Jumpseat: Three Captains/One Cockpit

Les Abend's line check turns out to be more fun than he imagined.

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Captain Ted Voss and Captain Marty Reedy

At first glance, my schedule for the month of January indicated that I was to give a line check for the captain named on a particular date. I was wrong. The named captain was actually the one giving me the line check. I had forgotten that my check airman requirement was every 12 months as opposed to the 24 months required for a regular line pilot.

What exactly is a line check? Simply stated, a line check is an actual flight observed by a supervisory pilot to ensure that company procedures are being performed to the standards of the company and the FAA. The captain is technically the one that requires the qualification, but the check includes the entire cockpit crew. The captain is not required to fly. He or she is judged on the ability to safely command the flight. If the captain has always adhered to procedures, the flight is a nonevent.

All that being said, a line check is still considered a form of check ride. Even though it's an accepted practice for the profession, most airline pilots don't relish somebody looking over their shoulder. The event is considered on par with a trip to the dentist. We are anxious to go and relieved to leave. But this time my apprehension was minimal. Why?

I had just completed my first year as a check airman. I was developing confidence in both my abilities to negotiate the circumstances that I had encountered and my abilities to convey information. Although the responsibility of the job had proved more tasking, I was fulfilling my obligations with relatively few glitches. And I was becoming more intimate with procedural details.

A little refinement from an experienced check airman could only be a benefit. After all, we were the ones responsible for setting standards. Who else would give us guidance in that department?

In addition, another fellow check airman would also be on the receiving end of the line check. He would fly the return leg home. The mission had to be accomplished on a route that is typical of a pilot's current qualifications. In our case, a trip to Europe would fulfill the requirement.

When a choice of trips is available, it is customary for the check airman to decide on a destination. In that regard, as a courtesy I contacted Standardization Coordinator Captain Marty Reedy for his preference. Marty indicated that Zurich would be his first pick. I, of course, explained the virtues of a warmer climate in January. How about Barcelona instead? After a few days of consideration, Barcelona held up on appeal.

Displaying his signature gregarious smile, Marty marched into the check airman room of JFK Operations. With a firm grip, he shook my hand. He had arrived from his base in Chicago a couple of hours prior to our official sign-in time.

I had commuted in that morning from Florida and was still dressed in casual attire. When Ted Voss, the other check airman, joined us in the room a few moments later, Marty had an audience. He wasted no time in chiding me for my lack of uniform. The games had begun.

The three of us exchanged pleasantries with Marty leading the discussion. Eventually, I excused myself in order to don my costume. Upon my return, I shuffled over to a computer terminal to retrieve the flight plan for our trip to Barcelona. Ted and Marty joined me at the end of one of the counters while I organized the array of data into separate piles. It had been quite some time since I had simply reviewed a flight plan without performing the role of instructor.

As I scanned the information, a copilot who I had flown with on prior occasions walked by our gathering. He grinned. With a snicker, he remarked, "Holy crap … three check airmen!?" He shook his head. "Glad I'm not on that airplane!"

We smiled in unison. A scattered array of other pilots who were poised around computer terminals began to chuckle.

Marty and I cross-checked the track waypoints over the North Atlantic and then gathered the paperwork into an international folder. We collected our bags and began the walk to the gate.

As I slid my long winter overcoat and scarf over the top of my uniform jacket, I offered Marty an apology. I would be traveling without my hat. It had fallen victim to a wardrobe malfunction. The hat had suffered a structural failure that made it appear as though a blue pancake had been flopped on top of my head. It seemed that wearing it would disgrace the rest of my uniform.

Well, all right … I'll admit my sin. I'm not a good hat guy. My skiing friends will attest to my resistance toward headgear. I am hatless on days that even moose stay home. At least I'm consistent.

Marty's eyes narrowed. His grin held an evil quality. I was about to be scolded by the worst possible method -- humor. The scolding would continue from that moment on until we cleared Customs upon our return to JFK from Barcelona three days later. My good fortune of being blessed with a thick head of hair only made the abuse that much worse. Marty's hair was grey and thinning. Ted, whose quiet good nature forced him into the role of straight man, had inherited a close-cropped, but nappy mane. It was only natural for me to be the target. I had brought the abuse upon myself. Part of my job description was to set an example. I had failed in the uniform department.

Once on board the airplane, I began the trip with my standard briefing to our nine flight attendants. At the conclusion of my short speech, I offered regrets on behalf of Ted, Marty and myself. The flight attendants would not only have to conduct business with a cockpit full of captains but they would have to deal with three check airmen as well. They smiled, probably wondering who was really in charge.

I walked into the cockpit with my bags and began the process of preparing the airplane for an international flight. Marty had slid into the right seat and was busy organizing his side. Ted had completed the walk-around inspection and was dutifully attending to the remaining details of relief pilot, conducting business from the aft jumpseat.

The three of us began to banter. The typical dry humor of airline pilots permeated the mood. Marty was never lacking for information whether it was pertinent to the operation or just plain fun. I tried to maintain a diplomatic balance between a timely departure and enjoying Marty's lively discussions. Despite the appearance to an outsider that the cockpit atmosphere was more conducive to a stand-up comedy act, a careful orchestration of professional resources was actually occurring. We began our pushback on schedule.

