Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Taking Turns

The traveling public's aviation knowledge often seems to be solely informed by 50 year old black-and-white movies. I can't really blame them; that's probably the last time Hollywood made an accurate aviation movie, or for that matter when the media reported accurately on aviation issues. For most people, Captains are still Pilots, First Officers are Co-Pilots, and Flight Attendants of all sexes are still called Stewardesses. When I was in the right seat, describing myself as a "First Officer" earned me blank looks; adding an explanatory "co-pilot" sparked flashes of recognition followed by questions like "so what's your route?" The funniest thing was when people responded to my "co-pilot" status with empathetic looks and words of comfort like "hopefully they make you a pilot soon so you can fly the plane!"

Actually, there was a time when that would've been an accurate assessment. Back at the dawn of the airlines, the Captain really was the pilot and the co-pilot was a mere assistant relegated to tasks like operating the landing gear and flaps. Some Captains took it upon themselves to mentor their co-pilots, even letting them take off and land, but contemporary accounts make it clear that these Captains were the exception to the rule.

This rude concept of crew coordination went away around the time that the airlines started flying jets. Although Captain's authority still reigned supreme and copilots were still decidedly second-class citizens, at least they were now considered professionals and were expected to share in the flying duties. The introduction of Crew Resource Management (CRM) training in the 1980s further cemented the First Officer's place as an indispensable component to a well-functioning crew. Now it's common for FOs to be assertive in ways that were once unthinkable. This shift in cultural norms played a major role in the airlines' impressive safety improvements over the last 30 years.

Where Captains of yore did most or all of the flying and made their co-pilots do menial tasks, now these duties are defined within roles that are typically traded between both pilots on a regular basis. The Pilot Flying (PF) simply flies the airplane, which includes manipulating the autopilot when it is turned on. The Pilot Not Flying (PNF) - sometimes called the Pilot Monitoring (PM) - does everything else. This includes reading checklists, radio communication, navigation including FMS data entry, operating aircraft systems, and monitoring the PF's actions. As you can imagine, the PNF is usually the busier of the pilots, especially on short flights.

The Captain is supposed to designate who will be PF and who will be PNF before every flight. In reality most use a system to trade duties regularly. The most common practice is for the Captain to fly the first leg of the trip and then alternate PF duties every leg thereafter. This can get pretty boring if pilots fly the same trips together in subsequent weeks, or if the trip returns to the same hub every other leg. To shake things up, the Captain might use another scheme to trade off legs. This may include having the FO fly the first leg, alternating duties every two legs, or alternating only once a day, or even determining role by coin toss or Paper-Rock-Scissors.

Company Policy sometimes determines who fills what role. Many airlines require the Captain to take off or land at special airports, in strong crosswinds, on contaminated runways, or in low-visibility situations - especially when the First Officer is new ("green"). Some airlines - like Horizon - mandate the use of a "Captain Monitored Approach" for Cat I approaches in low-visibility conditions. Under this procedure, the First Officer flies the approach and the Captain takes over to land once the runway is in sight.

Policy aside, there are some situations where it's common for the Captain to exercise his prerogative to designate who flies. A Captain may choose to fly when landing on a short or contaminated runway, or in a strong crosswind; they might want to be PNF for an arrival or departure in busy or complex airspace. Of course, most FOs are fully capable of handling these situations just fine, and most Captains will allow them to when flying with a sharp FO they trust. When flying with someone new, or who has demonstrated weak skills in the past, more caution is called for. A shrewd Captain will anticipate these situations early in the trip and set up a leg-trading scheme that "just happens" to have the Captain in their preferred role for the questionable leg. It makes for less hurt feelings.

This month I've been flying with a fairly new FO; he had around 80 hours in the airplane when we started our first trip. He's a sharp pilot with some good experience, so after the first trip I trusted him enough to let him handle some situations I might've been uncomfortable with for someone new who I didn't know.

The first two legs of the month were Minneapolis to Missoula and back. Missoula is a special airport so our company prohibits "green" First Officers from making takeoffs and landings there. Rather than take away the "fun" part of my FOs leg, I suggested that I take the first two legs and he fly the subsequent two legs. It was his first time at MSO so I was able to show him the ropes. The next week, he had the required 100 hours in type so I suggested he take the first leg into Missoula. Having watched it done the week prior, he made a nice circling visual approach.

