The secret to become a successful captain

I’ve been asked a lot recently ‘how to get into the left seat.’ This isn’t always an easy question to answer, mostly because it depends on a lot of factors; the company you’re with, how much time you have, is there a need, etc. I suppose I could conjure up a commentary about crew resource management, knowing your aircraft, leadership skills, and quality airmanship. Those are all important factors, but they overlook the mark. There’s no step skipping in climbing the aviation ladder and so I believe the answer lies in the step right before becoming a captain; become the best first officer you can be.

Just as a house on a poor foundation cannot stand, neither will a career as a captain if you don’t understand how to be a good first officer. I can’t stress this enough. So many folks are focussed on getting into the left seat believing that it is a numbers game and that when their seniority number is high enough, or they have enough time, they are entitled to wear the fourth stripe. While that may be somewhat true, this article isn’t about how to get a captain position, it’s about how to be successful as a captain.

So what can a first officer do to be their very best and establish a strong foundation for their future role as a captain? It starts with a desire to learn. A good pilot is always learning  they say, and you better soak in as much as you can in the right seat. That goes with the good and the bad. Observe from the captains you fly with, what do you like, what do you not like? Can you pick up any good techniques to fly a better approach, improve passenger comfort, or how to avoid weather? What do you still not know about the airplane? It’s okay to ask questions with a sincere desire to learn. I still don’t know everything. I’m grateful I go to school every 6 months for a refresher. You don’t know it all and shouldn’t act like you do.

That leads me to my next point: Be humble. You can’t learn if you aren’t willing to. Be willing to take correction. You’ll find out soon enough that a captain who corrects you more often than not (although I agree on occasion this isn’t the case) is trying to help you. And guess what? Even if he is being difficult, nit picky, and rude, deal with it. Have a real conversation with him on the ground in a non attacking manner and express how you feel. I bet you that the captain will most likely apologize and relations will be better going forward. But don’t come with an ego. An ego should always be checked baggage in the airplane, not a carry on.

Be helpful. Learn your duties as a first officer and do them well. When you are done, ask the captain if there is anything that he needs help with. After you’ve been a first officer long enough, you will have a sense for what needs to happen in the operation and be able to help without asking. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to have a first officer that knows their duties and when a problem arises, I can count on him or her for help. Don’t step on any toes though. Some responsibilities are left for the captain and if they need to attend to those, respect that.

Be respectful. In some cases you may have more experience and be older than the captain you’re flying with. Respect the order of authority and don’t go behind his back or over him to solve a problem. You wouldn’t want someone doing that to you. You may have a great solution and fix for a problem. Bring it up and discuss it as a crew. If the captain elects to go a different way, respect that. If it is a true safety concern and you’re still uneasy, discuss it further and seek explanation. If that doesn’t help, then I would go to a chief pilot or other authority, but this is a last resort. Safety is always the primary concern. But if you’re worried about a technique or how he likes to lay the newspapers out in the cabin, don’t argue the small stuff.

So how do these skills as a first officer make you a better captain and not just a better first officer? To be a good leader you must first be a good follower. Leadership by example is one of the most effective ways to lead. If your first officer sees you following the SOP’s, FAR’s, and GOM, he probably will to. If you’re a humble first officer, as a captain you’ll remember what it was like for the new first officer with the company and show empathy. You’ll reach out and be helpful to him when things are overwhelming. You’ll remember to teach with kindness and not be overbearing. You’ll respect his or her input because you’ll know that sometimes as a first officer, you were right, and as a captain, you know you still don’t know everything (humility). Having a desire to learn new things as a captain will inspire and motivate your first officer to continue in their learning and create a non threatening environment where ideas can be shared, communication is open, and if problems do come up, they can be solved.

Every now and then I still assume the roll as a first officer for my company while flying with another captain. I try to deploy these same attributes then. Flying as a crew requires a team mentality and I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s not about who is right, it’s about what is right.

Learn and develop these attributes and be the best first officer you can be. Be the first officer you would want to fly with. Hours flown or a seniority number will get you to the left seat eventually, but it doesn’t mean you will be successful.


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