What to tell the new captain?

cockpit night

We’d flown together as crew so many times over the years, on both the MD-80 and the 737, that the cockpit was pleasantly quiet. That’s as it should be, below 10,000 feet, when all talk in the cockpit is required to be exclusively flight-related. I’m a big fan of the quiet cockpit, at all altitudes. That’s just me.

But near level off, as we settled in to cruise: fuel, good; center tank still above three thousand pounds, both boost pumps on, fuel burn only slightly behind (typical in climb), things slow down. Hydraulics, electrics, oxygen (how many years of HEFOE checks?), standing by for clearance direct to Wilson Creek if the Air Force restricted airspace isn’t active.

“What are you flying next month?” he asks, matter-of-factly. Over the years, we’d already covered the “where do you live,” kids, sports; all the regular stuff.

“Next month? I’m flying all Orange County turns; Wednesday, Thursday Friday.” Kind of get hungry thinking about the John Wayne-Orange County Airport: “Jerry’s Wood-Fired Dogs,” mega-brats that’ll get you through three thousand air miles stuffed to the gills. Great turkey burgers, too. “How ’bout you?”

jerrys composite

“Actually,” he says, still deadpan, “I’m checking out on this.”

That took a while to sink in, but what that means is, he’s upgrading–checking out, in pilot-speak–as captain on the Boeing.

That’s fantastic, a monumental lifetime achievement. Excellent news, and bad news just the same: he’s one of those dependable, journeyman, professional first officers who’ve been keeping me in one piece since I “checked out” as captain back in 1991. I’ll miss his excellent work.

“Great news!” I tell him, and I mean it. He’s been waiting for twenty years and now finally, the pinnacle of our airline pilot career is within his grasp. “You’ll do great! And you’ll be an excellent captain.”


I know he will be, too. And there are about 5,000 hard lessons I’d like to share with him, stuff I’ve learned, often the hard way, from wearing four stripes myself for the past 22 years and counting. But one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to keep my mouth shut.

“I’ve watched the Part One CD-ROM they sent,” he says off-handedly. Part One is the FAA-approved legality manual for our flight operations. The captain’s authority and responsibility resides therein. “And,” he adds, “the CD-ROM for the HUD.” The HUD–Heads Up Display–is the cosmic imagery projected on the glass only in front of the captain, displaying a myriad of performance and navigation data for assimilation while looking outside and flying nonetheless. Takes a lot of getting used to.

Maybe I could comment? Don’t want to be pushy.

“The trick to the HUD,” I say casually, “I’ve found is this: you have to learn which 20% of the data” I point to the Primary Flight Display, which is repeated in the HUD projection, “you need to maintain in symmetry in your peripheral vision. And the addition 20% like the Flight Path Vector and energy trend that you need to look through and maintain. The the other 60%, you need to ignore, but know where to find instantly when you need it.”


Let that float.

“That’s good,” he says. “I’m looking for any advice you can give me.”

Well there are a thousand hard-earned, hard-learned lessons he’ll need to know. Those times in flight where the options shrink, you’re dealing with crap unforeseen but real as a heart attack. The regs let you do things they’ll hang you for later–if you survive. You’ll wish you had more fuel, more time, more airspeed and a do-over–but you won’t.

And afterward, you’ll sit stunned in a crew bus and exchange a glance with another captain, words unspoken, but looks saying holy shit, I can’t believe we pulled that off and I’ll never let myself get talked into that again. You won’t be sure where his First Officer is–or yours, for that matter–at that moment. But without the responsibility, the authority, and the direct charge for the lives and the fifty million dollar jet, they probably don’t have permanent creased countenance of heavyweight concern looking back–and forward–as they head home.

Back Camera

Whoa, mule: not so fast. You think you could have taken all that in twenty-two years ago when you first pinned on captain’s wings? Go easy.

“Well,” I say, carefully, “If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: make an effort, a real effort, to say ‘no’ often and firmly.”

I let that hang in the air for a minute. He’s nodding slowly, looking at me intently.

“Because I have to say, honestly,” I continue deliberately, “I’ve had more regret over what I’ve said ‘yes’ to than I’ve ever had over saying ‘no.’

