Cockpit Chronicles: Ten tips for the new co-pilot

Copilot talking on the radio over FranceDespite the fact that our airline is parking older and less efficient airplanes, senior co-pilots have been upgrading to captain at a pretty good clip. I thought the recent events would have put a stop to all that, but I was ecstatic to learn that I had finally reached the seniority needed to fly the MD-80 as a captain. This was due to the wave of pilot retirements we saw last fall.

So as I reached my 20th year of flying as a co-pilot, I figured I might be able to offer some unsolicited advice for any new co-pilots coming into this job. There are plenty of tips on how to get a flying job, but very little talk about what to do when you finally arrive at a major airline.

I didn’t always embrace the following recommendations, and I’ve marked those needing further explanation with an asterisk. Often the best advice comes from the mistakes of others.

10. Don’t fall in love with a co-worker. *

You might not have to worry too much about this one. It seems flight attendants are taught during their initial training that all pilots are evil and should be avoided like the H1N1 virus. Dating a flight attendant can be extremely convenient – think of the layover possibilities – but any nasty break-ups reverberate through the company, which could be awkward. Working with your ex-girlfriend’s best friend, for example, might not be very pleasant.

* Technically, I was married to a flight attendant, but not in the traditional fashion. My wife and I were married for a couple of years before she went to work for a different airline. My siblings have both dated within their respective airlines with varied results.

9. Collect all the good techniques you find in the captains you fly with. And take note of the worst.

Do you like how a captain flies? Appreciate his professionalism and demeanor? Emulate it when you’re a captain. Think of the top five captains you’ve flown with. What do they share in common? Chances are, everyone else likes flying with them too, and a cockpit that’s less stressful is a safer cockpit.

On the other hand, you know that captain that shows up in the cockpit five minutes before departure? You didn’t like it when you were his co-pilot, so hopefully you’ll go out of your way to avoid that kind of behavior when you upgrade. Think of the five worst captains you flew with and do your best not to operate like they do.
8. Face it you’re a chameleon.

In hopes of not annoying the captain you’re flying with, you’ve probably become good at conforming to his way of doing things. Watch how the captain flies the airplane and try out their method. You may or may not adopt his style as your own someday, but for now, he seems pleased. But don’t disregard your influence as well. If they’re too laid back, you may need to step it up a bit, be alert and set a different vibe. And if they’re a nervous Nellie, show them that you’re also paying attention to their concerns and not discounting them. They may start to relax more.

As an example of how not to annoy your captain; if he’s flying and you’re talking on the radio, when he asks you to request 20 degrees right for weather to air traffic control, try to repeat it just like he said – not, “We need to come right a bit for weather.” Chances are, the way he phrased it is how he wants it said over the radio.

7. Try not to commute. *

Pilot sleeping in business classMy brother used to say that commuting turns a good deal into an ordeal. If you can find a place that’s good for raising a family near your base – which are usually near big cities – move there. Your family will appreciate that you’re home, and you won’t be afraid of bidding reserve where you’ll have to be available on short notice. If you can live within an hour of the airport, that’d be perfect.

* When I was first hired as a 727 Flight Engineer, I kept getting bumped out of New York, where we were living, to Miami. I went back and forth four times in six months, and moving just wasn’t practical with one-year leases (the norm in New York). So I picked what I thought the junior base was and stuck with it, that is until the first co-pilot opening came available in Boston.

After twelve years of living an hour north of my base at Boston, I’m now going back and forth between New York and Germany, which may be the mother of all commutes. But I tell myself that it’s a great opportunity for my kids, and for that, I think it’s worth it. In other words, you’ve gotta do, what you’ve gotta do.

6. Study before recurrent training and assume it’ll be tough. *

This seems pretty obvious. I mean, who’s not petrified of an oral and check ride every six months (or year) during recurrent? But after a few thousand hours on the plane, you’ll start to think you have things nailed. This is when you’re most vulnerable. Don’t get complacent. Study more than just the emergency items and the limitations. Know the changes since your last recurrent session because they’re going to use that to see if you’ve been paying attention.

* As an experienced 727 Flight Engineer, I thought I knew every nut and bolt on the plane. And I probably did, but I found recurrent was especially challenging if I went in confident and assured. On the other hand, when I was most paranoid and panicked, I studied harder and subsequently performed better.

