Monday, October 06, 2008

Good FO, Bad FO

When I wrote the original "Good Captain, Bad Captain" post in June of 2005, I'd been a FO at Horizon for just over a year. By that time I had a pretty good idea of what to look for in a Captain, and my thinking hasn't changed much since. Since then I've spent about 3 years in the right seat, which gave me enough time to think about what makes a good First Officer. I often asked Captains I flew with who they considered good FOs and why, and some of the problems they'd encountered with FOs in the past. My six months in the left seat hasn't really given me any new insight into what makes a good FO, but has given me time to appreciate what a joy it is to fly with an excellent FO. Here's the criteria I measure an FO by:

A good FO knows his job well. He knows his maneuvers, flows, calls, and checklists like second nature; he also has a strong grasp on aircraft systems. Obviously brand new FOs won't quite measure up to this standard, but the good ones get up to speed quickly. When an airline's training program falls short - as it does at NewCo - a good FO will seek the answers from check airmen, line captains, and the source materials. A good FO is inquisitive and learning something new every trip.

A good FO keeps their Captain in the loop. This is, of course, merely the reverse of a good Captain keeping their FO in the loop. A two pilot crew is really only functioning as a crew if each pilot knows what the other is doing. Sometimes the duties are so self-explanatory that little verbal explanation is required. In situations where significant technique is involved - night visual approaches in the mountains, for example - I keep up a steady diologue explaning what I'm doing to the other guy. I really appreciate it when they do the same for me. I don't have to guess what they're thinking, and can devote more time to my own duties rather than constantly monitoring theirs.

A good FO is a chameleon. Although the airlines don't talk about this for fear of encouraging passivity, adaptability is a key aspect of an FOs job. Every Captain has their own style, techniques, and quirks. A good FO will figure out what they are early in the trip and adapt accordingly. This doesn't mean he should condone non-standard flying; there's a lot of room for variance while still complying with the book. It does mean the FO makes the Captain's life easier and allowing him to focus on the big picture by complementing the Captain's style rather than clashing with it.

A good FO will speak up when his Captain crosses the line. A FO has to choose their battles wisely; nitpicking everything a Captain does will only result in an agitated Captain who's not listening to their FO. When the Captain is clearly operating outside the bounds of standardization and safety, though, it's time to speak up - clearly and forcefully. Like I mentioned in Good Captain, Bad Captain, this is really an awkward situation because the Captain is your superior and you're his subordinate. Saying "no" to something is essentially insubordination - which others may subsequently judge to be justified or not. It's one of the toughest things to do as an FO, but too many airplanes have flown on to their doom with the FO or SO fully aware that something's wrong but too intimidated to say anything.

The flip side to all this is Captainitis. That's the airline term for the malady that creates "Right Seat Captains" who attempt to do the real Captain's job for him. Every once in a while you see an FO who's just itching to upgrade and has developed a rather premature command attitude from the right seat. They'll make decisions unilaterally or hector the Captain to make decisions they like, impinge on the Captain's flows and other duties, and fly just enough outside the book to assert their command of the aircraft. Horizon had a few FOs who were notable for Captainitis; most had been in the right seat for five or six years. There's a certain point at which you know the aircraft and your job and the Captain's job so well that you're plainly qualified to upgrade, but are just waiting for your number to come up. That's frustrating, especially at regional airlines where you're basically stuck until you log enough PIC time. I can understand how that frustration can become Captainitis. Furthermore, some weak Captains encourage Captainitis by being passive and indecisive, essentially abdicating their role to an FO who's hungry for a bit of authority.

Most of my FOs so far have been good, with a few truly excellent ones. That's all the more remarkable in that nearly everyone I've flown with was new to both NewCo and the JungleBus. Most had been FOs at other airlines; many had also been Captains. That experience carries over well to other airlines and aircraft. I've only had "problems" with two FOs, who represented two extremes of the scale. One was fresh off of IOE and this was his first Part 121 airline job; he was very silent, passive, and had a lot of trouble with directional control on takeoff and landing. I only had him for two legs; I addressed the problems after his leg and gave him some pointers. He was genuinely thankful for the advice and asked me a few other questions.

