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.

Ryanair CEO questions the need for the co-pilot – wants to replace them with flight attendants

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary is making the news again. And as usual, the news is controversial and absurd. O’Leary is apparently fed up with paying for two people to fly his planes, and wants to convince safety regulators that one pilot would be more than enough. In a magazine interview, O’Leary had the following to say:

Why does every plane have two pilots? Really, you only need one pilot. Let’s take out the second pilot. Let the bloody computer fly it.

When asked what would happen in an emergency, leaving the plane without a pilot, he replied that specially trained flight attendants could assist:

If the pilot has an emergency, he rings the bell, he calls her in. She could take over.

Of course, pilots and their unions are furious, as it tries to paint a picture that planes fly themselves and don’t really need anyone at the controls. A spokesman for the British Airline Pilots Association said:

Are there no lengths to which he will not go to get publicity? His suggestion is unwise, unsafe and the public will be horrified.

After O’Leary made the news with proposals for a paid bathroom, standing room and long haul flights with free oral sex, you almost have to question his sanity. Still, he can’t be all that crazy, as his airline is one of the most profitable in the world. Earlier this year, British Airways took a reverse approach when they retrained some of their pilots to work as flight attendants during a strike.

What do you think? Is this another publicity stunt, or could his airline actually save millions by removing the co-pilot?


[Photo from AFP/Getty]

JetBlue pilot removed from Boston plane after gun threat incident

A JetBlue co-pilot has been removed from his Boston crew lounge when he sent an email to his ex-girlfriend mentioning his plans to harm himself.

The pilot is a member of the TSA Federal Flight Deck Officer program, which allows pilots to carry guns on their plane – the program was developed after the attacks on 9/11. Upon being confronted by authorities, the pilot handed over the gun and was taken to a local hospital for mental evaluation.

Local authorities were quick to point out that the man never threatened passengers and was only considered a threat to himself.

Plane Answers: How a pilot’s flight time relates to their experience

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Ted asks:

Due to the latest streak of incidents and accidents I have seen the pilot’s experience written down in flight hours – the captain on the Turkish plane that crashed at Amsterdam had ~15,000 hrs experience, Capt. Sullenberger almost 20,000 hrs and his first officer 15,000+ hrs while the first officer on the ill-fated Colgan Air flight 3407 only had 774 flight hours experience.

However, I would like to know how this translates into years of experience; how many flight hours does a pilot accumulate in an average year; what are the differences between a long-haul pilot (747,767,777 etc), a pilot that flies shorter flights (737/A320) and a pilot for a regional airline.

If possible, I’d like to find out how a pilot’s career looks in flight hours; from moment 0 when he/she takes the first flight lesson, to the PPL and so on all the way to a Senior Flight Captain with the hours attained at the most important milestones. (I know these vary greatly from case to case, but how would it look like on a more or less approximated average?)

Oh, and one more thing: are the flight hours calculated from take-off to touch-down or do they count ground time as well?

Hi Ted,

That’s a great question.

As you mentioned, the milestones in one pilot’s career can vary wildly from another pilot’s. But I could probably give you a general range.
The researcher Anders Ericsson claims that to be an expert in any field or subject takes 10,000 hours of practice – a milestone in flying I’ve only recently reached.

Here’s a breakdown of the typical flight times for various pilots.

Student pilot

A student pilot can solo whenever an instructor is comfortable signing them off. That can be anywhere between six and twenty hours, typically.

Private Pilot

The private pilot license takes at least 40 hours to accomplish, but most finish it after 60 or 70 hours. That license allows a pilot to carry passengers with them, but not for hire.

Commercial, mult-engine and instrument rated pilot, with instructor ratings

After about 250 hours, a pilot can work toward their advanced ratings which are a requirement to flight instruct or to fly for hire.

Regional Co-pilot

Regional airlines that hire pilots for twin-engine turboprops and RJs (regional jets) typically hire pilots into the co-pilot seat with between 500 to 1,500 hours. After some time in the right seat-as little as six months and as many as ten years-the co-pilot would upgrade to the captain position.

Regional Captain

To be a captain at a regional airline, you would have to have an ATP or Air Transport Pilot license. This license requires at least 1,500 hours, along with a significant amount of cross-country and night flying time. So the typical regional captain could have between 1,500 hours and 30,000 hours.

The large spread in flight time is because some pilots end up at the regional carrier during a time of limited hiring by major airlines. After flying for ten or so years at the regional, it becomes a difficult decision to leave the company to fly for less money initially at a major airline. So many of those captains elect to stay put until they retire at the age of 65.

Regional pilots fly close to the FAA maximum allowable 1,000 hours a year.

National and major airline Co-pilots

The usual new-hire at a national or major airline has between 1,500 hours and 10,000 hours, typically. Military pilots generally don’t accrue the large number of hours in a short amount of time like regional pilots, so they tend to have between 1,500 and 3,000 hours when hired. Civilian pilots often have at least 2,500 hours, and more commonly now, 5,000 hours before landing a job at the majors.

The holy grail. Captain!

Captains at the major and national carriers usually have at least two to 15 years with the airline before upgrading. Since we’ve had an unusually stagnant decade of growth among the legacy airlines, many have between fifteen and twenty years with a company before moving to the right seat. In fact, I just had my sixteen-year anniversary and I’m still firmly planted in the right seat with no real outlook for an upgrade anytime soon. I’m sure once the retirements and growth pick up, that will change quickly.

National and Major airline pilots fly between 600 and 1,000 hours per year.

Notice I didn’t separate the wide-body, long-haul pilots from the narrow-body domestic pilots with regard to experience, since there’s relatively little flight time differences. Some pilots prefer the international flying and some would rather fly within the U.S., or their carrier is domestic only, so the flight time is relatively similar between those groups.

In the airline world, flight time is measured from the time the aircraft pushes back to the time it pulls up to the gate at the destination. Military pilots often only log the time flown in the air, without the taxi flight time included, so that can also account for the lower numbers among those pilots.

But flight time really isn’t the only way to get a feel for a pilot’s experience. Airlines look at a pilots currency, or how much they’ve flown in the past year, the amount of flight time they have in a particular type of aircraft and what type of flying they’ve been doing. A domestic pilot will accomplish a lot of takeoff and landings and gain valuable experience quicker than, say, a long-haul 747 pilot flying as one of the three or four pilots on the airplane.

And it’s also important to keep in mind that we’re all human. All pilots have to fight off complacency, as even 500-hour pilots can start to feel they’ve got this flying thing figured out.

The Turkish pilot with 15,000 hours may have been complacent or lacked currency. The facts on that accident are coming out and it’s looking like an automation failure wasn’t picked up by the pilots while on approach resulting in a loss of airspeed. Proof positive that even a 15,000 hour pilot (equivalent to nearly two straight years in the air) can be caught off guard at times.

So flight time isn’t the definitive tool used to judge a pilot’s experience level. It’s just the most often used.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monda
Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.