The art of being a co-pilot
During the last days of 2018, a Learjet 31A was being repositioned from England to Portugal. The airplane was being flown by a captain, acting as pilot flying in the left seat, and a first officer, pilot monitoring in the right seat. Although the FO was more experienced both on the type and as an ATPL, in this operator he was in the right seat, probably because he was less senior at the company (which is not unusual). Two passengers, also employees of the aeromedical operator, were in the back.
The captain, almost a decade older, asked the first officer during the descent if he agreed with doing a barrel roll, which, as per a written statement later released by the FO to the investigators, he did not agree with. Because there were no voice recordings, it is impossible to tell, but the fact is that the roll occurred, over Algarve around 11-13,000 feet. How did it all came to light? By a routine reading of the FDR (flight data recorder) afterwards.
Since there is no information without persuasion, I’ll give another one away: the PIC did indeed have aerobatic training, although that did not prevent him from stressing the Lear with 2.46Gs while exiting the 10-second maneuver, as you can read yourself on the Bundesstelle für Flugunfalluntersuchung, or, to make it easier, German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation final report. Needless to say, as soon as the operator found out about it, both pilots lost their jobs. And here, our reflections on it start.
The German Bureau itself reminds us of a similar event, also in Europe, where both pilots were killed when they could not exit the roll maneuver in a Citation as they got disoriented. Simply put: it is illegal to do so, and you may well not be able to do it correctly. So… why even trying?
But the focus today is on the right seat guy. What was his role in it?
Well, the operator of the Learjet event states very clearly in its manuals that the co-pilot is responsible for assisting the commander with inputs on correct procedures, just to start with—and these are typical responsibilities of an SIC throughout the industry. Now, how sad is it that you, as a first officer, are actually required to do so? I mean, with the routine stuff, with a doubt that may show up, of course. That is a primary role of a second in command: to give the best information to the first in command so he or she can make the best decisions. But when it comes to violations, isn’t it frustrating, to say the least? Wasn’t this person on your left given the ultimate role in the crew because they could tell wrong from right better than you, probably?
Well, it’s not that simple… anyone honest enough understands how much luck is involved in this: an upgrade has merit, of course, but with a seniority-based system, it often has more to do with being in the right place at the right time. If your company is growing, you grow with it. If it is not, you don’t, no matter how many requirements you meet.
Therefore, let’s switch sides for a bit: in many cases, a captain—either on private or 135/121 operation–is having the first leadership job of his career. Therefore, if the operator does not train him or her on leadership, they end up completely depending on… I don’t know, the values that they brought from home? Things they have observed as second in command when they were not captains yet? If you read Ernest K. Gann and the early days of airline operations, that was pretty much the way it happened, with something worse: multicrew was also not an old concept itself, and many of those first captains had spent the beginning of their careers flying alone. No surprise CRM (crew resources management) was completely alien to them.
Almost a century later, that problem should have been solved, and in several instances it has been. But the 800 lb. gorilla is still on the sidestep of the room. And that is one of the excuses for the multi-pilot license (MPL), a concept that is questionable in many aspects, but directly addresses the essential flaw of the traditional pilot formation path: we are trained, from the start, to be PICs, not to work in a team. But, as you remove this factor with the MPL, then you have a high risk of creating a pilot who was only designed to be a SIC–and this is controversial by nature. Any second in command must be ready to become PIC instantly, as that is the essence of the very existence of that position on the flight deck.
A practical way of solving part of it is with the multicrew courses, the likes of which FAA requires nowadays for you to become an ATP. Obviously, even before, most of the operators were doing a decent job converting lonely wolves into team workers. But the gorilla reminds us of the animal side of it: ego.
The saying goes, “if you want to know someone, give them power.” It is amazing what people can do–or become–once you empower them. And if they are not prepared to deal with it, they will eventually freak out. So, it becomes the task of the poor guy on the right to bring Caroline back to the light, without having hierarchy by his or her side. In the swamps of regulations and operator’s manuals (and even more, culture), the second in command has to do the best to keep the operation safe. But although “co-pilot” is an awful term that is usually very imprecise for those not close to the matter, it is a fact that captains, as pilot monitoring, also have major struggles with how far they must go. And much more: how early should they act to prevent something weird from happening? So, the road goes both ways.
Having said that, itis essential that the pilot in command be open minded: if his colleague is questioning something, it is worth giving it a second thought. As PMs we often see threats before the PF. If you are seated in the jump seat–and that is why examiners and safety pilots do so–then you see even more. Be open, be suspicious, show and exercise the will to learn. That is valid for any pilot, in any position, as our very survival depends on the excellence of our duty. As a co-pilot, second in command, or pilot monitoring, get to know your tools: specially the intervention model. Ask, suggest, direct, take over. Usually, in a high quality culture environment, ask or suggest are more than enough. Unless, of course, the problem is more time critical. That’s when we use direct or—and this is a very hard one to do because you have to be super sure of what you are doing—take over.
Being a co-pilot is an art, and the techniques we develop along the years (even decades) we spend in the right seat nowadays help to preserve our careers and lives. But there is a clear limit to it. As much as we have to learn still—and will, until the day we retire—we depend on our captains to understand they are not above the laws of men or physics.
We have been studying and perfecting for decades the relationship between the pilots and themselves, between them and cabin crew, ATC, mechanics, etc… looking at the past, enhancing our practices for the future. And the balance is a hard one to find. After all, hierarchy is essential for aviation to work: there is no democracy in it, and the PIC is alone in making the decision. But as a commander, you must remember: you are not alone in the consequences of the decision you make.