Ok, so this one may be a little controversial. As you read it remember that unlike many of my professional brethren, in my dim dark past I actually have been a Cruise Relief First Officer (actually a Second Officer, or more accurately at times, the Captain’s sexual advisor) on a ULH operation for almost 3 years; and in my case I was usually under the Command of a Pom, which as a 23yo Aussie wasn’t fun at times. Far too many nights at metric flight levels into Mandalay being told how to use HF (for the xth time) by someone with a hyphenated surname and a multi million dollar provident fund … 🙂

The presence of additional flight crew on the flight deck over and above the standard two crew complement can be a challenge for some Primary Operating Crew to manage. Wavering between under utilisation where the Relief Crew sit and twiddle their thumbs, to over utilisation where the Captain spends so much time telling the Second Officer what to do next (as well as what the SO’s doing wrong) that his own tasks suffer. Yes, these are the extremes and over simplifications / dramatisations; but at times, not by much.

There are a couple of Asian airlines that operate with 4 crew (2 Relief Crew) who relegate the Relief Crew to the passenger compartment during pre-flight, waiting to be told when to come up to the flight deck to start relief duties. One presumes that in those airlines their presence on the flight deck overall was considered more a hindrance than a usefulness.

The role of a Relief Crew member on a flight deck can also be a challenging one. Decades of research and documentation clearly define the roles of Cisco and Pancho on the flight deck. No one defines what Diablo was supposed to do, unless Diablo was there for his engineering expertise (a Flight Engineer) in which case in effect, he was a Primary Crew member. SOPs rarely define roles for Relief Crew outside of some generic tasks that actually belong to the Primary Crew but can be delegated; including checking status of emergency equipment and documentation; the presence of pillows and blankets in Crew Rest; tidying up and other such duties. My company is presently going down the road of doing so and it’s a minefield, I can tell you. I have SOPs from a couple of Asian airlines as well as a few of the US ones which have done so. I like the US ones.

It’s Relief Crew.

Our airline runs with a Captain and First Officer as the Primary Crew; and two Relief First Officers as Relief Crew. I prefer to refer to any crew member who is on the flight deck ostensibly for the purposes of providing in flight cruise relief as Relief Crew rather than by their grades (Second Officer, Cruise Pilot, etc) because that’s what they are – fully qualified crew who are there for relief purposes. In my airline as I function more often as a Relief Crew member than a Primary Crew member because I’m always sitting on the jump seat as a Check Captain, with at least one other Captain on board and in Command. In my previous airline, we had only Captains and First Officers hence the Relief Crew were another Captain and First Officer. Thus as far as I’m concerned – it’s the Relief Crew and the Primary (or Operating) Crew.

So based on my lessons learnt in the past as a Second Officer, my time spent as a First Officer, Captain, Training and Check Captain, time spent as a member of both Primary and Relief Crew – looking back here are some thoughts. I’m not going to try and tell Primary Crew how to manage Relief Crew – that’s for a committee to work out. But from watching and doing, here are some suggestions of the more common things I see a Relief Crew member could improve on – whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned aviator, sitting back there watching from the seats that see all.

This is not a manifesto – it’s certainly not SOP or policy for my current airline or any other airline I’ve ever worked for; neither is it ordered. This is more of a personal criticism of my own time as a Relief Pilot (from both an SO and a Check Captain). Think of it as random thoughts seeking to promote discussion. Here goes.

Highlighting Primary Crew Omissions/Mistakes

One of the roles of the Relief Crew Member is to provide backup to the robust primary multi crew procedures and calls already established to detect and correct errors and omissions on the flight deck. It is important that the Relief Crew Member allow the primary crew to use these established procedures to self detect/correct – as a crew – before providing correcting input from the relief crew seat.

An example would be a mis-selected AFDS setting such as a heading or an altitude in response to an ATC instruction. While compliance with ATC clearances are paramount in such situations and a Relief Crew Member must speak up promptly if a clearance limit exceedance is imminent – ideally the Relief Crew Member should give the Primary Crew the opportunity to self correct.