And we’re biased as captains towards ‘yes.’ We want to make things work, we’re confident in our ability, we want to best all challenges, prove how good we are, that we’re worthy of the rank, the authority, the profession–especially when you’re brand new in the left seat.


It’s actually harder to say ‘no,’ and start with yourself: we cannot, will not rush to get there, to get home, to get paid, to make connections. A hundred and fifty-nine passengers and other crew get that luxury–we don’t, as captain, and we’ll answer for it if we cross the line for all the wrong reasons. Say ‘no-go’, refuse a clearance restriction (especially a climb), say go-around, divert, refuse the fuel load (I have NEVER been hassled for asking for more), refuse the maintenance fix, even the aircraft, if you believe that’s right.

Our airline’s Chief Pilot will back you 100% if you’re trying to do right, to be safe, to be smart–by saying ‘no.’  And though it’s usually simpler and easier to say ‘yes,’ you’ll wish you hadn’t a thousand times over at 40,000 feet and 500 knots when you’re looking for salvation–and you’re it.”

Quiet again. He’s thinking. He knows I’m not kidding–and I’m sure as hell not. Welcome to the fraternity, the exclusive realm of complete authority, total accountability, and a challenge every day more than equal to the rewards and satisfaction that go hand-in-hand when you get it right. Maybe not perfect, but right–every damn time.

I smile to myself, thinking back, thinking ahead. He’ll do great, I know, probably better than I ever did.

And so it goes: check the fuel burn, the nav accuracy, the time over the next waypoint. Looking back is fun, but forward is where we’re headed. Time to earn those stripes, yet again.

Back Camera


28 Responses to “What to tell the new captain?”

  1. Nice blog Chris, well said !!

  2. Randy Sohn Says:

    Reminiscing here – one of my favorite songs is “What part of no don’t you understand!”

    • Good point! And there is among captains in particular or pilots in general, there’s no one more respected than you, Randy. I quoted you in last week’s blog, actually …

      • Randy Sohn Says:

        Chuckle, “respected” huh? Guess that’s why they were always so encouraging when I needed go fly the 51 or Corsair or something and why they always wanted to make sure i had gas to go ride my Harley-Davidson.

      • As the wise man once said, “NS, L-T!”

  3. 🙂 That is really powerful advice.

    (Gosh, I think there are other people out there- *cough* -who should say “no” once in a while…)

    Always love your blog, Chris, and still lurking around…

  4. Nice Post, No is a very powerful word and as a Captain I know it actually is heard. Kind of cool.

    Sometimes, I share the 3 rules for a happy life at XXX airline.
    1. Fly what you want to fly.
    2. Live where your spouse wants to live.
    3. Never, ever take financial advice from another pilot.

  5. You’re a good mentor, Chris. Your Captain-to-be FO is lucky to have you.

    Reading your post, I thought immediately of Conrad’s text on Command at Sea:

    “Only a seaman realizes to what extent an entire ship reflects the personality and ability of one individual, her Commanding Officer. To a landsman, this is not understandable, and sometimes it is difficult for us to comprehend – but it is so.

    A ship at sea is a distant world in herself and in consideration of the protracted and distant operations of the fleet units, the Navy must place a great power, responsibility, and trust in the hands of those leaders chosen for command.

    In each ship there is one man who, in the hour of emergency of peril at sea, can turn to no other man. There is one who, alone, is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire and morale of his ship. He is the Commanding Officer. He is the ship.

    This is the most difficult and demanding assignment in the Navy. There is not an instant during his tour as Commanding Officer that he can escape the grasp of command responsibility. His privileges in view of his obligations are almost ludicrously small; nevertheless, command is the spur which has given the Navy its great leaders.

    It is a duty which most richly deserves the highest time honored title of the seafaring world… ‘CAPTAIN’ ”

    He knew what he was talking about, and it applies equally to you and your colleagues. Thanks for keeping us safe in the back.


  6. Tim Perkins Says:

    I recently flew DFW-BDL and back on AA 737’s and was hoping you would be at the controls…no luck.

