Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good Captain / Bad Captain Revisited

The last post reminded me of another post I wrote over three years ago entitled "Good Captain, Bad Captain." At the time I was a First Officer for Horizon Air and was flying with mostly older Captains who had been in the left seat for some time. I listed what I considered to be the criteria of a good Captain, and gave a few tips for dealing with bad Captains. I remarked at the time that most of Horizon's Captains were very good (there were a few notoriously bad ones but I never had to fly with them).

I was only in the right seat at NewCo for around four months and 300 hours before upgrading. Most of the Captains I was flying with had been Captains before but were new to the Junglebus. As with Horizon, the majority were very good. The one or two I'd consider "bad" weren't even incompetent; they were technically skilled, but had what you might call a deficient personality. Overall I'd say NewCo Captains are less "quirky" than Horizon Captains, likely a function of having less time in the airplane or at the company. They're also somewhat more likely to be up for going out on the overnight, although NewCo isn't a party airline by any stretch of the imagination.

Having been in the left seat for about 300 hours, I can say that it's a quite different experience than I thought it'd be when I was an FO. I still think my definition of what constitutes a good Captain was pretty accurate. Since upgrading, I've consciously tried to model myself on it. That's not to say I've entirely succeeded; I'm aware that with 300 hours I'm still a "baby captain" and have a lot to learn. But I am making the effort.
Good Captain 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.
Despite my past griping about over-standardization at Horizon, I do know the book well and follow it closely. My weakest area here is probably systems knowledge; I didn't think NewCo's training was very effective in this area so I've been doing some "remedial training" on my own. I'll likely do a series of systems posts in the future, because the best way to learn something is to teach it.
Good Captain 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."
I do have a tendency to think things through silently and come to a decision quickly, sometimes without saying a word; it drives my wife nuts. I've noticed it happening at times in the cockpit, and I've made a conscious effort to seek input from my FOs and include them in the decision-making process. Pawning off decisions on them isn't a problem, though.
Good Captain 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.
This is honestly my weakest area. I'm way too tempted to do things myself, especially where the FMS is concerned. I'll see my FO get a little bogged down on confused on how to enter something, and I'm immediately heads down over the gizmos, doing it myself or showing him how. Lately I've really tried to back off and let my FOs muddle through it a bit and figure things out for themselves unless they get stuck or ask for help. Doing it for them does no favors, and even teaching them how to do it won't make them remember it as well as figuring out themselves. Besides, having two heads inside the cockpit fixated on the idiot box is pretty dumb.
Good Captain 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.
There's really nothing more frustrating than flying with a nag. I flew with one at NewCo shortly before I upgraded; thank God it was a short three day trip. I'm flying with new FOs who are generally very receptive to hints, tricks, and tips... but I'm very careful to distinguish between enforcing the book - which I expect FOs to follow - and teaching technique, which I make clear they can take or leave. Also, since my "Lost in Memphis" experience, I've been more careful about debriefing issues after the flight at the gate rather than while there's still work to be done.
Good Captain 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.

Good Captain 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.
I can't really address these; you'd have to ask my crewmembers. I'd like to think I'm a nice guy who has a sense of humor and cares for my coworkers, but nearly everybody thinks that about themselves and it's clearly not the case much of the time. I generally get along with my crews fine and we usually find something fun to do on the layovers. There are a few notorious flight attendants I'm not looking forward to flying with. One of them is on my trip next week. My general philosophy in dealing with such people is to treat them as being much smarter, nicer, prettier, and more experienced and knowledgeable than they actually are, so they feel less of a need to assert it through defiant behavior and it's less of a threat when I need to assert my authority. We'll see how the charm offensive goes; some people simply aren't happy until all those around them are miserable. Fortunately the cockpit door is locked for a large portion of my work day, and my FO this month is a good guy.


Fran├žois said...

Thanks for the post ! It's very interesting to have a captain feelings on those captain behaviours.

ottoflyer said...

Good insights on the CRM issues...

This comment touches on one of the most dangerous features of our highly-automated flying machines:

"I'll see my FO get a little bogged down on confused on how to enter something, and I'm immediately heads down over the gizmos, doing it myself or showing him how."

Even as an FO I'd see new-on-type Captains get balled up in CRM loading during the approach to the airport for example with a last minute STAR or runway change. I tried to discipline myself to use the raw data while PFing so I would keep flying and not get distracted by green lines shooting all over the nav screen until it was sorted out.

It is a hard temptation to resist - having both pilots 'heads-down' in the flight deck.

Thanks for posting.

Chris said...

Hi Sam,
I only stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago after doing a google search for "what makes a good captain" Since then I have been reading through lots of your previous posts.
Just wanted to say thanks, it has given me lots to think about and has been very helpful. I have just passed my first command sim yesterday and start my LHS line training on tuesday. Flying the good ol Dash 8 in SW England.
Keep up the good work.

Ryan said...

Good thoughts you have. Happy to know you are working on being a good Captain. Here's a spin on things - I had a brand new Captain on the JungleBus who transitioned from the Airbus who had about 50 hours total time in the plane. We found ourselves super high and fast coming into Dulles from the north (happens often) and I just sat there and started to get a little uncomfortable thinking we would never make it down and would have to make a go-around. So I waited to see how far he would take it just up until he realized this was not going to work before I stepped in. Knowing that this was going to happen unless I offered a little advice (and I'm the FO) I asked, "Do you want some flaps?" or "Want to lower the gear so we can get down?" kind of questions, but completely respecting his authority as Captain. Then I said, "here, slow to 200 and I'll be able to give you flaps 3". We made it down to the runway and when we exited on the high speed, he said, "thanks for helping me out there!". So sometimes (rarely) it can work both ways.

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