Darren Smith, Flight Instructor
  Home | Login | Schedule | Pilot Store | 7-Day IFR | IFR Adventure | Trip Reports | Blog | Fun | Reviews | Weather | Articles | Links | Helicopter | Download | Bio

Site Map


Private Pilot
  Learn to Fly

Instrument Pilot
  7 day IFR Rating
  IFR Adventure

Commercial Pilot

Multi-Engine Pilot

Human Factors/CRM

Recurrent Training

Ground Schools


Privacy Policy
About Me


Support this Website

The Model Captain

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

As you grow in your career, you will have no doubt flown with a variety of Captains who were effective and those who were not so effective.  You might have even thought a few of those Captains had an orifice as a role model.  When you think back on the very best Captains you've flown with, certain things they did stood out in your mind.  Those very best practices that each Captain displayed left a mark on you. 

In November of 2006, I spent some time hanging out in the Crew Lounge at Dallas-Ft Worth Airport.  I was waiting for an international flight, so I had about 6 hours of wait time in the airport.  To make that time useful, I surveyed almost 200 First Officers.  I asked them, "What makes a great Captain?"  Their answers were all over the map but came down to three central themes:  Skill, Trust, and Communication.


Overwhelmingly, the pilots said captains should be proficient in their flying.  A competent, safety minded captain sets the tone for a flight. First Officer James W says, "I don't want any surprises when I fly with a Captain I have never flown with before."  Indeed, Captains should be fly their aircraft exactly as the Airline's SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) dictates.  Captain Nate S says, "It goes farther than that.  My First Officers expect me to demonstrate technical flying skills above and beyond following SOP.  Not an inch off centerline.  Not more than 5 knots off airspeed." 

Isn't it more than just technical skill?  First Officer Harold W says, "He must display complete confidence in all aspects of the flight.  When lightning strikes the aircraft at the final approach fix, I'm looking at him to be rock solid even though 58 rivets just popped on the belly of the aircraft."  First Officer Paula J says, "Its happened to me too, I've seen lightning blow the top 1/4th of a winglet apart.  I want a captain fly whatever is left of the airplane to the ground."  That clearly takes a healthy mix of confidence, technical skill, and a little luck.  Captains not only do all the little things right, they do the right things.  It's how Captains become more than managers of the aircraft but leaders of their airline. 


Many of the pilots I spoke with said they expected the Captains they flew with to trust them.  First Officer Priscilla M says, "It shouldn't matter how junior I am, the fact that I'm a female, or even that I'm new on this airplane.  I'm expecting the Captain to trust my skills as a pilot -- I'm expecting the Captain to trust the training program we all came through."  Captain James H says, "I've had to take the controls from my First Officers.  I've seen some strange flying just to grease a landing.  I've been frightened by things First Officers do.  In my thirty year career, these incidents have been far and few between.  All in all, I've been very satisified by the training my Airline gives its pilots and I've been very satisified by the quality of pilots my Airline has hired.  I trust every First Officer's skills until they prove me wrong." 

Is it more than simple trust?  First Officer Mark A says, "I don't want the Captain to second guess everything I do when its my leg to fly."  "I don't want to be micromanaged," adds First Officer Scott F.  As pilots, a good part of our self esteem is wrapped up in our own concept of how we fly.  If we are highly qualified, current and proficient then any hint of micromanagement feels like a huge weight on our shoulders.  If we know what we're doing, we don't want anyone dogging us.

Scott says, "I'm looking for a Captain to back me as I back him up.  Its different than micromanaging, its making sure the job gets done by the book."


Every single pilot I spoke with that day said, "Communication is the #1 problem at my airline."  Captain Lee V says, "The continuous miscommunication and lack of communication ruins us every day."  So what are First Officers looking for in a Captain?

Tim J, a 777 First Officer tells the story of his first trip after training, "I had a Captain who gave me a briefing that almost pealed my skin off.  First he told me that he had been with the airline for 28 years and there wasn't anything I could tell him that he didn't already know.  Then he drew an imaginary line through the center of the cockpit and told me not to touch anything on his side.  When it was time for the before start checklist, he told me his side was already done and to start the engines.  No checklist, just get it done."  Tim didn't know what to expect but this was far beyond what he was expecting.  Tim goes on to say, "In training, they taught us procedures, flows, and checklists.  In my very first flight, all of this training useless for this kind of Captain.  He barely spoke to me throughout the flight so I had to figure it out as we went along.  Eleven years later, now I know the difference."

First Officer Vince H says, "I want the Captain I fly with to be approachable.  I don't want to be afraid to tell him when something doesn't look right."  Vince's classmate, Jim T, another First Officer adds, "I'd prefer to fly with a relaxed Captain who has a good sense of humor.  Sure... there are bad things happening in our industry, but a positive attitude goes a long way to ensuring a good working relationship which ultimately enhances safety." 

"I had a Captain who was the rudest, most disrespectful guy I had ever met," says Gordon W, a 757 First officer.  "In my opinion, the model captain is respectful and considerate of not only his co-pilot but all those supporting the flight," he adds.  "I agree," adds Blake H, "Just because he's been with the company 30+ years doesn't entitle him to treat the crew unprofessionally.  I think a Captain who is polite and respectful to his crew is more effective.  More than this, I think a humble attitude combined with technical skill instills confidence in his crew."

When you examine the narrative reports in the NASA database, communication errors and concerns in multi-member crews is a leading factor of the incidents reported.  Personal communication styles as well as content effects how the Captain's crew perceives him and understands the message.  "It's an important lesson that is not taught anywhere but is safety critical," says Vince H.

What Makes a Great Captain?

Within these three central themes is the answer.  Skill, Trust, and Communication are key personality factors in great Captains.  The stories and lessons learned by these First Officers not only speak to good crew relationships but enhanced safety.  And if these things don't work, never let them see you sweat because no one wants to see panic in the left seat.

Your Thoughts...

Name: (Anonymous posts deleted)

E-mail: (if you want a reply)

How did you hear
of this website?
Message:  (What should I write?)
Business Card
News Group
Safety Seminar
Word of Mouth
(Required) Enter number from image to send:


Check this out...
  Home | Login | Schedule | Pilot Store | 7-Day IFR | IFR Adventure | Trip Reports | Blog | Fun | Reviews | Weather | Articles | Links | Helicopter | Download | Bio
All content is Copyright 2002-2010 by Darren Smith. All rights reserved. Subject to change without notice. This website is not a substitute for competent flight instruction. There are no representations or warranties of any kind made pertaining to this service/information and any warranty, express or implied, is excluded and disclaimed including but not limited to the implied warranties of merchantability and/or fitness for a particular purpose. Under no circumstances or theories of liability, including without limitation the negligence of any party, contract, warranty or strict liability in tort, shall the website creator/author or any of its affiliated or related organizations be liable for any direct, indirect, incidental, special, consequential or punitive damages as a result of the use of, or the inability to use, any information provided through this service even if advised of the possibility of such damages. For more information about this website, including the privacy policy, see about this website.