Shining the spotlight on the second in command in the cockpit – the co-pilot.
From Air Stewardess to Pilot
The role of the co-pilot is often misunderstood by the flying public. Also known as the first officer, the co-pilot is the junior of the two pilots in the cockpit in terms of rank, and wears two or three stripes on the epaulet.
Although the pilot, also known as the captain or aircraft commander, is responsible for everything that happens onboard the plane, it is a common misconception that the junior pilot, the lesser-known co-pilot, is only an assistant or a trainee who does not take off or land the aircraft. This cannot be further from the truth. It is, in fact, normal procedure at the start of a flight for the captain and first officer to decide who, between them, is going to be the pilot flying (PF), so that the other would be the pilot non-flying (PNF), or now known as pilot-monitoring (PM).
For instance, on a return flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, which then proceeds on to Singapore, the captain would normally fly the first leg of the journey from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, with the first officer taking over the flight controls for the journey back to Kuala Lumpur; this interchanging flying duty is then repeated on the trip from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore and back. However, during the time when the co-pilot is the PF, should a situation arise where it is deemed safer for the captain to reassume control of the flight, they will switch roles.
Both the PF and PNF positions entail specific duties. So, while the PF focuses on the actual flight manoeuvres, the PNF of that particular sector, regardless of whether he or she is the captain or first officer, handles radio communications, reads the checklists and conducts the pre-flight or external checks, amongst other things. And together, the captain and first officer also monitor each other’s performance as a team.
For safety reasons, there are certain flight restrictions in place when the co-pilot is flying the plane. For instance, on the Airbus A330, the co-pilot is only permitted to land the plane in cross-winds if the wind strength is not more than 20 knots – a limitation that is considerably stricter than that allowed the captain, who can land the aircraft when winds are blowing up to 40 knots from the side. Similarly, for a visual landing, the permitted visibility imposed upon a co-pilot is more rigid than the range allowed for a captain, for the simple reason that the latter is more experienced.
MOVING UP THE RANKS
The transition from first officer to captain means that the co-pilot goes from the top of his rank to the bottom of a more accountable one.
With some airlines, experience and skill are not the main criteria, as seniority takes precedence above all else. As such, first officers become captains only once slots become available, and only when they fulfill the seniority requirement. However, in a growing airline, there are far better opportunities for the second-in-command to graduate to the commander’s seat on the left side of the cockpit (the co-pilot is usually seated on the right side of the cockpit).
The co-pilot must first progress to becoming a senior first officer with three bars on his or her epaulet. When a higher level of experience is gained as a senior first officer, which is usually attained when approximately 4,000 to 5,000 flight hours have been logged, he or she can then be considered for the position of captain. The selection process is an intensive one, and it includes a prospective pilot being required to pass a rigorous interview, as well as demonstrate that he or she has the necessary skills to shoulder the heavier responsibilities of a captain.
CO-PILOT ASSERTIVE TRAINING
In the days before Crew Resources Management (CRM) was introduced for flight-crew training, co-pilots found it confusing to navigate the tricky world of social etiquette while performing their duties effectively.
Some first officers were often intimidated by captains. As such, important information was often not effectively communicated in the cockpit. For instance, in some countries where custom dictates a specific way to address a person who is more senior, subordinates often found it difficult to be direct.
Upon investigating an incident involving a timid co-pilot who was fearful of offending his superior, it was discovered that the co-pilot had only hinted at visibility problems instead of informing the captain directly. Knowing that they would not be able to see the runway on the landing approach, he had remarked, “Don’t you think it rains often here?” Vague hints and ambiguities have no place in the cockpit. Today, co-pilots are trained to be assertive and direct when dealing with matters of safety.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are times when a confident co-pilot may lack the necessary tact in handling difficulties that may arise mid-air. A case in point was an incident where, during a descent in total darkness, a co-pilot, rightly assessing that the plane was not stabilised, grabbed the flight controls from the captain and resolved the issue safely. This is a good example of an assertive co-pilot, although the fact remains that he could well have handled the situation more diplomatically.
Today, co-pilot training is focused on enhancing safety in flight. First officers are trained to be assertive when conveying critical messages. The strategy is for the co-pilot to first alert the captain of any impending danger, then, offer a solution. If no corrective action is taken by the captain, the co-pilot is to resort to an emergency assertive procedure, which would normally be initiated when the plane is below 1,000 feet above ground level.
In line with this strategic training, the co-pilot must first stress to the captain that they are approaching an unsafe situation. For example, if a co-pilot determines that a landing should be aborted due to unsafe conditions, he or she must communicate this clearly to the captain. If the captain ignores the warning and fails to take the necessary remedial action, the co-pilot’s next address would be, “Captain, you must listen, go around now!” failing which, he or she must seize the controls from the captain and state, “I have control, going around now!”
This special procedure is imperative in the aviation industry, as, in an emergency, there is no time to argue over a critical decision; any disagreement between the captain and the first officer is settled later on. The co-pilot’s assertive course of action is fast gaining momentum in the aviation industry.
Regardless of the number of stripes on a pilot’s shoulder, both captain and co-pilot perform similar duties, with the exception that the former has more experience and seniority, as well as ultimate authority over the plane.
Both pilots are extensively trained, not only on how to fly and land an airplane, but also to circumnavigate social awkwardness caused by cultural norms.
In the past, where speaking up when in the presence of an authority may have influenced co-pilot actions, today, heightened awareness and progressive training have proven to enhance communication between the cockpit crew, resulting in improved teamwork and increased safety in the skies.
It is with hope that this article brings newfound respect to the co-pilot, the ally in the skies who tends to be left in the shadows of the captain. Flying is a team ‘sport’, where good teamwork under the astute leadership of an experienced captain ensures that each flight is smooth and safe, which at the end of the day, is what every passenger really wants.
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