Ken : The following article is written by a current B737 First Officer, after a discussion we had on Flight Deck Crew Dynamics. 

Have you ever been in the situation as the Pilot Flying where your off-sider has interfered with the Mode Control Panel (MCP) or lowered the landing gear without you asking? If so, was your Pilot Monitoring (PM) (or Pilot Not Flying; I really hate that term) the Captain? [Ken : I should hope so!] Well, you’re not alone, nor are you usually at fault (but perhaps not entirely blameless …).

Have you retrospectively asked, “Did I effectively brief my intentions for the approach?” You may not have verbalised your intentions succinctly and instead relied on that superpower of ‘mind reading’ at a time where crew co-ordination is vital to the integrity of the operation.

Ken : With two pilots on a flight deck – there’s strict, regimented, published schema of who does what. Particularly around things such as … flying the aircraft – that is, flight path control, manipulation of either manual or autopilot controls in relation to which way you’re going, how fast, configuration, etc. The basic premise is that when the Pilot Flying (PF) is manually flying the aircraft, he/she is tasked almost exclusively with basic manipulation and any changes required elsewhere in the flight deck are called for by the PF and actioned by the PM. When the PF is using the Autopilot, there’s a lot less of this call-response as the PF makes almost all of the flight path changes the Autopilot will follow using the MCP (Mode Control Panel) him/herself – the PM’s role is to verify these actions and basically, agree with them (or not).

At least … that’s how it’s supposed to work …

What is being written about here can be an emotive subject, particularly for First Officers, but is also a classic double edged sword scenario. Let me caveat the following with … this is not about the apportion of blame or criticism of any one individual. It is something that will continue to affect the flight deck dynamic long after this post has been written, talked about and then forgotten about.

As a First officer, it is my intention someday to hold a command with my current employer. As a point of fact – every professional pilot sets upon this yellow brick road the day they start with an airline, as no airline intends to employ a career First Officer. I take pride in the fact that I am a professional airline pilot and when I am on the flight deck, I strive to do the best job possible. So when I am the Pilot Monitoring, I provide the best support to the Pilot Flying (Captain) possible and speak up when I deem it necessary. With that said, as Pilot Flying, I have had multiple Captains, including Check and Training Captains, interfere with the way that I operate the aircraft.

Ken : Note … As a Captain …

a Suggestion (“This vector is cutting us in short – how about we slow it down?”) is not Interference.

giving Guidance (“It’s good practice to extend the centre line from the FAF at this point …”) is not Interference.

Stipulating a Standard (“I don’t want to see VS for level changes at high altitude please – VNAV or FLCH SPD does the job and VS brings risks we can discuss but I don’t believe are worth engaging with.”) – that is, clarifying how you want the aircraft flown – is not interference. All Captains employ these tools to maximise the Safety and Efficiency of their operation,  and yes to spread a little wisdom and Airmanship on the flight deck.

The way these interactions are deployed and received is a product of a complex mix of how Hands On the Captain tends to be; the levels of experience of both pilots in relation and in opposition to each other; and most significantly – the personality profiles of both individuals; and whether they’re having a bad day.

Interference … is something else again.

As an example, landing at a major capital airport, I had one Captain advance or “push” the thrust levers up on me on final approach (below 300 feet)  because he felt the aircraft slowing down , thus causing a ballooning effect and then this individual announced that “We are high, you need to get it down”. Let me unequivocally state that we were within the stabilised criteria for the approach, the speed was trending slightly back towards VREF, but not less than VREF, and the extra thrust (nearly 75% N1) was completely unnecessary and unwarranted. At this point, some of my colleagues have suggested  that I should have handed control to the Captain, but is it really that simple? The answer is most certainly no… You have to remember that even though the additional thrust was unwarranted, we were at 300 feet on final approach in CAVOK conditions, the safest means (in my opinion) was for me to conduct the landing and then question the individual after the fact.

Ken : Ok, so clearly the Captain isn’t in this conversation. And it’s always fascinating after a sim session to learn that there can be at least FOUR versions of what took place on the flight deck – the Captain’s, the First Officer’s, the Sim Instructor’s and … what we agree afterwards probably happened based on combined recollection. Clearly this Captain lacked comfort with what was happening and in that case – some level of intervention was appropriate.