5. Make sure your chief pilot has no idea who you are. *

I’ve heard many pilots say that their career goal is to retire and have the chief pilot say, “So now, who are you?”

Chief pilots like to say that it’s the 2 percent of the pilots that occupy 90 percent of their time, and so it should be your goal to stay out of that group. Do your job professionally and by the book and you’ll succeed.

* In order to write for Gadling and create photos and videos to share here, I’ve had to get permission from my base chief pilot and later the vice president of flight operations at our company. I also had the notoriety to be the last pilot hired after nine years of rapid growth in the ’80s and ’90s. So I was subsequently at the bottom of the company for the next five years with pilots marking their position from the end of that list by saying, “I’m Wien plus 470.”

4. New Equipment coming to your airline? Jump on it!

In 1998, I was flying as a co-pilot on the MD-80 and enjoying the window seat that I had worked so hard to reach. But the movement was slow and I was on reserve for the first year with no real control over my schedule. I figured I’d have little to lose by bidding the 737-800 that was coming to Boston.

What happened was a surprise. I went from having just 10 percent of the MD-80 co-pilots behind me to being in the middle of the 737 list and flying coveted non-stop “trans-con” flights to Seattle that allowed me to visit family.

The lesson: pilots didn’t like to take chances on the unknown. They wanted to wait and see what the trips looked like, how the training was and if the airplane had any negative traits. Some just didn’t want to go to school and be away from their families for five weeks. But they ended up going in the end as the MD-80 was pulled out of the base eventually.

3. Don’t buy a “captain’s house” – even if you’re a captain. *

The tendency for anyone is to buy the most home you can afford. But affording the house doesn’t mean housing should end up being your only priority. You’ll need a buffer, and the bigger reserve the better, to save for college for the kids, go places with the family and put away during the downturns, which WILL happen.

* Crusty old captains used to tell me to buy the biggest house I could, as they only go up in value. So after a few years on the 737, I felt like life was finally moving forward. Furloughs were a thing of the past I thought, having done my time from 1993 to 1996, and it was time to get a house and think about filling the rooms with critters in the form of kids.

So why not buy the biggest house possible? Because you work in the airline industry. It’s always been a turbulent occupation, and never more volatile than after 2001, around the time we bought our “captain’s house.” Hey, I was to be a captain in a year or so anyway, right?

It took us another eight years while I was flying as a co-pilot before we grew tired of not having furniture, vacations or even the ability to get ahead. So when the company announced the possibility of more shrinkage a few years ago, we sold the house and bought a smaller place. Fortunately, for once, our timing was pretty good.

2. Fly out of a small base. *

Smaller bases are like smaller airlines. They’re more like working with family. When you fly out of a “master base” like DFW for American or Atlanta with Delta, you may never see the same captain or flight attendants again, or if you do, you may not even remember working with them years before. A base with 200 pilots is ideal if your company has one. It’s always more fun to fly with people you consider your friends.

* I’ve enjoyed being based in Boston for 13 years, but the opportunities in New York are much greater and my seniority is a whole lot better. I would never have been able to do the commute from Boston and the upgrade to captain would have happened years later if I had stayed there.

1. Stay Positive

Remember how excited you were when you were hired at a major airline? Well, keep that in mind when the going gets tough or movement slows down or even goes backwards. This is what you wanted to do. The company isn’t out to deliberately make your life miserable. In fact, I don’t even think of upper management as “the company.” The company is really the employees who are married to it for life because starting over at the bottom of a seniority list at another airline isn’t very appealing.

Volunteer with your union and try to give something back. Pilot unions serve a role in guiding airline safety that the public may not realize. But don’t get too worked up during contract negotiations. You’ll likely be negotiating for half your career, and if you’re on edge and bitter, you’re going to be miserable.

No one wants to hear a fellow pilot complain (for proof of that, just read the comments on my post on the 757). For the most part, your co-workers are going through similar issues that you are, and ranting in the cockpit isn’t going to make it better. Try to remember just how excited you were when you found out you were hired.

happy pilot with leather helmet

So take the above advice for what it’s worth. And listen to those you’re flying with. They’ve been through some of what you’re dealing with and they’re often full of great tips, mostly because they’ve made some big mistakes along the way. (See asterisks above).

Good luck and tailwinds!

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 a junior domestic captain based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.