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Monday, February 20, 2012

Zen Trois: Zen and the Art of Pilot Maintenance

What’s the difference between a pilot and a jet engine?
The jet engine stops whining at the gate.
Pilots are a notoriously picky lot.  At least, that’s what my flight attendants are always telling me.  Hey, so what if I insist my coffee (2 creams, not 1) be presented in a ceramic mug and not that styrofoam stuff (got that, Mary Ann?!)
OK, so maybe there’s some truth to that statement.  But, doggone it, we worked long and hard, put in tens of years, thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to get to this position; so why can’t we get a li'l picky?
What three things must a First Officer always say?
“Nice landing, Captain.”
“I’m buying this round.”
“I’ll take the ugly one.”
(Disclaimer:  Hey, I don’t make these jokes up, I just pass ‘em along!!)
At the top of the “gotta pamper the pilot” list is, unfortunately, the copilot.
First of all, the term “copilot” is a misnomer:  s/he is a fully qualified, full-fledged pilot, and is entirely capable of running the ship himself.  By the time a pilot reaches a major airline (or most regionals for that matter), he already has thousands of hours and years of experience.  The ONLY reason he sits in the right seat throwing gear for the Captain in the left seat is because Cappy happened to get hired first.  While a Captain-type tends to have more flight experience in general, it is by no means a given.  Oh, and by the way, the "copilot" flies, too (typically ever other leg.)  That’s why I prefer the more accurate term, “First Officer.”
Despite his already-vast experience, however, a good FO nevertheless anticipates his Captain’s needs, to a near-psychic level.  In addition to being psychic, he must be psychiatrist, as well.  He must quickly and accurately assess the Captain’s basic personality and adapt accordingly.  If not, friction immediately ensues.  
And friction means distraction.  And distraction means risk.

It seems a strange irony that, in the age of jet engines and terrabytes, the safety of a flight could hinge on personalities.  But pilots are human, and as such, subject to personality quirks and downright neurosis.  And let’s face it:  pilots are notoriously not “people” people.  In fact, one of the greatest strides in aviation safety made in the past 30 years is not in technology, but psychology.  The relatively recent concept of CRM, or “Cockpit Resource Management”—"Charm School," as us macho pilot types sarcastically refer to it—has dragged the demigod-like Captain (think Kirk), kicking and screaming, into the age of the people-manager (think Jean-Luc Picard.)*
This is a good thing.  For, despite what the senior Captain’s ego tells him, he’s not perfect, doesn’t know it all, and doesn’t always make the best decisions.  And in the cockpit, two heads are vastly better than one.

Example:  Once upon a time, I was a fresh, baby-faced Captain (ok, more baby-faced than I am now) on a 39-passenger de Havilland Dash 8 turboprop.  Shortly after takeoff, we had a lightning strike.  No big deal, nothing major.  But it sounded like a shotgun went off in the cabin, and it knocked one of our generators temporarily offline.  The thing was so bloody distracting, in fact, that it knocked me temporarily offline.  Went “into the red,” in today’s CRM parlance.

My FO Bob, older and more experienced, played his role perfectly.  Instead of committing mutiny and taking command immediately—which he could have justifiably done at that point—he very tactfully and adroitly coaxed me back to “the green,” by asking me a series of assertive, leading questions.  It went something like this:
“Hey, Captain Eric, you want me to reset that generator?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Hey, Captain.  You want me to report the lightning strike to Center?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Hey, Cappy.  What do you think we should do, return to PHX or continue on?”
“Uh, ahem.  Well, I think everything’s fine, so let’s press on.”
“Good idea.  You want me to tell the passengers what happened?”
“Uh, yeah, you do that.   They probably pooped their pants . . . like I almost did.”
Of course, when we got on the ground, we had maintenance do a lightning strike inspection.  The bolt had penetrated the radome in the nose leaving a quarter-size burn mark, routed through the airplane's superstructure, and blown a static wick off the trailing edge of the tail.  Exactly what that wonderful airplane was designed to do in a lightning strike.

What’s a Captain use for birth control?
His personality.

