Skyhawk Aviation

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Pilot in Command

The Commander exercises the final authority in relation to the operation of the aeroplane.

This fairly bland statement, taken from our Operations Manual, appears under the Authority, Duties and Responsibilities chapter. Such studying of the Operations Manual is normally reserved for bouts of insomnia, as sleep is sure to follow the moment it is opened on the trusty iPad. However, I have a specific need to try and understand the content of this section – and more specifically, where it can get me into and out of, trouble.

As I write this, I have two more flights left on my beloved A340, before swapping it for a mount with less engines and (thankfully) smaller fuel tanks. Accompanying the swap is the much awaited and mildly unsettling prospect of looking left in the cockpit and seeing only my own reflection. Not a big deal, really, as it is a natural progression in any airline pilot’s career, but in this age of barely concealed antagonism with the current individuals within our ‘regulating authority’, it is a progression I intend to achieve while ticking every box possible in exactly the regulated manner.

Should I conduct every flight in exact accordance with the sleep-inducing Operations Manual, I should be able to use the Company’s lawyers to defend my actions, should the need arise. Should I not achieve such perfect compliance, I will be required to use my own – a prospect I plan on avoiding by all means possible.

After a shade short of fifteen years in the airline, with eleven and a half years and around seven thousand hours on the long range, the chance to experience regular daylight flying will be akin to getting a new job. On the long range, one gets an almost Pavlovian response to donning one’s uniform by instantly feeling tired and trying to conceal yawns during the pre-flight paperwork. When all goes well, the most pressing business after takeoff is of course dinner, followed by some basic calculations to divvy up the available flight time to arrive at how much shut-eye we can anticipate on that particular sector. Most of us tech-savvy types have a handy app on our smart phones that does it all for us, and then it is a simple case of mentally pacing oneself until bunk time.

Having this permanent fatigue aspect removed from the piloting equation will be a most welcome relief and surely an automatic mental-sharpener. However, the vast majority of long range flying occurs during the cruise, at high altitude with a minimum requirement for getting too close to the ground during those statistically more accident-prone takeoff and landing phases.

So not only am I going to re-learn how to fly again, I am going to be potentially more exposed while carrying all the responsibility. Apparently, this responsibility starts from the moment the aircraft is ready to move under its own power for the purpose of flight and ends only when the engines are shutdown. That’s what The Book says, anyway. So does a dual inflight engine shutdown absolve me of all responsibility? Depends whose lawyers I’m using.

Apparently, all persons on board the aeroplane must obey all lawful directions given by me. Nothing there about reasonable directions, just lawful. In the interests of on-board harmony, I’ll have to refrain from using my new-found position of power for my own narrow purposes. Not that I have any, mind you, but I recall a few sportsmens’ antics as a fresh domestic co-pilot.

Leaving East London for Jo’burg one afternoon provided the normal ogling opportunities while the passengers boarded – also best viewed from the left-hand seat. One well-endowed lady caught our attention specifically as the T-shirt was as skin tight as could be without splitting. In the hope of observing a more, ummm, pointed display on disembarkation, I was lawfully directed by my esteemed commander to lower the cabin temperature of the Boeing 737-200, which I dutifully complied with (as it says so in the Operations Manual), and we salaciously awaited our arrival in Johannesburg. On disembarkation, it was apparent that our actions had certainly been felt by the lady in question, as she had most unsportingly donned a jersey.

The same commander was also aware of the paragraph that describes the legal delegation of tasks on board the aircraft. When monotony threatened on any particular sector, he would announce over the PA that he had initiated a competition for the passengers’ amusement. This would be in the form of asking all on board to guess the aircraft’s fuel burn, in kilograms, for that particular flight. Answers were to be submitted on the boarding pass, and the closest guess would win the boarding pass holder the chance to sit in the cockpit for landing – the joys of pre-9/11 flying. The commander then duly delegated the task of collecting the participating passengers’ answers to the Purser, with the strict instruction of identifying the prettiest lady on board by marking her boarding pass. Low and behold, the most astute estimators of converting paraffin into CO2 emissions were always female, and mostly blonde.

An entire sub section in the Operations Manual is dedicated to the Maintenance of Good Order and Discipline. Thus, if any member of the crew falls off the wagon at any point of the flight or during a night stop, I am carrying the can on that one. Generally, everyone is fairly well behaved at the various night stop hotels, but the problem with Trouble is that it normally starts off being so much fun. Luckily, at the ripe old age of 43, I do feel I am getting too old for the extreme high jinks of the past and should hopefully fall into the role of the critical observer without too much temptation to be an active participant.

In anticipation of succumbing to too much fun, the Manual thoughtfully provides a line of succession of command, so that in the event of incapacitation, there is a clear process for the passing of the buck defined for all concerned. This serves to highlight the now desirable action of having my name gleefully deleted off the seniority list by copilots who may be anxiously counting their own days to command.

Visions appear of the British Airways BAC 1-11 incident where the Captain’s windshield shattered and he was partially ejected from the cockpit during the subsequent depressurisation, only to be physically held by the legs by the co-pilot initially, and then the Purser until landing. I will duly do my best to foster a spirit of “hold his legs” versus “let the miserable bugger go” among all the crew I will be flying with. This will be an interesting excerise as I learn to walk the fine line of disciplinarian and easy-going cool guy with the various personalities from vastly different cultural backgrounds.

One thing that will be novel and welcome at the same time is realizing the adage of “the Captain has 51 percent of the vote on the aircraft”. Having had for many years the other 49 percent, I will be looking forward to being able to set the tone in terms of swaying the decision making process. This is covered in detail in the Manual, and uses terms couched in niceties such as “the Commander is encouraged to exercise his authority in consultation with other crew members”. That is probably taken directly out of the very first CRM manual ever written and is a tacit reminder of the potential for both intentional and unconscious bloody-mindedness on the part of the Captain.

The buck stops firmly with me at the end of the day with the phrase “it shall always remain his responsibility and right in law to make the final decision.” Its settled then, I’ll have the prawns. Let no man covet those prawns, however, as on board “no other person has any legally sanctioned authority to override a decision made by the commander” – heavy stuff. And a reminder as to the seriousness of the position.

A regular bone of contention that pops up is the request on board by a passenger for an upgrade to Business class. Over the years the Company feels this has been somewhat abused, but in my book it is part of the Captain’s sole discretion. It has however, been dumbed down in that “only in exceptional circumstances and when it is in the best interests of the Company” along with a mandatory report from both the Captain and the Purser as to the reasons why an upgrade was granted by The Boss.

Common sense dictates that a passenger, whether Flight Deck or Cabin Crew family, a person of influence or any other reasonably significant cause, will be immensely appreciative of such an upgrade as to provide much good will to satisfy the requirement of “in the best interests of the Company”. Happiness on board is sort of what is promised in most of the marketing for the airline, and if a simple upgrade in the appropriate circumstances will achieve this, I’m game.

To comment on all expectations that are placed on the Captain would take several articles, as the more litigious we become, the more is spelled out in black and white in the Operations Manual. Most of it is “top cover” to define and protect the interests of the Company and the Commander, but some aspects can work both ways and could prove to be legal turbulence that needs careful attention.

I have to finish off with a quote that neatly tells our egos that we are up to the task: “The Commander has skills, experience and training that make him qualified and competent in a critical situation. Therefore, there is a high probability that he will make the best decision with regard to the safety of the aircraft.”

I’m now officially convinced.