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Location: Massachusetts, United States

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Oh Captain, my Captain

My airline is chock full of wonderful people.
For the most part, the captains I have flown with have been nothing short of exceptional: exemplary leaders as well as patient and gifted instructors who made me feel right at home when the airplane was still foreign to me. From all of them I've learned a tremendous amount about flying, judgment and how to operate not as an individual but as a crew member.
Most have also been just plain great guys to share an admittedly small cockpit with.
Flying with so many different characters has also taught me that a large part of a first officer's job is to become a chameleon, to adapt to each captain's way of doing things, to each captain's quirks, likes and dislikes. Quirky, in some cases, is a very generous word.
Then there are the couple of bad apples. They are rare, very few and far between but flying with them can unfortunately stand out in a new first officer's mind more than the good experiences.
Recently, for instance, I was paired with a captain who struck me at first as a friendly, albeit arrogant, kind of guy. Not uncommon when you're dealing with former military pilots. But from our first leg together, I could tell this would be a difficult month. The man never shied away from berating other pilots on ground frequency for what he deemed to be improper taxi etiquette, nor did he refrain from clashing with a station manager at the conclusion of our very first leg.
As the days went by, I grew increasingly frustrated with his tendency to carry out my flows before doing his own -- something he made a point of doing every day -- and generally crossing beyond the established roles of non-flying and flying pilot. Other FOs can be very protective of "my side" of the cockpit. I am not. I understand that after all, this is his ship. He signs for it. However, his constant interference with my duties began to chip away at the otherwise well-orchestrated routine of the flight crew.
I like to think that I am a patient man. But after just two trips with him, I couldn't take any more. Confronting him, however, would not have been a wise option as I had gleaned from his stories that he is quick to hold a grudge. So I resigned myself to seeing out the month in silence and frustration.
Another character I had the misfortune of flying with a while ago is notorious among our pilot group. Of course, I was ignorant of that fact until after our time together. This one too was arrogant and typically critical of everyone he flew with or came in contact with.
On one particular flight, while it was my turn to fly, he picked a fight with a very busy controller over the heading she had given us. Looking at the radar, it seemed we would collide with an area of heavy precipitation. The controller, however, assured us we would find only light turbulence and moderate rain, information she had received from two aircraft that had just traversed the area.
Well, this wasn't good enough for the captain and to some extent I understood his position. Why take a chance? However, when she gave us the option of taking a vector that would take us many miles in the opposite direction of our planned route, he caved in unhappily and set the heading bug for me to the original heading assigned to us by ATC.
Sure enough, we encountered nothing more than what had been reported: light chop and moderate precipitation.
Hating to admit that he was wrong, however, the captain keyed the mic and angrily told ATC we had flown through moderate turbulence and heavy rain, therefore restricting access through that area to other aircraft behind, which like us had sat on the ground for almost four hours waiting for the weather to pass.
This behavior, in my book, is completely unacceptable.
Both of these men represent everything a captain should not be. I learned little from them, was thrown out of a routine the airline has established for a reason and felt like a lesser pilot because of their constant need to point out insignificant mistakes. Their pettiness and lust for confrontation ruined the time I spent with them.
Thankfully, out of the scores of captains I have flown with, these are the only two I really would rather never fly with again. Not everyone is peachy and pleasant at the conclusion of a 14-hour day, but promoting harmony in the cockpit, advancing constructive criticism and leading by example is what the pilot in command's job is.
I am fortunate to learn from some of the best captains in the industry. Unfortunately, their qualities make the flaws of the few bad captains we have that much more noticeable.


Blogger gmc said...

The two exceptions you mention are the reason many airlines utilize a bidding system that allows pilots to bid around those captains they find hard to work with.

And if management is smart, they look for the bad apples that everyone tries to avoid - and does something to correct them before their lack of CRM contributes to an accident.

Of course, that's how it should work in a perfect world... Your mileage may vary...

3:56 PM  
Blogger JC said...

It took a lot of guts to make a career change the way you did. There also must have been times during the training where you questioned if you were doing the right thing.

What kept you going?

Do you have any regrets?

How often do you get home?

Would you do it all over again or do any of it differently?

Thanks for any answers.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Capt. Wilko said...

Unfortunately, in spite of the bidding system, it is almost impossible to bid around captains one doesn't want to fly with.
To answer your questions, JC, it took me a year to plan the change. Once in the process, I don't remember thinking whether or not I'd done the right thing. I enjoyed every step of the road, even if it wasn't always easy, and any time I miss my old salary I just think of the times I boarded airliners thinking I'd never get to fly one.
It's a terrific job in spite of the sacrifices and while the first few years are difficult, especially financially, I know it'll get better and in the meantime the flying is pretty awesome!

8:05 AM  

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