Taking Wing: In the Hot Seat

Reflections on upgrading to captain.

taking wing
Airlines make a pretty big deal out of being a captain, which often seems a bit strange to general aviation pilots. So why the big fuss about the left seat anyway?Sam Weigel

There are days in every pilot’s life that are destined to be remembered forever: first solo, the Private Pilot check ride, the first time landing a taildragger or seaplane. Those of us who fly for the airlines don’t have many memorable flights, which is by design. Airline flying, done properly, is a mildly enjoyable experience, and a perfectly forgettable one. That said, even at the airlines there are a few prominent milestones, and upgrading to captain for the first time is a big one.

All who have done so distinctly remember their first time in the left seat. In my case, it was April 15, 2008, and I was flying an Embraer 175 with 76 passengers from Minneapolis to Washington’s Dulles International Airport. As I lined up on Runway 12R and pushed the thrust levers forward, it seemed utterly surreal that so many souls were entrusted to my 26-year-old hands, and they all had no clue that it was my very first time. And then I got busy and forgot about it, and as with most things in aviation, after a few more flights the surreal became routine. But I always remembered that flight, and that feeling.

The airlines make a pretty big deal out of being a captain, which often seems a bit strange to general aviation pilots. So why the big fuss about the left seat anyway?

The airlines, as well as several other segments of aviation, have cultures rooted in the maritime tradition and the structures of the military. Respect for command is integral to both of these traditions and has always been a deeply ingrained part of airline culture. Many older pilots still remember the pre-CRM days when the captain was akin to God. But even if the captain’s dominion is perhaps not quite so absolute as it once was, he or she remains the final authority once the plane leaves the gate. There’s a hard-nosed business reason for this: Each time an airliner takes off, millions of dollars in equipment and billions of dollars in liability pass out of the airline’s direct control until it returns to terra firma. It’s imperative that this person be somebody the airline can trust (or can at least justify trusting in a court of law).

This emphasis on the importance of the captain is reflected in the major airlines’ and cargo carriers’ pilot-hiring requirements. Most consider 500 to 1,000 hours of turbine pilot-in-command time to be a near absolute prerequisite. Not all of them put it in writing, but you’d best be the chief pilot’s kid to sneak onto the property without this experience in your logbook, and in any case you’ll be competing against plenty of pilots with a few thousand hours of jet-A command time under their belts. Ex-military pilots generally have the time by default, while civilian aviators must seek out a left-seat gig on smaller turbine equipment in order to check the turbine PIC box.

Many young pilots chafe at being obliged to “chase” turbine PIC time. I certainly know I did when I left an established job at an airline I loved to go to an unproven startup carrier. I questioned whether turbine PIC time was really a legitimate requirement or simply a mechanism to whittle down the resume pool that the major airlines had to sift through. I understood the requirement for an ATP license and a good flying and driving record, and even a four-year college degree. But I felt that I had demonstrated my ability to fly (and not get myself killed!) as a flight instructor and Part 135 cargo pilot and regional airline first officer. What more would I prove by spending a year or two in the left seat of an easy-flying jet?

Had I the temerity to pose the question to a major airline recruiter, they no doubt would have trotted out the well-worn trope that “XYZ Airlines hires captains.” There’s a kernel of truth there, but it’s still a silly saying. Airlines hire crew members. Fully half of those crew members are first officers, and they are every bit as critical to a safe operation as captains. FOs and captains have largely overlapping roles, with a few important differences. FOs are diplomats. They discern differences in style and personality among captains, and then adjust their approach to support the captain and tactfully point out errors while maintaining a good rapport. Captains, meanwhile, are managers. The modern airline operation is a complex machine — as is the modern airliner — and it is the captain’s role to grasp the big picture and ensure that all parts of the machine are working well together. Airlines try to hire people with both of these skill sets. And frankly, it’s tough to be a good first officer without a firsthand understanding of what the captain’s job entails.

Had I the temerity to pose the question to a major airline recruiter, they no doubt would have trotted out the well-worn trope that “XYZ Airlines hires captains.”

I didn’t quite grasp this my first time as a young first officer. Most of the captains I was flying with were 30 years my elder. I hate to admit it, but at the time I saw many of them as slow, overly conservative, apathetic, maybe even lazy — they certainly seemed content to saddle their FO with all the grunt work. I soon began to feel like a “captain in waiting.” I at least had the scant sense not to give voice to my impatience, but I privately spent a lot of time judging my captains’ actions and considering how I’d do things differently if I were in their seat. Truthfully, my time would have been far better spent considering how I could be a better, more supportive first officer. But then, perceptive self-­reflection is seldom a characteristic one associates with youth.

After I upgraded at my next airline, I began to understand. The captains I’d flown with weren’t slow of mind; they’d simply been around long enough to know that haste leads to errors and they’d better take the time to make sure everything was being done according to standard operating procedures. They knew what it’s like to be second-guessed in a comfortable, well-lit chief pilot’s office at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, and wanted to make sure they considered all the options before acting. When they gave me grunt work, they were freeing themselves to think things through. In many cases, what I mistook for apathy was a well-­considered approach borne of experience: Let others do their jobs, and don’t step in unless absolutely necessary. These realizations helped develop my own style as a new captain. And as I was learning the ins and outs of my new job, I was also relearning what it meant to be a good first officer.

I was a captain at my last airline for six years. The first year was a bit rough as I faced a number of situations I hadn’t dealt with before. The second year was better, and the last four were really quite enjoyable. I had a nice rapport with my FOs and flight attendants and other employees, thought I set a good tone, avoided drama and seldom heard from my boss. When I butted heads with the company over operational decisions, it was generally due to lone individuals trying to get a flight out when prudence dictated otherwise. In those cases, I made the tough call to stop the operation, and the chief pilots always backed me up afterward. In all, I ended up with 5,000 hours of turbine PIC time. It was the aftermath of the Great Recession and the subsequent increase of the mandatory retirement age, and the major airlines weren’t hiring in great numbers.

Now that I’m a first officer again, this time with a major airline, I’ve found my return to the right seat to be a nice change of pace. I do think I’m a much better FO for having been a captain for a while. Do I miss the left seat? Perhaps. It’s nice to be able to set the tone and manage your own cockpit. I actually can already hold narrow-body captain in several of my airline’s bases. But there will be time for that later. Right now I don’t need the extra money, and I certainly don’t need the turbine PIC time, so I’m content to hang out in the right seat and be the best FO I can.