Sunday, 22 September 2013

The ‘First Officer’: last line of defence.

First Officer, Co-pilot, and Second in Command, last line of defence.

Stuck in the right seat of every aircraft is a person known as the ‘First Officer’. Most people know this but it seems a lot of the media don’t. Anytime there happens to be an aircraft incident on the news, it is reported that ‘the pilot did this….’ Or: ‘the pilot told the passengers that’, as if there is only one person operating the aircraft –i.e. the captain.

Well, passenger aircraft are designed to be flown by 2 flight crew members. They are ‘multi-crew aircraft.’
I remember being an ‘FO’ once. I remember being an ‘FO’ for a second time also. In a pilot’s career progression there may be a lot of ‘musical chairs.’

One may start as an ‘FO’ on a regional turboprop, and then become a captain on the turboprop, then move on to a jet and be an ‘FO’ again.
The one thing that always remains the same is that often, the ‘FO’ is the passengers’ last line of defence, an insurance policy, and the unsung hero.

Well, if the captain has a heart attack or food poisoning –for instance-, then the ‘FO’ has to land asap. It is a full emergency.

If the captain loses perspective because she or he is a human being, there is an ‘FO’ to ask questions like:

‘Hey captain, can we really do the flight with the ‘brakes hot’ light on?’ Whilst knowing full well that we cannot even taxi like that, and that we should look in the checklists and be safe.
Or make comments like:

‘Listen skipper, the cabin crew are saying that the passenger is quite sick. We won’t be at the destination for another hour and a half… do you want me to get you some weather for the nearest alternate airport? Just in case you decide to go there…’ (hint, hint.)
And in extremely unusual cases warn:

‘If you continue to buzz the runway, I will have to make a report.’
And even though I’m not making any of these up; the last case is thankfully rare.

One thing is for sure though…
The ‘FO’ is in a very difficult position. With less experience and more youth (generally) she or he is also less jaded by the industry and more in love with his profession.

The ‘FO’ and aviation are in the honeymoon period. The captain is probably stuck in a secure but dull long-term relationship.
'God is my co-pilot'

But above all else, the ‘FO’ has to master the art of being a chameleon.

If she is flying with a technical captain, she has to show perfect discipline, and superior systems knowledge.

If he is flying with a laidback skipper, he has to relax too; but keep his eyes open.

If she flies with the ‘union rep’, she has to wear her union pin and worker’s face.

If he flies with the chief pilot, he has to be the biggest company man.

When he flies with a friend he sometimes has to become his enemy.

When she flies with an enemy, she must become his friend.

Because for the duration of the flight, the poor ‘FO’ will have many difficult things to face: Like grumpy tones, boring stories, and bad jokes.
But every captain knows: if you have a good ‘FO’, you don’t need good luck.

Copyright © Francisco Rebollo 2014

'Dog is my co-pilot'

Image used with permission


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