Proficient Pilot: Confessions of a co-pilot

January 1, 2008

Most who read this page know that I flew for Trans World Airlines (TWA) for 34 years. I was a captain for only 30 years. I spent one year of my airline career as a second officer and three as first officer.

The second officer sat behind the captain in a jump seat. His sole job was to communicate with air traffic control during cruise (he was not allowed to use the radio during arrivals and departures), maintain the flight log, and conduct a study of the backs of captains’ balding heads (a third of them had dandruff). It was essentially a featherbedding position negotiated by the Air Line Pilots Association when flight engineers were not pilot qualified. No one knew why there had to be three pilots in the cockpit, but that’s the way it was.

I was seated behind the captain on my first transcontinental flight in a Boeing 707 and was diligently working my whiz wheel after passing over Pittsburgh. I saw that we were bucking a 155-knot headwind. As a general aviation pilot, this seemed truly extraordinary. Not realizing that the captain probably was aware of our groundspeed because of how slowly the analog DME indicator was moving, I concluded that it was my duty to alert him to this dramatic effect on our flight plan.

“Captain,” I began with the proper tone of awe and respect, “we have a 155-knot headwind.”

He turned slowly in his seat and glared at me for what seemed like an eternity. “Son,” he began, “what in the [expletive deleted] do you expect me to do about it? Why don’t you go back into the cabin and watch the movie?” I did.

Being a second officer, and even a first officer, could be a humbling, humiliating experience in an era when most of the captains had been World War II combat pilots. Some of them had no use for co-pilots and had no compunctions about saying so. Most, however, were great guys who shared the flying (split legs), engendered camaraderie, and helped mold first officers into captains.

On another flight, during my co-pilot days, we were about an hour from landing at Tel Aviv on a nonstop flight from New York. I had taken out my Jeppesen manual and begun to study the arrival procedures.

“Gimme your book,” the captain barked. He flipped a few pages, found what he wanted, and ripped them out without bothering to open the binder. This captain never used his own manual and did not care that his co-pilot would have to obtain replacement pages after returning to his domicile.

Word has it that he did this for the last time during an around-the-world flight. After ripping out pages from his co-pilot’s manual for 10 days, he handed the book back to the first officer and said, “Here. I don’t need it no more.”

The co-pilot replied casually, “I don’t need it either, captain. It’s your manual.” Needless to say, these two never flew together again.

According to legend, Douglas DC–3 captains would revise their Jeppesen manuals during flight with an open side window, which was very comfortable on warm days. Upon removing an obsolete page, they would simply lift the page until it was sucked out the open window. This was, of course, before there were ecological concerns. Some early captains even used their pistols to take potshots at jackrabbits during the long taxi to remote runways (such as Runway 26 at Albuquerque).

What impressed me most about becoming a crewmember was the training. It amazed me how a captain and a first officer who had never before met could step into the cockpit and operate as a well-oiled machine without missing a beat. Each knew the airline’s procedures and what was expected of them. You would think that they had been flying together for years.

Captains were and are not perfect, of course, and one of the co-pilot’s responsibilities is to diplomatically point out when the captain might be doing something wrong. Some co-pilots were not particularly tactful. During a night visual approach from over the water to Honolulu’s Runway 4R at the end of an eight-hour leg from Guam, a good friend, Al Desrosiers, was riding shotgun for a captain who was reputed not to be one of TWA’s shining examples. While descending rapidly and with the thrust levers retarded, Al noted that the captain had busted the 1,500-foot floor of their visual descent and was headed for blackness and eternity at almost 2,000 fpm. (This was before pilots were trained to make altitude call-outs.)

After passing through 1,000 feet msl, Al took one last look at the captain, looked again at the instruments, grabbed his control wheel with both hands, and said, “Captain. We’re only seconds from swimming, and I don’t know how.” And with that, he gave the yoke a mighty, wing-flexing heave.

There are numerous incidents where assertive co-pilots have saved the day. The trick for them is knowing when to act and when to remain silent. Co-pilots have to walk a tightrope. Act assertively at the wrong time, and you end up collecting unemployment insurance; failing to act when necessary, however, has more severe ramifications. I received my fourth gold stripe after three years in the right seat and gave my patronizing tongue a well-deserved rest. There is nothing quite like being commander of your own ship.

Aviation writer Barry Schiff has a long, distinguished career as a pilot and flight instructor.