But – interfering with the flight controls of another pilot who is flying the aircraft to the best of their ability (or not) is … Rude. Doing so at low altitude quite frankly carries significant risk – the lower the altitude, the greater the risk.

… as the crew – and entire airline – found out with QF1 in Bangkok, 1999. Well worth a read – the Accident Report is a stellar example of the ATSB at work.

At all times there must be no doubt as to who is flying the plane. Actions such as interfering with flight controls (including thrust) places this fundamental paradigm in doubt, and are inherently unsafe. My two cents …

But as they once said on a TV game show, “but wait there’s more” … to this story.

Prior to the landing and the thrust “event”, there was the STAR clearance and briefing. My company stipulates that the Pilot Flying should select a landing flap and Autobrake setting to ensure the safest, most efficient and appropriate landing solution is guaranteed. During the briefing I had advised I would like to land with Flaps 30 and Autobrake 3, to cater for the 15-20 knots of crosswind. Because, let’s face it, a B737 landing is always an interesting affair. The aircraft can tend to be quite ‘pitchy’ with Flap 40 and many pilots (this one included) prefer a Flap 30 landing when there’s decent crosswind. Runway length and conditions permitting, of course!

The Captain initially objected due to his concerns about the landing weight of the aircraft, which was on the higher side (62t) but well below Max (66.3t for the B737-800), and advised that his preferred landing flap would be Flap 40 according to him. My concern was the crosswind and a Flap 40 landing would make it ‘tougher’ work . He agreed (albeit “reluctantly”) to a Flap 30 landing with a wind additive of +5 knots. I personally did not see the need for any concern considering the Flap 30, Autobrake 3 landing solution would ensure we made the designated high speed taxiway exit  as preferred by Air Traffic Services – well and truly short of the full length of the runway.

In retrospect, this discussion that occurred well prior to the approach being conducted should have signaled some sort of alarm bell to me that this individual was not comfortable with my plan of attack. While the discussion was cordial, it still felt as I was justifying my decision to someone who did not feel comfortable with it. The Flap 30 v Flap 40 consideration should of been, “I feel more comfortable with Flap 30 and the current crosswind conditions than Flap 40, plus we have a long runway (Runway 16 Melbourne), so we are not performance limited”. OR…

The other result could of been me hearing the Captains concern and us working through the snakes and ladders part of the discussion to end up at the point that I hand over control and he lands the aircraft and there are no heroes or villains, just good old fashioned team work. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your limits or ‘respecting the seat’, he is ultimately the PIC.

Ken : Many (Many!) years ago I was a Second Officer on a B744 flight deck, departing HKG for LHR. The Captain was (very) British; both First Officers were ex Captains from an Australia Domestic Airline, one of them a former Fleet Manager, both highly experienced. I’d never met the FO’s before – but I’d flown with the Captain, who embodied some of the habits under discussion here – and I was interested to see how our two Experienced Antipodean Ducks would deal with him.

All went as well as could be expected until at about 1000 ft on Takeoff, with the First Officer hand flying, the Captain announced “That’s enough …” and reaches across to engage the Center Autopilot. It failed to engage. No Aural, no EICAS message – but no Engagement. Hmph. The Captain did what all good pilots do – and hit the button again. No engagement. Hmph. He reached instead for the Left Autopilot switch. Nothing. Double Hmph. Then with a mild air of anxiety, he lunged all the way across to the Right Autopilot button. Nothing. Ok, this was serious now. As we continued the climb, accelerated and raised Flap, he simultaneously began to verbally articulate the thought process of contemplating continued 12 hours of flight to London with no Autopilot, vs Jettisoning tons and tons of fuel to return to HKG. The Flying First Officer meanwhile, continue to … Fly.

As the aircraft climbed through SAA and the acceleration continued, the First Officer reached up in a decidedly leisurely fashion and proceeded to engage the Center Autopilot. It worked. The Captain’s consternation was clear. He took control, disconnected (!) the Autopilot, and re-engaged. He then proceeded to disconnect again (!) and again (!) testing first the Left and then the Right Autopilots, before returning the aircraft to the Center AP – and flight path control to the First Officer. “Just one of those things …” he mused.

