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Moving to the left seat

One of the biggest thrills in a pilot’s career is the occasion of an upgrade to captain. For most of us, this represents the pinnacle, the brass ring, the culmination of a lot of time, money, blood, sweat, and tears invested in a challenging profession.


But what does an upgrade actually involve? I get this question a fair amount, and it depends. For starters, if you’re upgrading to an airplane that you’ve never flown, then you’ll go through an entire training footprint, and if you’re lucky, you will be paired with a First Officer that is also new to the equipment. In fact, being paired with a new-hire FO can be the best thing that can happen. When both pilots are new to the airplane, they are more likely to do all their simulator duties from one seat, and not have to jump back and forth, which can be mentally draining and physically exhausting.

If you’re a seasoned pilot with your company, and you get paired with a new hire, you will get a great opportunity to mentor and help, which will also force you to really get into the weeds of standard operating procedures (SOP), and help explain why some company policies are what they are. Working so closely with a new pilot will also help ingrain in your own habits the little things you might have missed or forgotten.

If you’re moving to the left seat in an airplane you already fly, what happens in training is going to depend on what your company has worked out with the FAA. Back in the days before everyone had to be type-rated in the airplane, even veteran FOs often had to go through an entire course. But since the mandatory type ratings went into effect, a number of carriers have switched to a “short course” training footprint. Not only does this save time and money (the real goal), but it acknowledges that the pilot should already have a solid foundation of systems and technical knowledge. The main goal in a short course is to allow the transitioning FO to master the various maneuvers and procedures from the left seat. Given that some FOs may have been in the right seat for a decade or more, this not as easy as it seems. Muscle memory that has become second nature has to be reversed, and pilots that may not have taxied an airplane since Seinfeld was a hit need to get some practice driving a much bigger airplane on the ground than they ever have before.

Upgrade training also means getting much deeper into the books with respect to company—and especially captain—roles and responsibilities. A lot of emphasis is placed on decision-making skills, problem analysis, and not just using cockpit resource management, but leading with it. The captain is being entrusted with the care and use of a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment, not to mention the lives of everyone on board. You will have to make decisions that will directly impact the bottom line, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars. Yes, you will make mistakes. But you will also learn.

The most important piece of advice that I can think to offer is to remember that nothing needs to be rushed, and that the two most important things on any flight are the next two things, not something that is steps and miles away from happening.

Upgrading is a thrill, one to be savored and enjoyed, but also a responsibility to be appropriately appreciated.

Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

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