Menu

Tag: airline captain

Life as a chameleon

Flying as a first officer (FO) means working as a chameleon. Every captain has his or her own quirks, and the FO has precious little time to figure out what those quirks are. Some captains are just weird, and some are just plain wrong, and others are just a bit too literal in their interpretation of certain rules and procedures. Some are just, well, quirky.

I flew with a captain at my first airline who had a reputation for being difficult to get along with for various reasons. The general consensus was that he had a temper, and if something wasn’t done his way, he’d get upset.

The one thing that stands out in my mind was his origami method of folding the paperwork. We had a paper release at the time, and there was one section that had all of the pertinent data needed for a flight. It had space for the ATIS, the clearance, performance info, et cetera.

Ninety-nine percent of the pilots utilized that paper the same way. This guy didn’t. It had to be folded a certain way, and I can’t begin to guess how many tries it took him to get it this way, but when he finally had his eureka moment and found his magic fold, FOs were doomed. It wasn’t just that it was folded a certain way. It was folded in such a way that every line on it was now visible at all times (which was something only he cared about).

In order to achieve this art, he was the only one allowed to handle it. The FOs weren’t supposed to touch the paper until he had done his folding, as he didn’t want any wrinkles or stray ink marks. All of this would have been somewhat tolerable under normal circumstances, but a person who has such odd behavior about one thing has it about everything. Further, he wouldn’t tell you about this until after you’d upset him. If you’re going to be weird, particular, and difficult, tell everyone in advance.

Another example was a captain who tried to correct my actions by quoting “the book” to me. That’s all well and good, except in three cases out of three on three consecutive flights, he was wrong. It led to a fairly heated argument on the last leg of the trip, but by then I’d figured out how he operated: I had to be perfect, and he had to be right. It makes for an unhealthy working relationship, and not one that is conducive to safety or a good time. Sometimes it’s best to just do what they want and grit your teeth, but if you’re going to quote the book, get it right.

Most captains try to fly to the established standard, but we all are human, and it’s understandable that there are times when a shortcut gets taken, or minor difference gets introduced. It doesn’t help that sometimes the manuals are as clear as mud. But as long as safety isn’t compromised or a policy is deliberately violated, there can usually be a meeting of the minds.

If the new “concept” is one that leaves you uncomfortable, then discreetly check your manuals to verify you’re right, and then ask why a particular liberty was taken. That doesn’t mean you need to do the same—in fact, you should do things exactly as you’ve been trained, and then decide whether or not it’s worth pursuing other avenues to bring it to the attention of the appropriate people. If it is, don’t hesitate to do so.

Captains….they all do things the same, only different.—Chip Wright

What makes a good first officer?

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

First officer responsibilities

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

The first officer, the teacher

 

A recent trip reminded me of something I had not seen in a long time. When I was a first officer for Comair (back when I was a young warthog), we had a lot of pilots bouncing among fleets. We had jet first officers upgrading to captains on the EMB-120 Brasilia (a turboprop), and Brasilia captains moving over to the jet. Some of these guys had never flown their new fleet type; others hadn’t flown it in years. In time, we became an all-jet company and it didn’t matter.

In my current job, I’m a junior FO who occasionally flies with people who are new to the fleet type. Some of these pilots flew the “newer” model of the 737, and some flew the “classics,” but did so years if not decades ago.

I find history repeating itself: I am often helping, in many ways, to train these folks. Let me explain.

When I was in the right seat of the RJ, I’d often fly with captains whom I knew were low-time (airlines are required to track pilots with fewer than 75 hours in both seat and type). I quickly learned to ask them if they were new to the airplane, or just new to the seat.

The ones who had flown the airplane didn’t need much help, other than asking me to go slow while they learned their new routine. The ones who were new to the airplane, however, asked a lot of questions, and expected—and needed—a lot more help. Some were better than others, and in the case of movement from a turboprop to a jet, the speed difference at times was overwhelming.

The fellow I was recently flying with had gone through several transitions in the previous few years. This one, he hoped, would be the last one. To compound the issue, he was also new to the Pacific region, and there are stark differences between trans-oceanic flying and anything else. What’s more, there are some cultural differences between our base and the “domestic” way of doing things.

I found myself offering all kinds of advice and help, and the captain was constantly asking for more, soaking up what I had to offer—which had me offering even more. At one point, he made the comment after I pointed out something that didn’t quite work the way the book said it should: “That’s what I need. Tell me what’s reality and what isn’t.”

It’s healthy to ask for help when needed. I’m relatively new myself to the company and the airplane, but I’ve accumulated a bit of know-how in a short time, and my captain was smart enough to ask questions for areas where he knew he needed help. It was a good reminder that FOs too can be effective teachers, and we really do work best when we work together.—Chip Wright