Captain New, Captain You.

First trip of a new month, settling into the cockpit. You’ve flown with this guy before, but after so many years and so many flights, it’s hard to recall exactly when.

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.


9 Responses to “Captain New, Captain You.”

  1. Thanks for another great post, Chris. You’ve given me a whole new respect for — and appreciation of — commercial airline pilots.

    In fact, I must admit that flying hasn’t been the same since I discovered your blog. (Especially after your recent post on lavs. Thanks for that. 🙂

    Seriously, though … keep up the great writing.

  2. Whaow, totally speechless! I’m with you hmunro!

    Today I got to sit in the left seat of a retired KLM 747-200… First time I got to sit on a seat in a flight deck but also the feeling that many captains sat on that very same seat, making decisions like you do was very weird to say the least!

    A post to remember!


    By the way, have you flown one of the AA 737 with painted bellies yet?

    • Not sure about the painted bottoms–I’m seldom if ever on the ramp.

      But I know that feeling of sitting in a cockpit from back in college and before: it has that feel, a smell, even; you get the feeling that it wants to fly, to go fast, and that it has. And planes are more themselves, alive, when they do. The best feeling is when you’re in flight and the jet is an extension of you, your will, your maneuvers.

      That cool feeling just never goes away.

  3. Another great post Captain Manno. Thank you again for allow us groundpounders a window into the world behand the flight deck door.

    Tony De
    USAF Ret

  4. Any man who doesn’t feel the weight of responsibility when sitting in the left hand seat is never going to make it, whatever he’s flying. To bear the responsibility of many passengers takes a certain type of person. I know of at least one man who bottled out of his first landing in heavy metal with a full load of pax. Better he should do it on the check than later in his career.

  5. blackwatertown Says:

    Another good post – thanks.
    Like the top pic too.

  6. Absolutely poetic! Well done, Captain!

    Ironically, all that you wrote can be said for other professions, careers, anyone who has lives in their hands who is experienced and is training the uninitiated and who feels pride when the hard learned lessons are learned, and passed on.

    You’ve definitely earned your wings. Thank you.

  7. As only a PC sim-flying “captain”, with what I used to think was a substantial appreciation of real commercial flying, I find this post hugely enlightening as to what really is at stake and goes on “up front” in the real world. With all of the hard work and responsibility involved in the pursuit of this career, it would be interesting to learn what if any recreational aviation you participate in?

    • I personally don’t do any recreational flying. I feel like I get more than enough stick time in 80 to 85 hours a month in the 737-800. Plus, civil aviation is expensive!

      On Earth, I run long distance (12 marathons so far), play lead guitar in my band, and work piece by piece on my dissertation at Texas Christian University where I’m a PhD candidate.

      I like a little diversity in my life on the ground.

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