Much later, in cruise with the other First Officer,

after the other two had gone to rest – the FO explained. It turns out that in the B744, if you hit and hold the Control Column AP disengage switch (hard to see from the other side) just as one of the MCP Autopilot engage switches is selected – there’s no aural, no EICAS (like there would be in the B777) – but the AP doesn’t engage either. He’d known what was coming (FO word of mouth) and decided to preempt this Captain’s predilection to prefer the First Officer to fly the plane via the AP.

As amusing as this anecdote may be – I would suggest that the right to insist on how the aircraft is flown actually does belong to the Captain. But perhaps the Briefing is the time to outline and discuss such predilections …

Moving on to another common example …

The mode control panel on any Boeing aircraft is a simplistic, highly utilised piece of equipment during all phases of flight. When the Autopilot is engaged it is the Pilot Flying’s responsibility to engage or select the relevant roll and pitch modes that he or she wants/desires. So why would the Pilot Monitoring select a mode that’s not wanted or requested by the Pilot Flying? It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries, that’s for certain. Like the Loch Ness monster, which I haven’t seen.

What I have seen is the Pilot Monitoring (Captain) select Level Change at 4000 feet just prior to the IAF for an ILS approach, because our instrument approach speed restrictions were cancelled. A speed cancellation is not the mandatory door opening for one to see how fast they can fly down the glidepath, but it does allow a greater ‘flexibility’ with regards to speed management on final. Not all pilots (I certainly am in this boat) think that it means we should automatically go flat out. The ones that do, tend to end up chasing their tails down final in my experience.

So when this Pilot Monitoring (this time a Training Captain, but I was checked out and not “technically” under training) selected Level Change and ‘wound’ the speed up to 220Kts, it certainly caught my attention. Especially since I had carefully managed my vertical profile and energy management for the instrument approach. My immediate reaction was to engage Vertical Speed and wind the speed back to something more ‘comfortable’ while maintaining my vertical profile. My actions were accompanied by the words “I think I’d rather not push the envelope”. The approach was conducted normally and everybody moved on with their lives and lived happily ever after, apparently.

Ken : Again … Rude. And potentially, at Low Altitude, about to commence the Approach …

The above scenario is another First Officer pet “hate”. Captains interfering with mode control panels (or thrust levers!), is just plain wrong. As a professional pilot, it takes all the energy in the world to suppress the annoyance, dismay and yes, anger, at these individuals who have now forgotten what it is like to be a First Officer. This is a Captain/First Officer thing because these scenarios with a reversal of the players simply wouldn’t happen.

The Captain is ALWAYS ultimately responsible for the safety of the aircraft and its occupants, but this does not entitle the Pilot in Command to the actions I’ve described above, when those actions could well place the aircraft at risk. In fact, some would argue that it is contradictory to the PIC’s role and responsibility to the safety of the flight. I would go as far as saying that it is completely unprofessional. Unfortunately, the above actions are not isolated to this writer alone, my colleagues have told me similar stories that have occurred.

So where does this leave us? Well in today’s global aviation environment it highlights the need for strong communication skills, crew coordination and possibly thicker skin (for some anyway – yes ouch!). No one is perfect, as humans by design we are made up of multiple faults, problems, issues, imperfections and irregularities. Arguably, communication between individuals, whether that’s on the flight deck or even in your personal relationships (i.e. marriage), is a challenge that remains an ongoing work in progress. As pilots, we tend to let our ego drive our behaviour, but it is important to remember that your offsider (rank aside) doesn’t know what you’re thinking at any given time. I’ve heard the phrase “You talk too much” or “Your briefs are too long”, but are they, or do you just perceive them to be? (yes – double ouch!). Maybe by talking during the brief and during the approach, I am ensuring that my colleague knows what I am thinking/doing, rather than trying to ‘guess’.

If you have to talk a bit more than some may like, then maybe, as a risk mitigator, your words are worth their weight in gold.

Happy landings. Kaptain Kranky.


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