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  8. AA Retired Says:

    Right on the money once again. I cannot recall one time I regretted saying, “no,” but how many times after a trip, have you been driving home grinding your teeth over saying “yes”? In my career, I count three, and I remember the details of every one. The many times I said no? No recollection of the specifics, except a pleasant non memorable drive home.

  9. Runway27.com Says:

    Nice Post, No is a very powerful word and as a Captain I know it actually is heard. Kind of cool.

  10. Great perspective, Chris. The temperament that comes through your writing makes me feel safe when I fly, and more importantly, when my wife flies internationally virtually every month. I know that there’re exceptions, but I’d like to think that all Captains (and first officers) are cut from the same cloth as you. Your humor and perspective are a bonus! Thanks for continuing to share.

  11. Jason Clark Says:

    As a veteran Greyhound long haul bus driver I know exactly what you mean. Great essay.

  12. William Connor Says:

    Too many “YES’s & NO’s” and all that other ‘stuff’ to think about. When I went to work I put the airplane on, and took it off when I came home. I knew what I needed to know (a/c & wx) and tried to learn a little of the personalities of ALL my crew. The rest always took care of itself. Never had a problem in over 40 years of flying – probably because if something out of the ordinary (emergency to some) happened, to me it was just something to be taken care of, i.e. an alternate procedure! Heck, if I worried as much as some people I know did, I’d never get any sleep! Airline captains, ship captains – wear your vessel!
    Uncle Bill

    • Interesting. But things at 40,000 feet nowadays seem not to just “take care of themselves,” and a lot of people pay a lot of money for pilots to worry at least as much as we do–so they don’t have to.

      I do like wearing the Boeing; fits nicely and looks sharp.

  13. Cedarglen Says:

    Hello Chris,
    I’m shocked that I did not offer my thanks for this great post earlier. Were I the new captain I think I’d ask to fly a few trips with you, free if necessary, just to soak up some of the wisdom and experience that have guided you for so many years. I know that you are also a teacher between trips. When you eventually retire I suspect that your company’s training department will come knocking. Hmm. Will it be English, 601 or Thinking Like a Captain, 602, or both?
    I seem to recall you saying something like, “…if there are no readers, I won’t write…” You have an audience of loyal readers and this one hopes that you will be moved to write in this space a bit more often. Your dissertation and terminal degree are finished (and again, congratulations!) so that excuse is but a failed RTO. A book book-length compilation of Captain’s Wisdom might be a great idea, especially if you can publish it close to your forced retirement date rather than years later. I suggest that your kind of wisdom, critical thinking ability and leadership will translate well into other professional fields, so your audience is almost automatic. As one who is already retired, I don’t need such a book, but I would buy it and read it just to savor your arrangement of the many words. Best wishes, Captain. -Craig

    • Thanks for the props. But when I reach the mandatory retirement age, I’m done: no more FAA, physicals, checkrides, training; DONE.

      And I’m not looking back–no work at the Flight Academy, SimuFlight or Flight Safety or Boeing or even a foreign carrier–done with aviation, period.

      I’m teaching writing and digital humanities now at a university and will expand that role going forward.

  14. How many times have you had to say “no” over lousy weather? That is what separates the professional pilot from the recreational pilot, I believe. The pro is under tremendous pressure to get to the destination, and there is a huge cost in saying “no”.

    But as you said better to say no than wish you had once aloft.

    • I think what differentiates the pro is the ability and willingness to compartmentalize: I dissociate from the pressure of scheduling and concentrate on procedure–either the weather is within limits or it isn’t, period.

      Schedule pressure is someone else’s problem. Mine is conforming to procedures and standards. I’ve diverted many times because of that simple binary.

  15. No Fly Zone Says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading the later comments, Chris; all are very good. At this late date, I’d add, “Fly it as if you own it because in a sense, you both own it and the lives aboard. Whether it is $30 Mil or pushing $300 Mil does not matter, it is still about the lives in your charge, New Captain, 150 or 550 of them. Do what is right for them and you will never be faulted. Is that close enough, Chris? And yup, about time for a new post, don’t you think? Regards, -C.

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