Today’s Captain must be well versed at CRM as well.  While it’s understood that a pilot’s hat size grows two sizes bigger at upgrade, the best Captain never forgets his humble days as a lowly FO.  He keeps a healthy dose of humility inside him, knowing both his limits and remembering that those around him are valuable extensions of his eyes, ears, and especially, brains.  Not just the FO, but all the FA’s, ATC, Dispatcher, Mechanics, even the occasional MD patched in via “Medlink” for inflight medical emergencies are all critical resources.  He is, as CRM implies, the Manager of Cockpit Resources.
In the preflight crew briefing, the best Captain will verbally affirm the First Officer's and Flight Attendants' worth, and in so doing ensure that each will enthusiastically perform their roles and not be afraid to bring up an issue during flight.
My briefing to the First Flight Attendant goes something like this:  “Hi, Biff, I’m Eric.  We’re looking at 2 hours 50 minutes to ORD.  Weather and ride looks good.  You’re in charge in back; I’ll back you up 100%, take the blame and do the paperwork.  And if there’s anything you’re concerned about, don’t hesitate to bring it up.”  
In my years of saying this briefing, I’ve never had a Flight Attendant complain.

Note:  This post is intended as a companion piece to the two previous “Zen” posts.  (Let’s call it the “Zen trilogy!”) But my Valentine’s Day-themed post, “The Loon is a Harsh Mistress,”—and my new film production blog—rudely got in the way ;-)

*The worst aviation accident in history, in Tenerife, Canary Islands, 1977, is directly related to human error and CRM; indeed, CRM has its origins in the accident report from this disaster.  For more info, see:  


  1. Interesting & captivating read for a non-airline working person. Good stuff :)

  2. You think I work in Starbucks?? new??? LOL Seriously Captain, it truly is refreshing to read this. Very sincere..genuine. Thanks..encouraging to understand coming from your vantage point!! Pleasure flying with one of the finest.. More blogs please!!!! :-)

  3. Why, the famous CoffeMug MA! Welcome aboard! Thanks for the comment--glad u like! And remember: 2 creams!

  4. Captain Eric Say:

    "the F/O......anticipates his Captain’s needs, to a near-psychic
    (for the Psycho to the left at the 9:00 position.....)....Mmmm level.ooook

    In addition to being psychic, he must be psychiatrist,
    (he who sits to the left may need his Mommie's shoulder to cry on)LOL

    as well. He must quickly and accurately assess
    (Emphasis on "ASS" who is sitting to the left....gee wonder who...kidding(?)

    the Captain’s basic personality and adapt accordingly
    (he who occupy's the left... expectation of needing a suck up)...

    If not, friction immediately ensues.
    And friction means distraction.(friction as in.....the friction of being bopped upside the head?? just asking........eshhhhh
    And distraction means risk.
    speaking of medical emergency............

    So in other words.............Your "High"(YES PUN!!!!!!!!)

    And in the cockpit, two heads are vastly better than one.

    just can't believe just how much 'BIGGER' of those Heads is!!!!!...

    and your britches.....your too big for them already...thats right!!!!!!!!..........LOL

    and yes,...remember your days as a lowly...(careful there)........F/O....

    Gotta many "UGLY ONE'S" did you have to take before your upgrade to the Cappy????????????

    ......right Capt??

    ........OF COURSE YOU KNOW THAT ALREADY...!!!!......

    MissTWA.......(a former friend......LOL)..

    heard your a little beat up..................WHATS THE REAL STORY??????...FLYBOY.........HA HA HA
    I CAN SAY...........I'M BEAT UP AS WELL..........!!

    Love the jokes..........and the post.........!!
    I'm just a messing with ya........Thats my job............!!!

    1. Wahaha U really know how to take the ball and run with it, Darlin'! Yes, you take your job srsly!

      Yes, gotta be a mighty big cockpit to fit those two giant egos, eh?!

      Ya, pilot's r people but the Cappy's got the upper hand--he gets to let all his eccentricities hang out while the others adapt to them, lol! But…I think the best ones are much more empathetic than that (lest they b Pathetic!)

      No comment on the "ugly ones"….

      Hey Miss T, check out the new one on my blog roll: "Shots from the Stratosphere." A quite smarmy Flight Attendant--right up your alley!

