Who IS the airline Captain anyway?
Depends on who you ask. But though it seems obvious to me from the inside, it’s a legitimate question I ask from the outside of other exclusive professions.
Well, I can give you a look behind the curtain in the airline pilot world if you’re interested. And also the perspective of captain, which is even more unique: I can remember flying in the First Officer position on the DC-10 one dark and stormy night going into Chicago. Options were running out; The Boss had to make a decision–and fast–whether to divert or to commit to the approach.
He looked to me for advice, which I gave him. “Not sure what the best thing would be,” he said, as if fishing for more. I smiled slyly and looked back across the cockpit, saying, “Yeah, I bet that’s a tough decision.”
Because he had all of the authority, not me, and in fact I had the luxury of sitting back and watching him sweat it out. It’s good to be captain, right? It’s also tough to be captain as well.
Well, I’ve had the experience now from the captain’s perspective nonstop since 1991. That’s when I got where I am, but not how. Let’s go way back.
Okay, we don’t have to go back that far, do we? Seems kind of boring, to me. But, that is where I came from and it has bearing, whether I’d like to admit it or not, on where I am now.
Seventh grade, control line planes and they really flew. Built ’em, eventually designing my own balsa wood constructions; slap on that infallible .049 engines and drive all the neighbors crazy with the noise, flying and eventually crashing my planes (learning a loop was easier in a jet than one of these control line planes) then fixing them to fly again. Did that all the way through high school. Radio controlled planes? Too expensive.
And along those lines, in college “too expensive” won out over “too stupid:” flying lessons were way out of my budget (I paid my own way through college) but skydiving was relatively cheap. You had to pay for a lift, which wasn’t all that much, and you were in flight just like that. Of course then you had make your own way back to the terra firma, but that was even cooler: flying without the plane! But still in the sky.
Bought my own parachute, budgeted a morning and afternoon jump on weekends. Thought I was immortal, which is really stupid, especially since over those years I saw a lot of folks get hurt jumping and took a few knocks myself and actually split a helmet when the wind dragged me across the asphalt and into a parked car (black eye; onlookers clapped because they thought it was planned). Dumb, dumb idea, but I learned a thing or two about life and death and fear in the process. Those lessons served me well later, as I’ll explain.
The Air Force helped me break that skydiving habit my senior year by paying for flying lessons. And one of my buddies who’d borrowed my skydiving rig made it final by shredding my chute when he landed in a tree.
Actually, it was “flight screening” the Air Force paid for: who had two left feet? Who should the Air Force not invest a million dollars in for jet flight school because they’d end up washed out or dead?
Of the fifty-some guys in my college graduating class who were qualified and competing for a pilot slot, I somehow ended up in the four who were actually selected for flight school. One washed out, one was killed flying low-level formation and the other guy now flies for Delta. But that’s another story.
Bigger and better flying followed. The Air Force decided to ship me off to Okinawa first, then Hawaii, for a total of seven years in the Pacific and worldwide. Good flying, around the clock and around the world.
And a few more pilot compadres got killed doing it, I should note to be honest. But we figured the risk was worth the reward, if not always the duty.
Couple buddies flying back in the states let me know “the airlines are hiring.” Yeah maybe, I thought. I have orders to fly the above White Rocket stateside now. Do I want to screw that up by getting out and starting over?
For the hell of it, I did a couple interviews. That’s all it took.
State-of-the-art jets and a wide open future: you could fly till sixty if you wanted! The Air Force would have you tied to a desk by your late thirties. You’d be done in the cockpit.
Sat side-saddle for a year as DC-10 engineer. On that jet, I flew with legends and gods, in my mind anyway: these were pilots who’d flown a hundred combat sorties in Vietnam. Some had spent time as POWS. They’d flown the classics of the jet age, from Thuds to the Deuce to the Sabre jet; you name it.
Some had flown with my father, a thirty-year USAF flyer. They were gentlemen, they had been baptized with fire in the air flying exotic stuff and even the first jetliners back when I was still in diapers. They were captains the likes of which, honestly, no longer exist.
