Is it always the captain who decides everything on board?

Is it always the captain who decides everything on board?February 17, 2020

Is it always the captain who decides everything on board?
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After take-off, the autopilot is switched on and the captain reads the newspaper. There are countless clichés of this kind.


For a long time it was common practice in aviation for the captain to have sole control. As a rule, he was the oldest and most experienced in the cockpit – but above all he was the captain and therefore at the top of the hierarchy. His decisions applied and were implemented by the co-pilots and flight engineers. Accordingly, communication in the cockpit was also limited. This approach had one serious shortcoming: if the captain makes a mistake, there is no corrective that can compensate for it. This shortcoming had fatal consequences. There are a number of aviation accidents that can be attributed to this, including the collision of two jumbo jets at Tenerife airport in 1977.



Pilots work in teams according to standard procedures


The first CRM mechanisms (Crew Resource Management) already take effect during the briefing, the preliminary discussion. The captain and the co-pilot may be meeting for the very first time for this flight. There are no fixed teams in the cockpit on the part of the airline. The first piece in the mosaic of flight safety: it is intended that the composition of the crew should be constantly changing. This measure forces all colleagues to adhere to standardized working methods and prevents them from introducing “private procedures” that would be incomprehensible to outsiders. A major source of error is thus ruled out from the outset.

These prescribed working methods is known as “Standard Operating Procedures”. These are coordinated procedures that the airline develops together with the manufacturer and are approved by the authorities. They are the “operating instructions” for the aircraft and govern the entire operation, including the command language used.

The hierarchy on board, the so-called “Chain of Command”, is simple: At the top is the captain. His deputy is the co-pilot, also called First Officer. This is followed by the flight attendant in charge, senior or purser, and the other flight attendants.



Division of labour and mutual checks


The pilot and the co-pilot agree during the briefing who will perform the flight. This division results in a concrete task field for each of them. The “Pilot Flying” will steer the flight and make all preparations directly related to it. The “Pilot Monitoring” will take care of all other matters.

After the technical checks in the cockpit, the flight data computers will be programmed with the route guidance. In parallel, the “Outside Check” (technical visual inspection of the aircraft from outside) will be carried out.

The take-off and the assigned departure route will be discussed in detail before each flight. Here it is especially about the take-off performance calculation, which is different every day due to different aircraft weights and weather conditions, about the regular departure route but also about a departure route, should an engine fail during take-off.

In flight, the division between Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring is most clearly visible: Pilot Flying deals exclusively with the flying of the aircraft, either manually or by making the entries for the autopilot and monitoring the execution. The Pilot Monitoring does all the rest: On the instruction of the Pilot Flying, it retracts or extends the landing flaps, operates the landing gear, calculates alternative scenarios for altitude or route with the flight data computer, maintains radio contact with the ground stations, keeps the written records, and monitors the systems and the Pilot Flying.

Seen from the outside, pilot monitoring is usually the busier of the two, since the pilot flying usually quietly monitors the flight path. Should something unforeseen happen, such as an engine failure, the Pilot Flying must be able to intervene at any time and take control of the aircraft.

For this and other scenarios, the Pilot Flying prepares models which are continuously updated during the flight together with the Pilot Monitoring. There is not much time left to read the newspaper – and that for both pilots in the cockpit team.


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