Command of an airliner full of people is at the very pinnacle of responsibility.
It is extremely enjoyable, while at the same time very heavy on the psyche. For the most part, pilots and our fellow flight crews are fully trained and experienced enough to deal with any eventuality smoothly, and calls for unique command are seldom necessary.
But, wearing that fourth stripe and the stuff on the bill of your cap makes you a member of a very unique fraternity or sorority that offers the ultimate in self-satisfaction.
The road to the left seat in an airliner is long and tedious, filled with numerous moments of uncertainty and anxiety. It is necessary at most airlines that, before you can qualify to become an airline captain, you must spend years as the right seat guy filling the role of co-pilot until your number arrives and you have a chance to be a captain.
Sometimes flying right seat is humorously referred to as the “captain’s counselor,” responding to the pilot’s outbursts like, “When I want your gosh darn advice, I’ll ask for it.”
Or, after a rather hard landing by the El Supremo, the copilot might say, “Yeah, captain, those crosswinds were wicked,” even if the winds were calm.
Before captain training even begins, you must fulfill certain Federal Aviation Administration requirements such as a strenuous physical and a stringent written exam. You are then exposed to about six weeks of intense flight training. Then, you must prove you are worthy of command by passing a very thorough in-flight check ride-along with an FAA inspector observing every move you make.
At the end of this almighty FAA ride-along, an oral exam of the airplane and FAA rules is administered just to ensure you are up to speed on everything pertaining to your role as a command pilot. This is always conducted by an FAA designated check pilot.
Even after all of this rigorous workout, you must still be accompanied by an experienced old and tried captain who flies right seat on flights for you so he can assist and observe you in action as the person in command of the machine.
Once you are approved as fully qualified, you must still add a comment on your flight plan informing dispatch that you are a less-than-100-hours-in-command pilot. Weather minimums you can land in are in effect until you complete those first 100 hours of in-command experience.
Maintaining a legal flight throughout the whole ride is another true consideration. There are so many legal aspects of commanding an airliner that a huge book is published and carried with you to consult whenever needed.
It is mind-boggling to realize just how many FAA rules and regulations must be followed. As a co-pilot, you are not responsible for flying legally, so it is a real epiphany when at last you are in command and the go-to guy for staying completely legal for all aspects of each flight.
It is a real plus to fly with extremely competent and well-trained fellow crew members. I used to board the airplane with a new crew and hold a briefing with both cockpit crew and flight attendants. It was my belief that I, alone, could not do the job of flying such giant beasts without the help of other reliable people.
I used the Tom Kelly method of leadership. I would show up, tell them how we would conduct the entire flight, then shut up, stand back, get out of the way and let crew members do their job.
Yes, it is indeed a real ego trip to command an airliner and the perks are so enjoyable. I got paid generously for taking command. However, after completing a tough flight involving nasty weather, we always felt we earned our entire year’s pay with just one flight. All of the rest were just for fun.
Gerald “Jerry” Krueger is a retired pilot, teacher and farmer.
Gerald Krueger lives in rural Aberdeen. He is a former pilot, farmer and teacher.