Cockpit Chronicles: Captain Steve Jobs

How a pilot handles the controls, or their ‘stick and rudder’ skills so to speak, is a small part of what makes a great aviator. Recently, on a flight from New York to Zurich, I watched some decision making that typifies the traits of a great captain.

As Captain Bredow (rhymes with ‘Play-Doh’) and I crossed over Nova Scotia on our way out over the Atlantic, we began to enter an area of light to moderate turbulence. Moncton center told us that some flights ahead had climbed to 37,000 feet in an attempt to get out of the rough ride.

We were established at our ‘crossing altitude’ or the flight level that we’d be maintaining for the next three hours or so while over the non-radar controlled North Atlantic. Climbing to 37,000 would mean that we’d have to descend again shortly to our assigned flight level for the crossing.

I could tell the captain’s gears were turning.
“Looking at the forecasted winds, it seems like the strongest part of the jet stream is at 33,000 feet. Climbing to 37,000 would just put us in the edge of those 180 knot winds. That’s where the bumps are coming from,” said Captain Bredow as I reached for the flight plan to look at the forecasted winds.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

I’ve flown with Dave many times and I’ve culled his best ideas to use when I upgrade to the left seat in the near future. I’ve recounted a few of our flights together on this blog (See “A Gallon Saved” and “FOQA kept these pilots out of trouble in Panama“) and I’ve learned much of what it takes to be a good captain from him.

Dave engages his co-pilots enough to make them think about their own decisions and how they could improve the ride, the efficiency or on-time performance.

Captain Dave deep in thought

Operationally, he has a way of seeing things clearly, with ideas that are outside the box and yet make so much sense; he’s the aviation equivalent of Steve Jobs. He’ll say something that goes against conventional wisdom, like “there’s far less chance of blowing something over while taxiing on one engine than two.” I tell other copilots that when he says something like this, just start the stopwatch on the airplane clock and within fifteen minutes, you’ll be agreeing with him.

After explaining that a pilot accomplishing a single-engine taxi is actually more careful than a heavy fisted captain on two engines who is confident that the jet blast behind him is weaker since less power is needed when operating on two engines. Sure enough, Dave always uses less thrust on one engine than many pilots on two when breaking away for their initial taxi.

Back to the bumps. Attempting to avoid the rough ride we were getting that night by getting out of the weaker winds and descending into the stronger winds of the jet stream left me a little skeptical. But his reasoning was sound.

“Sure, let’s give it a try,” I said skeptically, and with ATC concurrence, we descended from 35,000 feet to 33,000. Moments later, Dave clicked off the seatbelt sign.

And then we listened for the next hour as airplane after airplane tried to climb above the jet stream and complained about their ride. Occasionally, I’d mention over the frequency that the ride was smooth at FL330, but we didn’t get any takers.

Our airline is continually striving to innovate, and so I can’t help think that Dave’s talents are being wasted in the cockpit. At the very least, he should be a check airman, imparting some of his best practices on others who can choose to do with them as they please. Given 15 minutes, he’ll have them all convinced of the logic behind his technique.

He’s not afraid to speak his mind and the clarity of his thought is such that he’s capable of bringing some innovative ideas to our flight department. I’ll do my part to make sure they know what they may be missing.

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