THE CHALLENGES OF BEING FORCED FROM THE COMFORT OF THE COCKPIT
Article appeared in Flying Magazine May, 2017 by John King
Flying is always deeply satisfying, but for the last three decades or so what has made it especially so for Martha and me has been flying together as a two-pilot crew in an aircraft that requires two pilots. To us, it is a graceful dance—a special way for us to enjoy intense and intimate teamwork while sharing our deep love of flying.
Flying together hasn’t always gone so smoothly for us. For ten years Martha and I flew our Cessna 340 on a circuit to 50 cities a year teaching our ground school courses. The Cessna 340 was, of course, a single-pilot airplane.
Since we were both flight instructors, it was all too easy for the pilot-not-flying to slip unsolicited into flight-instructor mode. Since the pilot-flying hadn’t requested any flight instruction, it was very easy for them to resent the instruction and resist. Meanwhile, the one in instructor mode would be annoyed and frustrated that their instruction was being ignored.
Often by the time we got home, we’d put the airplane away in stony silence and drive home with steam coming out of our ears. We weren’t having a good time flying together and sometimes it could be flat out dangerous.
It’s no wonder. We had never been trained to operate as a crew and we simply didn’t know what we were doing. Like most of us, we never got that training until we learned to fly as crew in an airplane that required two pilots. After we learned to fly as a two-pilot crew it became the most rewarding flying we had ever done.
One of the most important things we learned as a two-pilot crew is to treat each other with great, almost extreme, civility and respect. The one of us designated as second in command addresses the pilot-in-command as “Captain.”
Another thing we learned from our training in two-pilot operations was that the captain needs not only to accept input from the other pilot, but to solicit it. After all, the most important role the second pilot plays is to catch mistakes in procedures or strategic risk management. To fulfill this role, they must able to challenge the captain.
Martha and I have to be very careful to ensure these challenges don’t represent a threat to the captain’s authority, or descend into a husband-wife argument. We know from experience that it is not comforting to our passengers to see John and Martha arguing with each other in the cockpit.
We were taught to make a challenge in reference to standard operating procedures (SOPs). SOPs are pre-thought-out ways to do things to provide the safest, most efficient results. We learned that the pilot-not-flying needs to offer information, not an opinion. Plus, that information has to be delivered in an agreed-upon, standardized format.
For instance, when I am the co-pilot I am not allowed to say, “You’re too low!” This, by the way, as I know from personal experience, is guaranteed to start a fight over how low is too low. What I can say is, “Altitude 3,400 feet, and descending.” That’s information, not opinion, and it’s helpful to Martha because it’s precise.
Or when I am flying, Martha can (and frequently does) say, “Bank angle 40 degrees and increasing.” Again, this is precise information that is useful to me, not just an opinion.
Now another part of this deal is that the captain has to respond properly to challenges. Since our standard operating procedures say our maximum allowed bank angle is 30 degrees, I can’t just say to her, “That’s OK, I know what I’m doing.” Nor can I just say “OK” and keep on doing what I was doing. The only thing I am allowed to do (and this is tough for me) is say one word, “correcting.” And then I have to take action to correct the situation.
The word “correcting” acknowledges the non-standard operation and represents a commitment to return to standards. If I say “correcting” and fail to make the correction, Martha is not only authorized, but required, to say, “No correction noted.” If I still fail to make a correction, she is to assume I have gone brain-dead and say, “I have the controls.” I can assure you that Martha is quite willing to do this.
As you can see, for us, getting along in the cockpit means that while the authority of the captain is clear, so is the responsibility. The captain is required to fly by standardized procedures, and to accept and respond to challenges when the procedures are not standard. At the same time, the non-flying pilot must provide information in an acceptable format.
Our shared piloting in our old Falcon came to an abrupt halt for Martha and me recently when the FAA denied me my medical certificate. I can fly with her in an aircraft that does not require two pilots, and I can even handle the controls. But until my appeal is a finally resolved, I can’t be a required pilot. As a result, Martha has had to recruit and train other co-pilots.
Watching Martha in action with them has been a great learning experience in multiple ways. One of the most important things I have learned is how to be a knowledgeable passenger without interfering with the crew. I’ll have to admit this has been difficult for me. I have for more than a decade been a crewmember in that very aircraft. But while Martha is only a little bit better pilot than I am, as the captain she is entitled to full respect from me.
Now that my role is to keep my mouth shut and observe, I have become aware that Martha not only has learned to practice good crew resource management, she has learned a lot more. She has had to recruit and train four other copilots who had to learn our standard operating procedures. Three of her new co-pilots had military turbine experience. One came up the piston general aviation route.
She has learned to work with them as crewmembers with thoughtfulness, kindness and patience. She gives them the help they need with specific avionics. She gives the different pilots room to do the cockpit checks differently as long as the key things are covered. She isn’t picky about read-backs as long as they are complete. And she solicits help with situational awareness and error trapping. She gets a great performance from each of them and sees to it that they are having fun.
Meanwhile, I have petitioned for a hearing by an NTSB Administrative Law Judge regarding my appeal. I am eagerly awaiting a response. In spite of the fact that I am observing a lot by just watching, I am eager to get back in a pilot seat next to Martha. After all, it never has been one of my fantasies to watch Martha with other men—even if only as flight crew.
Late news: After I submitted this article, I received my medical certificate from the FAA with a restriction of “valid with another qualified crewmember.”