What to tell the new captain?
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?”
“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.
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.