Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Job Description

Jennifer recently asked, via comments: "What is an FO? (you describe yourself in your job as one?)."

The aviation industry is chock-full of acronyms. If the average instrument-rated pilot reads that you called FSS to check the NOTAMs at KPOC and the LLZ was OTS on the ILS 26L so they were using the VOR-A approach, which restricted you to a MDA of 1800', which is 789' HAA, because your DME is INOP...they'd understand what you're talking about! What we all need to remember, then, is that those outside aviation have little or no exposure to the jargon, and simplify & explain lest we bore them all to death.

The short answer, Jennifer, is that "FO" stands for "First Officer," or what many people outside of aviation call the "co-pilot."

The term is nautical in origin, as are many things in aviation. The First Officer, otherwise known as the First Mate, was second-in-command, just below a ship's Captain, and was responsible for seeing that his orders were carried out. In aviation, the first officer is designated as second-in-command while the captain bears the authority and responsibility delegated to the pilot-in-command.

A common public misperception is that "co-pilots" are "pilot trainees," who've very recently learned to fly and must build the necessary time before they can be qualified as "pilots." While this may be true in a few very limited cases (here's looking at you, Gulfstream Int'l right-seaters!), usually an airline first officer has extensive experience as captain or pilot-in-command at a previous job. Because all airliners require both a captain and a first officer, newhire pilot at any airline start as first officers, and become captains once they are about half-way up that airline's seniority list. If they switch airlines, they start over as first officers.

A common quote in aviation is that airlines hire captains, not first officers. In other words, they want somebody with the experience, knowledge, and skill to be a competent captain, even though they may serve several years as a first officer before upgrading. After all, things change fast in the aviation world, and when airlines expand rapidly, you'll find first officers becoming captains rather soon after being hired (not a concern at my company, I'm afraid!).

So what makes my job different from the Captain's? Well, I'm paid about a third of what he (or she) is. Only they can taxi the airplane, since the nosewheel tiller is on their side of the cockpit (the left side). They're expected to make the tough decisions when in tight situations, and they take responsibility for those decisions - although, should something go wrong, the FO will surely share the blame. Other than that, though, it's pretty much the same job. On each flight, one pilot is designated "Pilot Flying" and the other is "Pilot Not Flying." The "PF" simply flies the airplane while the "PNF" take care of radio communications, navigation, and aircraft systems management. Usually, the captain will be PF on the first leg, I'll be PF on the second leg, and so on.

Hope this clarifies it for you, Jennifer. Any reader, always feel free to ask for clarification when the jargon gets to be a bit much.


Aviatrix said...

Hey, that's the sort of post I make!

(Which means I think it's just the right sort of thing to post -- excellent explanation, covers the all the bases I can think of.)

The FO has three stripes, and the Captain four stripes.

david said...

What's all that with the jargon? I remember hearing that a FO has to remember only three phrases:

1. "Clear on the right!"

2. "Was that call for us?"

3. "OK, I guess I'll take the chicken, then."

(The last one might not be much use on a turboprop, but you can hold it in reserve for future use.)

Sam said...

Heh...our version of #3 is, "uhhh I'll take the cheddar cracker mix since you're taking the pretzels..."

There's another variation that involves giving the captain "first dibs," but I'll refrain from posting it in the interest of good taste. I'm sure some of you have heard it.

Sequ said...

Another one on the jargon is pointing out the ¨tremendous¨ gust of wind that influenced the captain´s landing...


Brett said...

Do you ever fly the Seattle to Bellingham legs? I love that flight as a passenger and take it several times a year. I like your blog and I'm adding it to my links!

Traytable said...

Nicely done!!!

I once heard of a pilot in a rival company, he was an F/O, the 'galley gossip' said that the 'F/O' stood for something else... I gather he was not an agreeable chap!!! ;P