  5. Capt'n I Will check out "Shots from the Stratosphere" !!!!!!!!!!!!......

    right now...........I'm freezing my lalala offff..............:))))

    here in Ottawa.............
    I got a picture in the cockpit of an Embrair 145.......the captain was cocky like you..............cockpit/cocky/cockpit...........KIDDING!!
    He and the "lowly".....hahaha............were very accomodating to me............the F/O.......said for me to sit in his 'seat'....after we landed in Ottawa........ he was going to do his 'walk around'......
    so ""
    WALA"".......I'm homesteaded there......for a few minutes.......
    I was so excited.........!!!

    remember I'm an Aviation Geek..........
    and I love your office view........!!!.. Was VERY a ""LOWLY""..............GEEK
    such as myself..............LOLOLOL
    AND MEETING GG.............HERE...............I LOVE SWEETS...........AND GETTING TO THE FLIGHTDECK.............WAS THE ICING.........ON A BIG OLE CAKE!!!!!

    STAYING OUTTA TROUBLE I HOPE "CAPPY"..........Mmmmmmmm..........NO I DON'T............HAHAHA

    1. So glad you got a tour of your airplane! You can visit me up front any time!! I'll even kick the LOWLY FO out of his seat for ya! ;-)

    2. Uuuuh, no...

      if Jules visits you up front, uh...YOU'RE getting out of your seat.

      Ahem! ;)

      *Julie and I are still hanging out, polluting blogs. Her connector flight was cancelled so she gets to stay with me--ONE MORE NIGHT!

    3. Hahaha Gawd Help Canada!

      Truth be told, I always put KIDS into the CAPTAIN seat, so…OF COURSE!!

      Thanks for the pic. Does that apron say, "Kiss the Cook" or "Kiss the pilot"?!

    4. actually, it refers to the aviation appreciation society...

      so...Kiss the AAS...


  6. Hey Captain!

    That's a great lesson for an aspiring airline pilot. Definitely some things you must have/develop for sure. I like the little anecdotes :) Many think otherwise I guess, but CRM is a great thing I bet. It's all about working in a team and I'd fly with you any day! (If you land that A320 in The Netherlands that is, what's taking you so long haha).

    Take care!

    1. Glad to hear from you, Bas!
      Well we complain and joke about it, but we all know it's important and we need it. I've seen a REAL change in attitude in the cockpit in the past 20 years. And those dinosaurs who can't adapt get…put out to pasture! I know I've become a better pilot for it.

      Would LOVE to land my Fifi in the Netherlands and give you a spin, lol!

  7. Thanks, DJ! I expect more publicly humiliating commentary from you in the future! ;)

  8. Hey captain. From Lagaurdia. Not too bad here. ;))). The sun is shining here as well. Great day. On the green. Later gator. Jules

  9. Hi Eric :-)

    I hope you don't mind me visiting your blog with my comments. And I'm sorry for my bad English, as it's not my native language.

    I already said that on Bas's blog, but would like to repeat it again: unfortunately, your information about a terrible Dutch Captain who was arrogant and rude is very far from reality. That myth was spread by various people, who needed to create a ttypical "bad guy".

    Yes, he indeed made a terrible mistake, and it's a shame he was so stressed he haven't asked the ATC guys one more time, just to be 100% sure the clearance was given. The heterodyne was a very unfortunate thing, and played a big role in this disaster.

    But there are other sources, that totally dismiss the theory about an evil Captain: for example, the ALPA report ( Another very good information source is the book "Disasters In The Air" by Jan Bartelski: the author actually listened to the CVRs and knew the Dutch crew-members personally, and he gives a very refreshing point of view on those people. So the reality is, that the Dutch Captain was a perfectly calm and a polite man, and his F/O and F/E were not at all the young and insecure boys, but highly-experienced men, not much younger than their "boss".

    While it's OK to criticize a person for his mistake, there's NO excuse for spreading myths and lies, making him look like a total monster, while he wasn't anything like that in real life.

    I hope I don't sound too harsh, but this subject is very close to my heart, and I know from my own experience, what it feels like to be demonized.

