Captain New, Captain You.
The obligatory small talk as you plug in comm connectors and visually scan switch positions, watching the clock, setting the pace for what needs to happen and when.
“Is this your trip all month?” you ask. Next will be where do you live, any kids . . .
He’s got a smile trying to bust loose. “First part of the month,” he says. “Then I go to captain school.”
Now you’re smiling too. “Congrats, amigo,” you say. “I think I’m going to start calling you captain right now. Has a nice ring to it–and you might as well get used to it.”
You let that ride, let him have his moment of pride. And if he’s smart, a moment of well-justified trepidation. Of course, until he actually qualifies and then in the real world sweats bullets in real time at 500 knots with options shrinking . . .
If anyone ever knew ahead of time, they’d walk away, wouldn’t they?
Your smile stays, wishing in your heart the best for him and for the thousands who’ll rely on him once he takes a seat in the “buck stops here” position.
He deserves that, he’s waited twenty years for that fourth stripe. And never mind that he’ll have to earn it, fight for it actually, to prove to instructors, evaluators and the FAA that he deserves it.
Try to think back . . . twenty some years ago, you’re a happy-go-lucky (okay, maybe too much so) DC-10 First Officer, cruising around, loving the senior First Officer schedule–then you get the notice: “You will report to captain upgrade ground school on August 15th . . .”
Ahh, how the world changed in an instant: finally at long last, you reach the top, recognized for who you are and how you fly.
Well, not so fast.
It’s a gauntlet of classes, exams and certifications. Systems to understand, procedures to master and more than anything else, a mindset to claim: what the hell are we doing and why? And if it doesn’t contribute to the safe carriage of our passengers, to the successful, competent and correct touchdown and taxi in for your $60 million dollar jet and the souls on board–you’re the guy to raise the bullshit flag, to stop the freight train and make it work like you want it to, like it’s supposed to. No one else can or will.
If only he knew; if only you’d known.
Hours of study, memorize those litanies, understand the systems behind the procedures; cough up the spectrum of limit numbers on demand: temperatures, pressures (climb? cruise? max?); fuel limits; climb, icing, stopping–more: electrical bypasses; backups, legality and oh god, stay on the right side of the battalion of lawyers looking for your survivors’ assets if you falter.
Remember the checkride? Double-teamed by two Check Airman, but so what? Bring it on: a great first officer on my right, moving from the engineer’s panel to his first window seat, both of us studying, drilling, practicing in the simulator for engine fires and failures and hydraulic leaks and electrical fires and god-knows-what–bring it on.
Then the coup-de-gras: double engine failure, land it safely, ace. And you do.
Smart on their part, as you learn later when after years and over 5,000 captain hours you become the evaluator, the Check Airman, for other pilots upgrading to captain and First Officer: burn it into their minds–you can handle anything and everything. Because they’ll have to; and they’ll know that they can when they must.
And the proud, ultimate moment after engine shutdown on a flight with a hundred forty passengers on board and an FAA evaluator in the jumpseat. New captain candidate wrung out, put through his paces, scrutinized and graded. You as Check Airman in the right seat, acting as copilot but still pilot-in-command for the new guy’s FAA check. The FAA guy gives you a nod (you never lost a captain, ever) and you know.
You ask the FAA evaluator, “Critique?” Usually, if we’ve all done our jobs right–and I never lost a captain–there are some minor critique items. Then he leaves. The silence is big as we gather our flight gear.
“I only have one thing for you,” I say. “You wear these now,” I tell him, handing over the captain’s wings literally and figuratively forged in fire. And from then on, they’re his to wear and earn again every day.
And after years as captain and thousands of hours and more hurdles of selection, training and evaluations, a few of those new captains will become instructors and evaluators themselves–like you did. Passing on the lessons, looking for the awareness, the competence, and the willingness in those who want captains wings to earn the right to wear them. And we all aspire to exactly that–but not everyone makes it.
“Well captain,” I say, back to the present, “how about we run that Before Starting Engines Checklist? Let’s get outta town.” I know he’s pleased at the sound of that “Captain” title, as well he should be.
And soon, if he works very hard and does well, he’ll find out exactly why.