The other FO had a case of Captainitis; he'd been a six-year FO at Comair and felt more than ready to upgrade, even with a mere hundred hours in the JungleBus. Most of the trip it was present only in small things like mannerisms and body language. The last leg into MSP, though, the Captanitis manifested itself in a big way. My FO was landing on 35, and floated the landing slightly. I had briefed beforehand that I would take control once the airplane was slowed to around taxi speed. While we were still around 80 knots, tower told us "Right turn when able, hold short 30L on W10, tower 126.7" I started to respond to the instructions; without warning my FO jammed on the brakes and inputted full right rudder, attempting to make the turnoff at Y. That's not a 90 degree turnoff, but it's sharper than a normal high-speed turnoff. It happened too quickly for me to intervene; the g-forces threw me into the left side of my seat. When we were parked at the gate, I asked my FO what exactly was he thinking on that landing. He gave me a quizical look, so I told him it had really alarmed me and it was pretty non-standard for the FO to make the turnoff, especially without it being briefed beforehand. He tried to brush it off: "Oh, I did that all the time at Comair!" I told him to leave the turnoffs to the Captains, and if he did something like that with me again it'd be the last time I'd let him land. He looked pretty chastened and made a quick exit. Afterward, I wondered if perhaps I should've addressed his Captainitis earlier in the trip. It would've been a quiet trip but I doubt he would've done something so audacious afterward.

That's the approach Dave at FL390 took recently. His FO was exhibiting signs of Captainitis and had done several things that, while fairly minor, indicated at least some disregard for their company's aircraft manual. On the second day of their trip, Dave gave him "the talk." There are a few unwritten rules for "the talk" which Dave demonstrated in his post. First, it's something you do in private. Being corrected by the Captain is embarassing enough for a FO without others witnessing it. In the flight deck after the parking check is complete but before the cockpit door is opened is an ideal time. Secondly, you use "the book" to point out exactly where the FO erred. Simply listing your pet peeves allows the FO to think you're just a grouch who likes things done his way; backing yourself up with company policy shows that you both know the policy and expect your FO to know and follow it. Finally, don't expect your FO to like you very much after "the talk." It'll probably be a quiet trip. That's ok - what's important is that your FO is flying safely and by the book. If the poor performance persists, then you move onto the next level by getting the union's professional standards commitee involved - or as an absolute last resort, the chief pilot's office. Fortunately, that's extremely rare. Most FOs are very good at what they do, and they make the Captain's job immeasurably more pleasant.


cscscscs said...

great article! just out of interest, why arent the FOs supposed to do the turnoffs?

Tom said...

very interesting, thanks for the post.

Karl Chang said...

Great article! I am an FO for a Chinese airline, and I wish this article could be translated for many of our FOs. They could really use some good points brought up here.

Joaquin said...

Hey Sam-

I was the guy you met for a beer at McMenamin's in Vancouver last year. I did end up going into flying, and have been instructing for a bit over a year. The recent developments in the industry have made my stay in flight instruction longer than I anticipated, but I'm having a good time and getting lots of good experience.

I wanted to let you know that all the time and hard work you put into this blog is very appreciated. I often refer back to this blog's archives for insight when I've got a particular flying-related issue running through my head. I look forward to your new posts, and find your writing to be a wonderful positive resource for folks like me who are trying to make the best of this crazy career. Thanks!

Mark said...

Reading along the way I wondered in what role you were speaking when using the first-person.

This especially caught me in the third paragraph: "In situations where significant technique is involved - night visual approaches in the mountains, for example - I keep up a steady diologue explaning what I'm doing to the other guy. I really appreciate it when they do the same for me. I don't have to guess what they're thinking, and can devote more time to my own duties rather than constantly monitoring theirs."

Is the "I" the Captain or the FO?

It especially caught my attention because I have come to think that the job of a good FO is to monitor what the other pilot is doing and be clearheaded and ready to respond should something not look quite right.

Sam said...

cscscscs-- A few reasons. The tiller is on the Captain's side only and the rudder pedals only steer the nosewheel up to 7 degrees deflection. If you run out of steering authority with the rudder pedals, transferring to the tiller is very awkward - especially if you're transferring control between pilots at the same time. Besides, the decision as to when the airplane is sufficiently slowed to safely turn off given the surface conditions is best left up to the Captain.

Carl Chang - Feel free to translate & distribute it.

Sam said...


In that paragraph, "I" was me as a Captain. I did the same thing (verbalize my intentions) as an FO. I understand what you're saying about monitoring the other guy being a primary responsibility for an FO. Actually, it's a primary responsibility for whoever is the Pilot Not Flying for a particular leg - that's why some airlines call that role "Pilot Monitoring". But it's certainly not the only role, the PNF has a lot of other things they need to get done as you prepare for the approach. If the PF verbalizes their actions, it doesn't relieve the PNF of the responsibility to monitor the PF, but it does make doing so easier and frees up time for their other duties.

MEade said...

Sam, thanks for the blogs. Found it doing some study for the JungleBus, so the Hydraulic and Electric systems study has been very useful for me. I'm working my way through the CBT, but those "CBT Voices" have a tendency to put me to sleep! :o) Anyway, look forward to reading some more JungleBus Systems Posts!