    Best Regards, and have a good weekend :-)


    1. Ketty,
      Thank you so much for your reply.

      I never ever mentioned nor criticized the "terrible Dutch Captain," so forgive me if it sounded that way. In fact, I merely footnoted it in my blog as being the main accident that prompted a serious study of cockpit CRM.

      It has been cited and studied now for decades, and I'm sure you're right; myths and assumptions and "legends" creep in to the reality of it. The point is, as you say, to learn from mistakes so that we can make the skies safer.

      Again I apologize if I implied anything more than what was intended. I'll add your ALPA report link to my blog sources. Please stop back from time to time ;)

  10. Hi Eric :-)

    Thank you so much for your kind reply :-) And let me apologise for misunderstanding your point. I guess reading other blogs/articles which are filled with false information/propaganda made me a bit nervous, so I automatically acted harshly.

    The power of the media is huge: if you'll go to YouTube and would watch the comments' section for "Crash Of The Century", you'll see thousands of very angry comments, some of which are not just critical about vZ, but also rather racistic towards Dutchmen in general. And the problem is, that this movie presents a very biased point of view, portraying a person, who was, according to his ex-colleagues, a very calm, nice and kind man, as a total monster. They made up many dialogues which never took place in reality (for example, the actor who plays vZ says things like: "While I'm sitting here in this seat, I make the decisions", or shouting at flight attendants: none of these things has any proof by the CVRs. The PanAm crew is shown as a bunch of cheerful and lovely men, who enjoy life and even sing. ). Yet, 99% of all of them who watched the movie believe they're getting a true information.

    But the most disgusting thing is people who know the truth, yet choose to lie in front of TV cameras. Paul Roitsch, who wrote the ALPA report, and who knows very well how old the crew members were, got interviewed in "Survival In The Sky", and he actually says that the Dutch F/O was "junior" (while he perfectly knows that "junior" co-pilot was a 42-years old man with plenty of flying hours, and the F/E was the most experienced man in the cockpit!). So, that man writes one thing in the report, and says an opposite in a documentary. That's just... low!

    As I heard, according to the Western laws, you cannot be sued for defaming dead people, so it's totally safe to make a movie, portraying somebody as an arrogant redneck and a mass-murderer. It's very sad to know that some people can go so low for increasing their rating and making some money :-(

    Have an excellent weekend, and cheers from Denmark :-)


    1. Wow, thanks K.

      By your words of course I am assuming you are also "Ketty" from the above post.

      I am very glad you have said some words in defense of those deceased who cannot defend themselves.

      You have made me curious now to separate fact from Legend regarding this. But again, my only point was that this tragedy--and others from that era--began pointing us toward a much safer way of doing things in the cockpit.

      I hope that future events will continue to lead us in the right direction and we don't waste our time "finger pointing"--esp. for the public's morbid entertainment.

      I wish you BEST of luck in your continued quest to get the truth out. Please don't hesitate to link any facts or reports to this site!

  11. Yup, you're right, that's me (I'm also registered as KL4805 on Bas's blog). From some reason, my avatar does not appear on my previous post...

    One day I'm planning to type down the chapter about Tenerife from Jan Bartelski's book, so would gladly send it to anybody who's interested. I'm a bit busy at the moment (new job, vacation, another book I've been stucked on for months etc.), but I'll do my best to find the time :-)

    It was mostly and its' forum which opened up my eyes. I watched "Crash Of The Century" before I know much about the disaster (in fact, the only thing I knew back then was the names of both Captains and the airliners), but from some reason I had a suspicion there are many things that are exaggerated in this movie. I did found some of the moments a bit funny, and I even laughed from some of the silly comments (for example, somebody wrote that vZ was in a hurry, because he couldn't wait to return to Holland and to smoke his weed), but the more I thought about it, the more questions came to my mind. I went with this movie in my thoughts for a few days, and then, in mid-May 2011, I came home from work and started to google information. And it was a matter of days before I realised that the movie is extremely biased. Later I purchased JB's book, and the rest is history :-)

    Here are two rather good articles:

    Have a great day


  12. Thanks!
    Flying is not only a carrier option but it is such a feeling which makes you differ from every one.

  13. I want really to tell you thanks for this most helpful information.

    Architect mug

    Best friend coffee mug

    Pilot coffee mug


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