Twenty minutes after leaving the gate, our 767 was rolling down the concrete of JFK's Runway 22 Right. We accelerated skyward into the crisp night air. Enjoying the opportunity to fly, I waited until leveling at our cruise altitude before pressing the autopilot button. As was typical, my fellow crewmembers feigned a sigh of relief. The airshow was over.

Customarily, the relief pilot is excused to begin his break after climbing through 18,000 feet. Most captains organize the rotation for breaks so the pilot who is not flying the approach and landing has the last break. The logic is to have the pilot who is flying the approach and landing rested and acclimated to the environment rather than having just woken up from a nap. The initial descent phase in Europe can turn the cockpit into a busy place, especially when the ear is not immediately accustomed to the accents. In our particular case, since I would be flying the approach and landing, Marty would have the last break.

The rest periods are divided in thirds with at least 30 minutes at the end of the trip when everybody is in the cockpit. The actual time for all pilots to be strapped into their seats prior to landing is at the captain's discretion. Typically, trips that originate from the East Coast involve breaks that are just over two hours with longer breaks on the return leg to the States. Normal westbound headwinds add the extra time. These calculations only involve trips that are scheduled for over eight hours of flight time; a relief pilot is not required for trips less than eight hours.

When Ted was offered the customary relief pilot first rest period, he deferred it until later. He wanted the opportunity to compare notes, which for check airman occurs only twice a year during standardization meetings. Although the meetings allow for some dialog, they are more informational than an exchange of ideas. Time constraints make it difficult to conduct informal brainstorming.

In addition, Marty had been given the title of Standardization Coordinator for the 767/757. Where Ted and I were responsible for maintaining the standards of regular line pilots, Marty was given the added responsibility of maintaining standards for check airmen. That responsibility kept him in regular communication with the fleet captain, our boss. He had information that wasn't ordinarily available. Regardless, Marty had an irreverent style that was entertaining and engaging. Ted didn't want to be absent for the fun.

Our airline had recently revised North Atlantic crossing procedures. As check airmen, we were responsible for conveying the new procedures. In that regard, Ted elected to remain in the cockpit through the oceanic clearance verification process. I volunteered to explain how I was teaching the process once the ACARS printer rolled out the clearance.

Not wanting to be unfair to each other, we recalculated our breaks into shorter periods and sent Ted to the cabin for a rest. Time passed quickly and before long all three of us were back in the cockpit attending to duties. The golden glow of a European sunrise outlining the Spanish countryside passed. Nothing could be said that would sufficiently summarize our privilege to witness such an event.

Aside from allowing the airplane to remain higher on the glidepath than I would have liked, my approach and arrival was acceptable for even check airman standards. At least Marty didn't indicate any problems.

Three pilots and nine flight attendants trotted off the airplane and onto the waiting hotel crew bus at 0630 Barcelona time. Our arrival at the front desk was met with the usual friendly smiles.

After the room keys were in our hands, Marty grinned and tapped his wristwatch. He looked at me and asked, "What time?"

Ted smiled. I thought of my writing projects and other miscellaneous work that needed to be accomplished.

I shuffled my feet and said, "How 'bout I meet you guys somewhere for dinner?"

Marty's face held an expression of disapproval. "How 'bout Teddy and I meet you here in the lobby at 4:30?"

I looked at Ted. His tall frame towered over Marty and I. Ted shrugged his shoulders. Ted would be coerced into beginning the layover festivities earlier.

I smiled in resignation and said, "See you guys at 4:30." It was time to make the acquaintance of my pillow -- at least for a few hours.

My reunion with Ted and Marty involved the obligatory visit to La Ramblas, the main tourist street of Barcelona. I discovered that Marty had an innate tracking ability to locate Irish pubs. I returned the favor by introducing him to my newly discovered favorite tapas restaurant. Although some of my seafood selections were not his favorite, he was a good sport.

The following morning it was Ted's turn to display his abilities. I took the role of relief pilot on the jumpseat while Marty resumed his position in the right seat. The blue airport circle of Barcelona's airport soon disappeared from the HSI as we climbed toward the North Atlantic.

Since we had compared notes and exchanged information on the eastbound flight, Marty didn't have much more to add once we leveled at our initial cruise altitude. I was granted safe passage from the cockpit to the cabin crew rest seat. A little over two hours later I returned, allowing Ted his opportunity to nap. Marty and I bantered about the job and our lives. Once again, time passed quickly. Ted re-entered the cockpit to relieve Marty.

As we cruised along at Mach .80, I discovered that our fearless leader had left his laptop in the copilot's side compartment. The laptop was used as an EFB (Electronic Flight Bag) for our MEL and other assorted manuals. I looked at Ted with an evil grin. The computer had given me an idea.

With Ted's approval as a co-conspirator and one digital camera, Marty's background screen was magically changed to an enlarged cockpit photo of the two of us with wide-toothed smiles. And for the first time on the trip, a uniformed hat was on my head. The hat belonged to Marty.

Three captains and one cockpit? More fun than I had imagined.