Later that trip, we flew into Pittsburgh as the remnants of Hurricane Ike roared past just to the west. There was a strong direct crosswind on Runway 10L, and moderate turbulence was reported down the final approach. By this time I was pretty confident in my FOs abilities, so I made sure he was comfortable making the landing and told him to have a go at it. The airspeed was bouncing around pretty good, and I kept a sharp eye out for the first signs of wind shear. This is one situation where I'd rather be a PNF; a critical windshear situation requires an immediate go-around and the PNF is in the best situation to detect it developing early on. This time the airspeed gusted +/- 10 knots of target all the way down to the firm - but on centerline - touchdown.

The next week we had a Chicago Midway turn. With 5800' usable runway, Midway is the shortest airport we fly to. The JungleBus is capable of astonishingly short landings but it requires an effort on the pilot's part; trying to grease it on can easily double the landing distance. I prefer to land at Midway unless I know and trust my FO. In this case he had been to Midway twice but hadn't landed; I was comfortable with him taking the landing. During the approach brief, I gave him my standard Midway speech: "This is a short runway, but not scary short unless you try to land pretty or be gentle about getting it stopped. Here, the only measure of a good landing is one that touches down in the first 1500 feet. Softness counts for nothing. When flight attendants complain about the landing at Midway, I know I've done my job." My FO grinned and said in that case, he'd make a great landing. True to word, he plopped it on just after the 1000' aim point markings and brought the plane down to taxi speed well before taxiway Q.

Although a Captain's primary responsibility is always to conduct a safe flight, mentoring First Officers and preparing them for Captainhood is an important part of the job as well. This is especially true at NewCo, where FOs spend rather little time in the right seat before upgrading. Here an egotistical Captain who tries to do everything himself is truly counterproductive. While I always put safety first, I do try to let my FOs handle situations that hone their skills and increase their experience. That was true of good Captains in the DC-3 days; thankfully they're not the exception anymore.


Jason said...

It's incredibly funny to me how much peoples' expectations are shaped by what they see in the media. I am a firefighter, and the knowledge of most people is limited to what they have seen in movies or on shows like Rescue 911.

Thanks for the great blog, I always look forward to new posts!

Grayson said...

I think it's rock-PAPER-scissors! I do agree that the public's interpretation of pilots is a little distorted by soap operas and old, cheezy movies.
I always want to say something to pilots when I fly to let them know, 'Hey I am your number one fan!' or something. But usually it ends up being something I slap my forehead and say, "What an incredibly stupid COMMENT!!"

Love your posts!

Tom said...

good stuff Sam,
thanks for the post. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of your FO landings and your mentoring.

Ron said...

Great attitude, Sam. My company also views FOs at "captains in training" and encourages us to help them along on that journey. When I was an FO there it made such a huge difference. I never felt like a lesser member of the crew.

phil said...

good reading. it's nice to get a glimpse into a career i've always been interested in.

Anonymous said...


From your post:

"Some airlines - like Horizon - mandate the use of a "Captain Monitored Approach" for Cat I approaches in low-visibility conditions. Under this procedure, the First Officer flies the approach and the Captain takes over to land once the runway is in sight."

This seems backwards to me - wouldn't the approach be the hard part in low visibility? Once the runway's in sight, isn't the "hard work" done? What am I missing? What's the rationale?

Keep in mind this question is from a VFR pilot with 110 hours that hasn't flow in 7 years (wife, kids, house, etc. absorb the flying money!). :)

Thanks for your great posts!

Billy said...

Great article! Even military pilots operate like this nowadays.

Colin Summers said...

Good thing to say to the pilots as you pass the flight deck: "Hey, I think there's a TSA officer hanging from the starboard pitot tube."

Anonymous said...

Is there a policy concerning who should handle the controls in an emergency, or does it just remain in the PF hands by default?

Sam said...

jbinaz-- Yeah, it's a little counter intuitive. The reality is that the hard part is not flying the approach, the hard part is transitioning from heads-down instrument flying to heads-up visual flying (in low visibility). Having the First Officer fly the approach keeps the Captains eyes mostly out of the window to look for the runway, and really acquire the needed visual cues before taking control of the airplane.

Personally, I just leave the autopilot on when it's an approach right down to the wire. Unlike the Q400, the JungleBus is capable of performing very nicely flown autopilot-engaged missed approaches. The autopilot can stay engaged to 50 ft, so when the PNF calls runway in sight, I have time to get the visual cues well in sight before disconnecting the autopilot and landing.

Colin- LoL! Do you work for Eagle?

Anonymous 11:29- There's no official company policy about that at NewCo. It's the Captain's decision, and it depends on the type of emergency. For engine failures, I'd actually prefer that the FO be PF, as our engine failure & single engine landing checklists have a lot of "Captainey" items on them. During the Clearance Briefings for my legs, I brief that in case of an engine failure I'll turn aircraft control over to the FO after acceleration altitude and take the radios & checklists myself.