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Becoming a Captain

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
General Aviation Human Factors, October, 2007
New Captain Series:  Becoming a Captain | Bag of CrapThe Model Captain | FOTA | Threat & Error Management Series | CRM Series | Professionalism

Who is this article for?  These concerns belong to the two person flightdeck in the service of carrying passengers: air carrier or corporate flying.   A significant milestone in your career is becoming a Captain.  Whether you are upgrading to Captain of a cabin class twin or whether you’re moving to the left seat of a 777, there will be a significant shift in your approach to flying. As the Captain, you're required to manage a whole new variety of factors you didn't give much thought about in the past.  This not only includes the aircraft, but now includes consideration for the rest of the crew as well as self awareness & management and relationship management.

As I survey hundreds of new Captains for this article, one new Captain shares with me the story of how unexpected the shift in authority is.  Jeff is a new Captain in a B737 and the flight was delayed due to mechanical issues.  The expected delay would be one hour.  One of the flight attendants enters the flightdeck and says, “Captain, do you mind if I leave the airplane to go into the terminal to get some meals?”  An uncomfortable silence is broken by the First Officer who says, “Jeff, she’s talking to you.”  Jeff replies, “What?”  Jeff later reveals he didn’t even hear the flight attendant because she started the request with “Captain….”  He wasn’t expecting the weight of decision making even with the smallest details.
“Be ready to make the final call,” reveals Mike, a brand new Airbus Captain.  He shares the story of refusing to accept an aircraft with broken wipers on the First Officer’s windshield.  When the company asked him why, he stated, "we’re heading into weather and I’m not going to take the chance."  The company supported his firm and final decision.
When you become the Captain, priorities change.  As a First Officer you remember doing everything to grease the airplane onto the runway so you can stand in the doorway as the passengers deplane and get a high five.  As Captain, you’re now concerned with a broad spectrum of issues.  That same landing calls you to be on speed, on the centerline and within the touchdown zone.  The slice of the pie becomes much larger because its not just a smooth landing somewhere near the centerline, it’s the bigger picture.
In your efforts as Captain, the First Officer is there to support and assist you, but you’ve got to ask for it.  As a matter of practicality, the First Officer generally has less experience and will generally be less diligent than you.  That’s where you’ve got to look at the bigger picture.
Moving to the left seat requires a big change in thinking.  The needs of the Passengers, the Airline/Carrier, and the Crew are balanced against economics, service, and needs.  With that authority comes responsibility:  for the safety and comfort of the Passengers, for the profit of the Airline/Carrier, and for the comfort and working conditions of the Crew.
The mantle of leadership requires you to be self aware and self managing while managing the relationship between you and your Crew and Passengers.  Being able to do this improves those relationships as well as capitalize on your personal strengths even when things aren’t going well.  
In the next article of this series, a survey of 200 First Officers reveals what makes a great Captain.  We’ll present the results of the survey as well as the CRM research on effective Captains.

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