I was humbled. I shut up and watched and learned: here’s how you lead a crew, here’s how you calmly handle the whirlwind when it erupts and you’re responsible for 250 plus lives.
Then I graduated to a copilot’s seat. Moving forward in the cockpit, now working one-on-one with that old breed of captain. I watched and learned. I fought the weather, the mechanical stuff, the air traffic problems, the schedule plus my own fatigue.
And loved it.
Earned my own set of captain’s wings six years almost to the day after I was hired. That’s unheard of today, where most First Officers have been here at least ten, some as many as twenty years. So I’m nothing special–rather, just damn lucky.
Now I live with what I call the captain’s pyramid, which probably isn’t what you think.
Sure, you’re at the top of the heap, blah-blah-blah. But for me, it’s now about being the guy to whom everyone else says, “Yeah, I bet that’s a tough decision” as I did to that DC-10 captain for whom I was the First Officer so many years ago.
The captain’s view is from inside that pyramid, and as you go up, as the flight becomes challenging due to weather or emergencies or a million other problems, you’re shoved upward, like it or not, ready or not, and lives are in the balance.
And it gets narrower. And there’s less room, but you have to make it work. You have to find the safe way out for you and your crew and all the souls on board.
That’s where who I am, the boring part I was describing before, takes over. It’s the lessons of calmness when hurtling downward at terminal velocity, a snarled parachute overhead and the realization that you have one shot at manually deploying your reserve chute–so make it a good one.
It’s the stormy nights over the most distant South Pacific nowhere land, a thousand miles from any shore and the knowledge that you must get on that tanker boom, vertigo or not from the moonlight through cloud breaks plus the turbulence and constant turning to avoid weather scrambling your equilibrium, you must and will hang on for your fuel–or your life is going to become “interesting. ”
It gives one the quiet calm at the eye of the storm, nose pointed up, climbing for all she’s worth but losing to the mountain you’ve been errantly vectored into in the thunderstorms of peak-ringed Mexico City.
There’s neither panic nor fear, in fact there’s a deathly calm as you do the math and search for any inch of advantage you can get, the only emotion being a distant backroom anger at finding yourself here again. What’s scary is you’re not scared–you’re on task, concentrating.
When that engine quits or worse, explodes; when the weather screws you and the windshear grabs for you, when the terrain (thanks, Mexico City Approach) smacks you in the face: you do what you gotta do. Calmly.
Because that’s where I came from. Like most captains, this ain’t my first rodeo.
And I’ve shared that look, words unspoken, with other captains on the crew bus. We’ve been in the same storm, faced the same narrowing of the pyramid. We’ve been steeled enough through years of the relentless fire to the point where we claim that deliberation, that scary calm, and do what we have to do. Nobody says a word, but the look traded says, goddam, we did that again and did it well, didn’t we? Nobody likes or goes after the top of the pyramid, but we all know it comes after us and we will stand our ground.
That’s kind of it. That’s who we are, which now you know, is because of where we come from.
Not everyone has a military background. Some of my favorite First Officers, the most capable pilots I know and the ones I absolutely need as the top of the pyramid closes in on us, are of all civilian background. And the ex-military folks, well, we’re all pretty much diecut and stamped.
I wear the four stripes which yeah, cuts a path down the jetbridge during boarding. But that’s all eyewash to me, just things passengers need to see to feel confident at shotgun speed seven miles up, comfortably unaware of the pyramid closing in on us. It really doesn’t mean squat there.
So I really don’t give a damn about the cosmetics of it all. Flying is what matters and what decides success or failure, not the outward trappings of the position. Which is why although now you do know, you needn’t even be concerned about who’s responsible for getting your feet safely back on the ground, predatory but invisible (to you) pyramid or no. My gig is flying, living up to the legacy of the giants who came before me and who taught me, employing the hard lessons I learned along the way.
That’s who your captain is, no matter what airline you’re on or who’s in the left seat of your jet. And from my perspective as an airline captain three decades after I first soloed, that’s really what it’s all about.
Who is the airline captain? Now you know.