Saturday, June 04, 2005

Good Captain, Bad Captain

As a first officer, you get to fly with a lot of different sorts of captains. They all have different styles, mannerisms, favorite ways of doing things, pet peeves, and the like. I personally don't mind; I get along with most everybody and the quirks give the job a little variety. Mind you, airlines don't like their pilots to be different. Standardization, meaning that everyone does each procedure the same way, has become the industry mantra, and for good reason. Still, a few captains have their own favorite twists, and if it's not a safety of flight issue, I'm usually game.

It's when you get a truly bad captain that you find yourself in the conundrum long faced by FOs everywhere. You realize that the pilot next to you may well be unsafe, yet he (or she) has authority over the flight, and over you. What to do? None of your options are particularly appealing:
  • You can be upfront with your concerns - if the captain was just being sloppy, he may shape up. But you may now be flying with an incompetent captain who's pissed at you.
  • You can try passing along hints & suggestions in a subtle manner - but more than one captain has blown up at their FO for "encroaching on my authority!"
  • You can pass along your concerns to the union's professional standards committee, or in a really bad case, the chief pilot's office, but that's a longer term solution, and the captain's friends can make life difficult for you in the meantime.
  • You can sit by and do nothing, hoping the captain doesn't screw up too badly. Ultimately this is what many FOs have done. People have died because FOs sat meekly by, watching the incompetent, overbearing captain do something the FO knew was wrong. Accidents like these gave birth to our modern CRM (crew resource management) training programs.
Fortunately, most of the captains at my airline are very good, and I've had no serious problems with anybody I've flown with. Of course, the bad captains are the ones everybody talks about and swaps stories about. There are a few doozies that I won't go into due to the public nature of this blog. They do provide good fodder for shooting the breeze when my airline pilot friends and I get together.

You might ask what exactly makes a good captain. Here's my dream list.
  1. GC knows what he's doing. He knows and follows standardized procedures, and has a good grasp on aviation knowledge that gives me confidence in his decisions.
  2. GC seeks/accepts input when he's making a decision, but doesn't pass the buck on to me. I'm not the captain, dude, you are, so don't keep shrugging and saying "whatever you want to do."
  3. GC keeps an eye on the big picture. He does this by making me handle the grunt work, rather than doing everything himself only to mess up something important.
  4. GC lets me know when I screw up and gives me hints from the wealth of his captainly experience. This doesn't mean he needs to lord his Holy Captainness over me & nag over everything I do.
  5. GC is a generally cool guy who can make good conversation on a long leg or over a beer at the layover. He's got a sense of humor about things, but gets dead serious when he needs to be.
  6. GC cares about his crew and takes care of them. He helps them out when he can. He'll grace them with his presence at dinner if the crew is so inclined, and might even buy them a few drinks.
This is the captain I want to fly with, and the captain I want to be when I upgrade. That last quality is especially important to me. It was passed on by a old TWA captain who kept me from doing something dumb in Cairo, Egypt when I was sleep deprived after a sleepless 12 hours on the jumpseat. He told me, "I know I'll see you as a Captain someday. When you are, I want you to remember this: take care of your crew, even when it means sacrificing your own comfort." That's pretty good advice. Thanks, Captain Parker.


GC said...

Yet again, Sam, I am impressed by your insight. Don't forget this one, however: "A GC gives credit where credit is due, yet won't let his FO get away with just anything."

I didn't spend very much time as a First Officer before I upgraded and spent the better part of six years in the left seat at my last company. However, I find myself back in the right seat again.

While I was an FO, I built two files in my brain and labeled them (as you did), "Good Captain" and "Bad Captain." Keep filing things in both those archives until you upgrade, and then promise yourself that you'll live by them to the best of your ability.

Though I occasionally digressed from my promise to myself, I always was able to center myself with thoughts of "How would I feel were I my FO?" And even though there were one or two people whom I really didn't get along with, I'd like to think that most of my FOs thought I was good at my job.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I work as FO of a ship, same stories! Once I had a real dangerous captain who thought he was the the best and repeatedly followed his orders with the statement "I'm the Captain and this is an order". Well I discussed this with my mentor who told me: "Being in charge is like being a pretty girl. If you have to tell people you are... you're not." He then said "This guy's not a captain so don't worry, he won't last long." Well he didn't... but that's another story!

Jean-Benoit Gonalons said...

Thanks for your blog.

Tomorrow I will be assessed for my command on Airbus. I took good notes of your comments that will be helpful to me.


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed it! I've been looking for a blog like this because I too have started a list of Bad Captain/Good Captain traits.

This past week has been spent paired up with a Captain who always has a chip on his shoulder, is rude, cuts people off in mid-sentence, is always in a rush even when there is no reason, often blurs the lines of Pilot Flying/Pilot Not Flying duties by doing both, being impatient and rude with Air Traffic Control and other things which are not proper to mention.

There are some Captains out there who do feel that their job is like a work of art. Having 'good hands and feet' is not enough. Treating your crew well is probably the best advice I've heard today.

Thanks again for you good post!

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