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How to annoy your First Officer

One of the most annoying things a captain can do.
One of the most annoying things a captain can do.
David W. Thornton

My career as a pilot involved spending more than a decade as a First Officer, a copilot to those not initiated into the terms of aviation. After more than ten years and 4,000 hours of flying as an FO at four different companies, I am uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of FOs everywhere and explain to captains what rubs their second-in-command the wrong way. Read on and discover how to annoy your FO.

1. Keep your hand on the flap handle on an approach. This is a common move for both experienced and inexperienced captains. While flying an approach, when the captain feels that it is time to lower the flaps, I would often notice the captain place his hand on the flap handle, just waiting for the second when I, as the flying pilot, would call for the flaps.

I don’t know whether they thought I would forget to call for the flaps, wanted to give me a subtle reminder, or just wanted to keep themselves from forgetting. Regardless, I found it annoying and would often delay calling for the flaps just make them keep their hand in an uncomfortable position.

If the landing checklist is completed properly, the flaps will not be forgotten. As long as flying pilot complies with aircraft limitations and company standard operating procedures, the flying pilot has discretion on when to call for the flaps. If the nonflying pilot believes that the flaps have been forgotten, a better way to remind them is verbally, stating, for example, “We are still at flaps 20.”

2. Never let him fly. FOs are qualified pilots. Often, since aviation new hires typically go to the bottom of the seniority list, the FO might even be more qualified than the captain. The vast majority of FOs are more than capable of safely flying the airplane.

FOs are supposed to be able to land the airplane successfully, not just lower the landing gear and work the radios. Nevertheless, flying is a perishable skill. How can an FO improve and stay current if he never touches the controls? Your life may one day depend upon your FO’s ability to fly an approach to minimums or land in a strong crosswind.

As an instructor, I saw a number of pilots who had logged hundreds of hours in an aircraft type, but who had very little actual experience flying it. This caused difficulty and more than a few problems in simulator training when a First Officer upgraded to captain.

The captain who never lets his FO fly or only rarely throws them a bone with a short leg does his fellow pilots a disservice. The fairest way to divide legs is the way that most airlines do it, by alternating each leg. This helps both pilots to maintain proficiency and interest.

3. Don’t keep him in the loop. CRM (cockpit resource management) is not just three random letters from the alphabet. If your FO going to effectively back you up, he needs to know what’s going on. This includes planning items like changes to flight plans and weather forecasts as well as more basic things like announcing what switches you are flipping. Particularly if the captain is the nonflying pilot, it matters if you do something like switch the anti-ice on or off. Don’t just do things and expect your FO to automatically know what you’re doing and thinking.

Most FOs can’t read their wife’s mind; they certainly can’t read yours.

4. Don’t start a radio conversation and expect him to finish it. Many times, even though the FO is the pilot monitoring, the captain will initiate a radio conversation with ATC. This in itself is not a problem. Sometimes it is simply more expedient to say something yourself than relay it through your fellow pilot.

The problem comes when the captain initiates an exchange and then fails to follow through. Often the initial exchange is followed immediately by an altitude or frequency change, leaving the FO to wonder “will he respond or not?” Usually there is a pregnant pause while neither pilot answers and the FO scrambles to acknowledge the instruction. It would be much easier for the captain to respond since he was already talking to the controller.

5. Don’t share the paperwork. Typically programming the flight plan is an FO duty, but how can he put in an “as filed” route if you squirrel away the flight plan in an undisclosed location on the left side of the cockpit? Further, as mentioned earlier, the FO cannot cross check the captain if he doesn’t know what the captain’s plan is. For example, without the flight plan or dispatch release showing the amount of fuel required for the flight, the FO cannot verify that the aircraft is properly fueled.

A good captain puts the paperwork in the middle where both pilots can check it as needed. A great captain makes the FO his own copy. Captains who don’t print out flight plans make FOs want to pull their hair out.

6. Act like a check airman. The captain and FO may not be equals, but it is not the captain’s job to test my knowledge. The FO not required to let you quiz him on memory items and aircraft limitations. I have learned a lot from some great captains, but they didn’t act like instructors, let alone check airmen. If every flight feels like a checkride, the crew is going to have a miserable time together. Unless you are a check airman, don’t act like one.

7. Try to do his job. A competent FOs knows his flows. He can run a checklist. He is trained to program the FMS and work the radios. Let him do his job. Don’t try to do it for him. CRM teaches that both pilots have their role and should stick to it.

When you try to do the FO’s job as well as yours, you break his routine and increase the chance of errors and mistakes. Do you really want the FO to try to race you to retract the flaps after landing? There are very few things that need to be done quickly in an airplane and having both pilots competing to reach the same control first is a recipe for disaster.

The other extreme is the FO who will let the captain take his duties. This may work well until the first time the captain misses and item and the FO, who is now simply along for the ride, doesn’t catch it either.

8. Use nonstandard procedures. You will be captain on the next trip, but odds are that your FO will be flying with a different captain. Make it easy for him. Use standard procedures. If he spend several days getting used to your nonstandard way of doing things, he’s going to have to relearn the right way to do things next week or next month.

The whole idea of standardization is that everyone does things the same way and that any two crew members can be comfortable together without a long period of adaptation. Keep it standard. He’s an FO, not a chameleon.

9. Shut him down. Your FO your backup. His job is to question you when something seems amiss. This requires open lines of communication. Countless airplanes and lives have been lost because First Officers didn’t speak up. In some cases, captains intimidated their First Officers into silence. CRM has been around for nearly half a century, but there are still captains with this sort of god complex.

It is in your interest for your FO to speak up. It requires teamwork to safely and efficiently fly a turbine airplane. If you intimidate your crew into silence, you may both pay the ultimate price.

10. Lose his trust. Both crewmembers are professionals. Our wellbeing and careers depend upon a certain level of competence. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you repeatedly get your FO into trouble he will spend more time crosschecking you than doing his own job. This is just as bad as when the captain tries to do both jobs.

To be an effective captain, the captain must be familiar with basic knowledge items such as aircraft limitations and FARs. NOTAMs should be closely checked before each flight in addition to the weather. Before flying an arrival or departure procedure, check the plate closely and be sure to look for notes, crossing restrictions and speeds. The captain should also possess basic airmanship skills. This may seem basic, but it is the cause for many mistakes and violations.

If the crew is to be an effective team, both pilots need to be able to depend on each other. If you and your FO have a long history of filing NASA or ASAP reports, you probably need to evaluate our performance as a team.

When considering how to treat your FO, it is important to ask yourself how your actions affect safety and CRM (for more information on CRM, consult GlobalAir.com’s Aviation Directory for courses on cockpit resource management). While safety is paramount on any flight, it will normally be enhanced by making FO more involved in the decision making process and showing that your value and respect his opinion and skills.

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