The Makings of a Good Captain

The Makings of a Good Captain

The Makings of a Good Captain

One of the benefits of the professional pilot contract flying I do is that I occasionally fly as Second in Command (SIC) with a wide variety of other pilots as the Pilot in Command or Captain. They come from diverse aviation backgrounds with most (but not all) having more than my 11,000 hours of flight time. In an FAR Part 91 environment, where flight operations are not standardized airline style, how “things are done” can vary quite a bit with each individual captain – which just makes what I do even more interesting. Here is one example.

It is my turn to fly, and while we are listening to the AWOS, Mike sitting in the left seat of the Lear says, “Looks like you got the rough leg.” And that indeed appears to be true with the winds gusting 16 to 28 knots from 250 directly across the runway as we taxi out to Runway 34 in Minden, Nevada (KMEV). And though conditions on the airport itself are VFR with the ceiling at 9,000 feet and a visibility of six miles, immediately to the north over Reno, there is a thunderstorm which is blocking our way home back to Seattle.

Mike briefs the published departure procedure, but also notes it will take us right through the weather then gives me a questioning look. I tell him I intend to depart VFR (the airport is non-towered) then make a right turn to the northeast to take us away from the weather, during which time he can coordinate with the departure controller and get our IFR clearance. He nods and says, “good idea.” He makes the Unicom announcement as I taxi out, carefully line up the airplane on the runway, with the nose wheel exactly on the white line, then push the TFE 3500s up to take-off power.

As the airplane accelerates and just as Mike calls “airspeed alive,” a big gust of wind from the west hits the vertical stabilizer which changes the airplane’s direction slightly making the nose wheel move about 18 inches to the left of the white center line before I can fix it. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see this immediately gets Mike’s attention, so much so that he misses the “80 knots, cross-check” call out. I do a little tailwheel type footwork on the rudder pedals and soon have the nose wheel back on the white line where it belongs. But then hearing nothing from the left seat, I finally say, “You going to call out some numbers for me Mike?” He immediately replies with, “V1, rotate,” and we climb into a very bumpy sky.

By the time we get to 18,000 feet, Mike has coordinated with departure, and we have an IFR clearance and have worked our way around the thunderstorm now lying off our left wing. Once things settle down, I ask Mike, “What happened back there Mike – you forget to call the numbers?” He replies, “No, I was actually paying more attention to you keeping the airplane on the white line.” And then adds, “…as a good captain should.” It is a point well taken, and I make a note to remember it. In the end, the safety of the flight is the PIC or Captain’s responsibility, and he needs to be paying careful attention to the most pressing issues, of which keeping the airplane on the runway during a takeoff roll would certainly be one.

Mike is one of those pilots I always learn something from when I fly with him. He has 27,000 hours, was trained to fly by the Navy and then spent a career flying heaving metal with a highly regarded U.S. airline on mostly international routes. He brings a certain mature, grey-haired discipline to the cockpit that some might find irritating, but I actually appreciate. If he is the trip captain and the pilot monitoring (PM) while you are the pilot flying (PF), you can guarantee he is watching what you are doing and expects you to do likewise for him. When he is in the left seat, challenge and response checklist work for every flight regimen is a given – as are sterile cockpit rules below 10,000 feet.

Another thing he watches closely is speed control. As you come down to 10,000 feet, it is certain he will start saying something if you are not exactly at or below 250 knots. If you are at say 280 knots while descending through 11,000 feet, he will definitely provide a helpful hint like “speed brakes will help.” Such compulsivity could be degrading if it did not go both ways, and a good captain always welcomes comments from the SIC regarding his particular flying, which he does. Usually, these exchanges are quite short like “speed 260, 9,000 feet, Mike,” to which his reply would almost certainly be, “slowing, thanks.”

