Aeronautical Randomness
Chameleon on the right
March 23, 2015
(Picture by Poreddy Sagar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

While sitting on a bar stool having dinner in Orlando, I glanced up at the “Breaking News” on the television screen.

The sound was muted, so I could only imagine the near hysteria in the anchor’s voice as he delivered his earth shattering revelation.

Authorities had just announced that the co-pilot was flying the AirAsia plane that tragically crashed a few weeks earlier.

I rolled my eyes.  I’m over it.

Some members of the media will never comprehend that airliners are flown by two fully qualified pilots.

In the weeks that followed, several bloggers and commentators wrote excellent articles addressing the subject.

The authors hit all the high points:

  • Both pilots of an airliner are fully qualified, type rated pilots.
  • Pilots typically switch roles every other flight.  On one, the captain will fly while the first officer operates the gear, flaps and radios.  On the next one, the duties are switched.  First officers usually fly every other leg.
  • The captain exercises command over the enter crew.  Although both pilots are fully qualified to fly the jet, someone must be in charge.
  • Captain seats are offered to the pilots with the most seniority.  A first officer is in no way an “apprentice” hoping to someday make captain.  He or she is simply waiting for enough pilots to retire for a chance to move into the left seat.  Sometimes, the first officer has MORE flying experience than the captain.  I’ve been in that situation many times.

All of their posts were valiant efforts to educate the reporters and anchors who fill our twenty four hour news cycle.

Sadly, I don’t think they’ll ever grasp it.

Being a first officer can be tough job.  It is often said that the right-seater must act like a chameleon.  Even when staying within the parameters of standard operating procedures (SOPs), every captain has a different way of conducting his or her business.  Unless the first officer wants to be miserable at work, he or she must learn to adapt to the style of the captain.  We are highly trained in CRM and can usually diplomatically navigate through any reasonable amount of quirkiness.

For the most part, adapting to the captain’s style works for me.  Most captains make it easy… They view the mission as two experienced pilots tasked to safely fly from point A to point B.

However, every once in awhile, I run into a captain who makes four days almost unbearable.

Here’s just one example…

On our first leg together, forty five minutes before landing, the captain “commanded” me to give the passengers a “ten minute heads-up” for turning on the seat belt sign.

I grabbed the PA microphone and made my announcement.

Twelve minutes later, I reached for the mic and asked if he’d like me to “strap them in and say goodbye.”

“No… we are thirty five minutes out.  WHY would we do that so early?” he blurted out as if I was the biggest moron to ever occupy the right seat of a Boeing jet.

Again, I’ve learned to blend… so, I just nodded, bit my lip and took a big breath.

Thirty seconds later, the center controller issued a descent.

As soon as I read back the clearance, the captain said, “You can say goodbye to them.”

It was that moment on day one of the trip that my adapting mechanism started to break down.

On day two, there were more issues that required careful navigating.

The tipping point came on day three.

He tried to force something on me that was blatantly wrong.

I calmly pointed out his error.

He became annoyed that anyone would have the audacity to point out his mistake and actually tried to defend his position.

From a slightly different angle, I reiterated my opposition using up my final ounce of CRM.

When he rolled his eyes at me, I launched.

Only three people in my career have pushed my emotional buttons to the point that the filter between my brain and mouth disappeared.

My rant ran well over a minute.

Somewhere in my diatribe, I mentioned that people like him perpetuate the stereotype that the pilot in the right seat isn’t a fully qualified pilot.

I left little room for doubt in his mind how I felt about his personality or how he was mistreating me as a fellow professional.  (I don’t worry about any repercussions once I start spewing my true feelings.  I figure if a guy can push ME to that point, management is already aware of his issues.)

When I finished, he sat in silence.

Then, like the other two times I’ve launched into a complete tirade towards a co-worker, he suddenly became my best friend.

It’s a really odd phenomenon that I know other pilots have experienced… I guess it’s really no different than other areas in life.

He was a bully.

Once I stood up to him, he respected me and his demeanor completely changed.  For the rest of the trip, the nitpicking stopped and I could almost do no-wrong.  We even had dinner together that evening.

It’s a mentality I don’t understand… and, fortunately, an unusual trait for a modern-day captain.

I really don’t like confrontation… especially, on the flight deck.  But, sometimes a good verbal smackdown is the last tool available in the blending toolbox.

It’s all part of being a chameleon.

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 3 comments

  • Eric Auxier says:

    You know, with the COpilot flying every other leg, it’s a wonder airliners are not falling out of the skies every day!

    Seriously, it’s a never-ending battle, isn’t it? To educate these “experts” who continue to spout these gems of wisdoms on International broadcasts such as, “An airliner will struggle to maintain altitude when it runs out of fuel”…

    I’ve been blessed for some time now to be the guy in the left seat to whom the COpilot has to adapt…but I fully remember and empathize with your plight when you come across a PILOT who just knows he’s GOD and you’re just a Co pilot! 😉

    Best of luck with your continuing career!


  • JD says:

    RP, I have been following your blog for a very long time now and I can truly relate to this post on numerous of occasions. I’m also on the right seat of 738, just across the atlantic from yourself. I am nowhere near as experienced as you. but since I started, I generally find the guys who have trouble with CRM are usually the older generation, not that I have any prejudice against them, I think for the most part they are an invaluable asset to the company. The day goes well until we start talking about of our past experience, age etc… then somehow CRM just goes out the window.

  • Pam Sanchez says:

    Happily read, thanks for the posting.

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