, and the trip is over all too soon.

Just make sure that you’re on time.—Chip Wright