That kind of courteous collegiality is what makes flying as a crew fun. But, it can vary a lot depending upon the captain/pilot’s background. I commonly find that pilots who have flown for airlines (Part 121) have a very standardized way of conducting things. Interestingly, their “standardization” can vary a lot depending upon what airline they flew for; something they themselves often do not recognize. It is not uncommon to hear, “Well, that’s how we did it at Delta,” only to find someone else do something completely different on another trip and saying, “That’s how we did it at United.” It is my observation that however it is done, “standard operating procedures” that are understood and followed by the entire flight crew make flying safer and easier.

Another thing most captains with airline backgrounds routinely do is trade off alternate Pilot Flying (PF) and Pilot Monitoring (PM) legs with their second in command. This is a custom often not followed by people with a purely Part 91 background which I think detracts from safety. As it turns out, the PM in a business jet is usually the busiest pilot in the cockpit, and it takes a while to learn that role well and practice to keep it current. Captains that never choose to work that side of the flight can get rusty with some of the busy SIC duties which paradoxically makes them avoid that role even more.

As an example, I once flew a trip from the southern U.S. to the far end of South America and never once touched the controls. The captain/owner reserved that role for himself. By the time we got well down into the southern continent, I was starting to wonder if without a very active and competent SIC, he could operate the black boxes and deal with the Spanish accented controllers well enough to even find his way back.

At the same time, pilots working as SIC who never actually fly any legs can lose currency in basic aircraft operations which is not a good thing either. If they have not had a lot of experience themselves, they tend to get stuck in that role which makes upgrading to captain difficult. There was a Learjet pilot in my area who had several thousand hours in the aircraft as SIC that applied for a job as captain to one of the air ambulance companies, and just plain busted the company check ride that would have given him the job. He, of course, was embarrassed but then explained that the PIC he had flown with for the past five years never allowed him to touch the controls. As a result, he was a whiz with the FMS and radio communications, but little else. Good captains regularly alternate Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring legs with their SIC because it keeps both pilots sharp and contributes to safety.

Another thing that pilots with military and airline backgrounds usually do very well is understand the notion of “chain of command.” If flying as captain, they tend to invite comments and suggestions, but in the end, know that the final decision is theirs. In turn, if flying as SIC, they will certainly contribute to the discussion but almost automatically defer to the captain’s judgement when the question arises. The business of understanding the chain of command, with the command position usually held by the pilot with the most experience, also contributes to safety and is something purely Part 91 pilots sometimes do not do that well.

Perhaps the most difficult situation to encounter as a professional pilot is suddenly finding yourself flying as the SIC with a new “captain” (often a new owner/pilot) who has little experience flying to professional standards in an aircraft requiring a crew of two. Even though trained for the aircraft in a simulator and appropriately type rated, many of these pilots tend to fly every leg personally regardless of circumstances, and vastly underutilize the more experienced pilot sitting on their right. Sometimes these guys are good, but sometimes not. This problem is almost unique to Part 91 operations because with the airlines, seniority rules generally put the most experienced pilot in the left seat. A fellow professional contract pilot acquaintance of mine from the Southeast recently told me that flying in role like this was the most dangerous and scary flying he had ever done and his background even included military experience where he had been shot at. Although it may be tough on the ego of the new pilot/owner, it would be safer in such circumstances if it was decided well before takeoff that the captain would be the pilot with the most experience.

Even pilots with extensive crew experience can sometimes get in trouble if the same two individuals always fly together. This rarely happens in Part 121 settings because airlines rotate crews, but is often the case in business or Part 91 operations. The problem is that unless they are careful, these crews get to know each other’s patterns very well, start taking short cuts and drift into sloppy habits that a pilot new to the scene would recognize and question right away. There was a fatal Gulfstream crash recently wherein two perfectly qualified and highly experienced pilots died on the takeoff run simply because they left the control lock in place. This would have readily been caught with better checklist discipline, something a good captain would insist upon every single time.

What makes a “good captain” for any given flight is dependent upon experience, attitude, training, discipline and a willingness to not let the boredom of routine professional flying get in the way of safety. Other factors aside, generally the best person to take on the role is the one with the most experience – a little grey hair also seems to help a lot. 

About the Author

Leave a Reply