Timing is Everything

There are times when Relief Crew must weigh the potential consequence of a Primary Crew Slip/Omission against the possible consequences of speaking up immediately.

At one extreme – highlighting the lack of external aircraft lighting at speed during the takeoff roll would not be considered an appropriate contribution to the sterile flight deck environment.

Less obvious would be the omission of turning the exerior lights off as the aircraft passes 10,000 ft on climb. While the fallacy of speaking up during takeoff case is clear to all, for this second event an appropriate Relief Crew response might be to wait until past transition altitude, wait until not approaching a cleared level and clear of ATC communications before identifying the omission.

As any Sim Instructor can tell you – there is a world of difference between the operating and non-operating seats on a flight deck. While potentially the Relief Crew Member has more brain capacity to monitor and catch omissions than either the PF or PM; at times it’s also not unusual for the Relief Crew member to miss an element of a situatuion, rendering less significant – or even irrelevant – an omission detected from the relief seats. If situation permits the time available to sit on your hands for a minute or two and review – it’s not a bad idea (again, also gives the Prmary Crew more time to self-correct).

Apologise when you’re Right

As much as timing can be everything – contributions from the Relief Crew made in a challenging or derogatory manner are also be contributory to a poor flight deck environment. Years ago as a Second Officer I was taught by a Senior Check Captain that anytime I was contributing to the flight deck in such a way that I was right and the Primary Crew were wrong – the best course of action was to accompany the correction with an implied apology.

At first glance this seems like a strange technique but if you think about it  – it works. Most professional pilots are perfectionists and as much as CRM teaches us that we all make mistakes and the correction of those mistakes by a team member leads to a better overall solution and is entirely normal and expected; still corrections from Relief Crew are sometimes seen internally as personal deficiencies by Primary Crew.

Additionally some pilots who have extensive (or very little) two crew experience sometimes have difficulty in adapting to corrections and suggestions from relief crew. Corrections offered in the manner of suggestion or inquiry often achieve the desired result in a less confrontational manner than when offerred in such a way as to be perceived by a particularly sensitive pilot as criticism – and you often can’t tell that’s the way it was received.

Say what you want – I learnt this techique as a 23 year old second officer on a 747-400 and I use it now as a check captain correcting 23 year old second officers in the simulator during training and checking. Back then it ensured the best chance of getting my point across while maintaining the relationship. Now it disarms defensiveness and self-recrimination and encourages a good opportunity for discussion and learning in the training environment.


Sometimes error/slip corrections proferred by Relief Crew are not welcomed by the Primary Crew. This can be for many reasons – because the issue is not seen as important at the time by the Primary Crew; because circumstances un-noticed by the Relief Crew invalidate the comment; because the Primary Crew are under significant workload and their stress levels are high; etc. There is seldom a good reason for Primary Crew to snap back at a Relief Crew Member after raising a concern – it is almost always an unusual behaviour brought on by circumstances and should be treated that way.

In the end, the reasons for primary crew irritability are irrelevant. As the SO, having voiced your concern your role is complete. There are however two clear mistakes that the Relief Crew Member can make in response. The first is to disengage from the monitoring role. CRM from the 80’s taught us that when a Captain snaps at a First Officer so as to (momentarily at least) destroy the two crew relationship on a flight deck – there are two failed parties involved. The Captain who initiated the disengaging act – and the First Officer who disengaged. As a Relief Crew Member, when you feel you’ve been unfairly treated – disengagement is never an appropriate response.

The second mistake is to respond and become involved in a “discussion” about the event or subsequent interaction. Your aim was to highlight a problem and you’ve done that. The fact that you got your head snapped off for it is wrong – but irrelevant. Be the bigger person and don’t respond to perceived provocation. The tense environment of takeoff, climb, descent, approach, landing and non-normal operations can produce role interactions that the participants wouldn’t dream of elsewhere. The Bus or the Bar are usually the best times to commence a discussion of such an event.

Thoughts? Don’t all flame me at once …