Published in June 2015 issue

By Chris Manno

We’d flown together as crew so many times over the years, on both the MD-80 and the 737, that the cockpit was pleasantly quiet. That’s as it should be below 10,000 feet, when all talk in the cockpit is required to be exclusively flight-related. I’m a big fan of the quiet cockpit anyway, at all altitudes. But that’s just me.

Near level-off, as we settled in to cruise—with fuel good, center tank still above three thousand pounds, both boost pumps on, fuel burn only slightly behind (typical in climb)—things slowed down to hydraulics, electrics, oxygen (how many years of HEFOE checks?), and standing by for clearance direct to Wilson Creek if the Air Force restricted airspace wasn’t active.

“What are you flying next month?” asked my F/O, matter-offactly. Over the years, we’d already covered the “where do you live,” kids, sports—all the regular stuff.

“Next month? I’m flying all Orange County turns: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I kind of get hungry thinking about the John Wayne-Orange County Airport, Jerry’s Wood-Fired Dogs, and those mega-brats that’ll get you through three thousand air miles stuffed to the gills. Great turkey burgers, too. How ‘bout you?”

“Actually,” he said, still deadpan, “I’m checking out on this.”

That took a while to sink in, but what it meant was that he was upgrading—checking out, in pilot-speak, as captain on the Boeing.

That was fantastic, a monumental lifetime achievement, excellent news—and bad news just the same; he was one of those dependable, journeyman, professional first officers who’d been keeping me in one piece since I had “checked out” as captain back in 1991. I would miss his excellent work.

“Great news!” I told him, and I meant it. He had been waiting for twenty years and now, finally, the pinnacle of our airline pilot career was within his grasp. “You’ll do great! And you’ll be an excellent captain.”

I knew he would be, too. There were about 5,000 hard lessons I would have liked to have shared with him, stuff I’d learned, often the hard way, from wearing four stripes myself for those past 22 years and counting. But one of the biggest lessons I’d learned was to keep my mouth shut until asked.

“I’ve watched the Part One CD-ROM they sent,” he said, offhandedly. Part One is the FAA-approved legality manual for our flight operations. The captain’s authority and responsibility reside therein. “And,” he added, “the CD-ROM for the HUD.”

The HUD—Heads Up Display—is the cosmic imagery projected on the glass only in front of the captain, displaying a myriad of performance and navigation data to be assimilated while looking outside and flying at the same time. It takes a lot of getting used to.

Maybe I could comment? I didn’t want to be pushy.

“The trick to the HUD,” I said casually, “I’ve found is this: you have to learn which 20% of the data,” I pointed to the Primary Flight Display, which is repeated in the HUD projection, “you need to maintain in symmetry in your peripheral vision. Also, the additional 20%, like the Flight Path Vector and energy trend that you need to look through and maintain. The other 60%, you need to ignore, but know where to find instantly when you need it.”

I let that float.

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“That’s good,” he said. “I’m looking for any advice you can give me.”

Well, there were a thousand hard-learned lessons he’d need to know. Those times in flight where the options shrink, you’re dealing with crap that is unforeseen but as real as a heart attack. The regs let you do things they’ll hang you for later—if you survive. You’ll wish you had more fuel, more time, more airspeed and a doover, but you won’t.

And afterward, you’ll sit stunned in a crew bus and exchange a glance with another captain, words unspoken, but looks saying, “Holy shit! I can’t believe we pulled that off, and I’ll never let myself get talked into that again.” You won’t be sure where his first officer is—or yours, for that matter—at that moment. But, without the responsibility, the authority, and being directly in charge of the lives and of the fifty-million-dollar jet, they probably don’t have those permanently-creased countenances of heavyweight concern looking back—and forward—as they head home.

Whoa, mule; not so fast. Do you really think you could have taken all that in 22 years ago, when you first pinned on captain’s wings? Go easy.

“Well,” I said carefully, “If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: make an effort, a real effort, to say ‘no’ often and firmly.”

I let that hang in the air for a minute. He was nodding slowly, looking at me intently.

“Because I have to say, honestly,” I continued, deliberately, “I’ve had more regrets over what I’ve said ‘yes’ to than I’ve ever had over saying ‘no.’”

“As captains, we’re biased towards ‘yes.’ We want to make things work; we’re confident in our ability; we want to best all challenges, prove how good we are, that we’re worthy of the rank, the authority, the profession—especially when we’re brand new in the left seat.”

“It’s actually harder to say ‘no’, starting with ourselves: we cannot, will not rush to get there, to get home, to get paid, to make connections. The 159 passengers and the other crew get that luxury—we don’t, as captains, and we’ll answer for it if we cross the line for all the wrong reasons. Say ‘no-go’, refuse a clearance restriction (especially a climb), say ‘goaround, divert,’ refuse the fuel load (I have NEVER been hassled for asking for more), and refuse the maintenance fix, even the aircraft, if you believe that to be right.”

“Our airline’s chief pilot will back you 100% if you’re trying to do right, to be safe, to be smart, by saying ‘no.’ And, though it’s usually simpler and easier to say ‘yes’, you’ll wish you hadn’t a thousand times over at 40,000 feet and 500 knots, when you’re looking for salvation—and you’re it.”

He went quiet again, thinking. He knew I wasn’t kidding—and I sure-as-hell was not. Welcome to the fraternity, the exclusive realm of complete authority, total accountability, and a challenge every day more than equal to the rewards and satisfaction that go hand-in-hand when you get it right. Maybe not perfect, but right—every damn time.

I smiled to myself, thinking back, thinking ahead. He would do great, I knew—he would probably do better than I ever had.

And so it went: check the fuel burn, the nav accuracy, the time over the next waypoint. Looking back is fun, but forward is where we’re headed. Time to earn those stripes, yet again.