Published in July 2016 issue

The agreement we Pilots have with our management mandates that, if a transoceanic flight is scheduled to last over eight hours, there must be three Pilots onboard. For flights of over 13, four Aviators have to be present. Some flights, like Tokyo to Singapore, or Honolulu to Tokyo, for example, often push the limit. In borderline situations, the winds are ultimately the determining factor as to how many Pilots are scheduled to operate the flight.

By Clay Taylor

Of course, some flights exceed eight hours, while some remain under, but, as long as the majority of those flights meet the rules, well, then two Pilots it is. It might just be my imagination, but it seems to me that I’m usually on the wrong side of that ratio; having flown from Honolulu to Tokyo with two Pilots and never in under eight hours.

Since modern aircraft only have two Pilot seats, you might wonder what the third Pilot actually does. Well, the simple answer is that it depends. For me, my usual goal would be nothing, but that never actually happens. That’s because the third Pilot is there to allow the other two to get a rest break. Sometimes, the third Pilot will have the opportunity to perform a takeoff or landing, while, other times, he may simply sit in the left seat for a few hours while the Captain sleeps, and then sit in the right seat while the other co-Pilot takes his nap. I’ve done 12-day trips during which I did not takeoff or land. Mostly, I did preflight inspections, talked on the radio a little, and barked out the orders from the left seat. It might seem the whole thing is sort of lame, but it’s really not.

On the Airbus 330, there are two jump seats in the cockpit. The third Pilot occupies the one in between the two Pilots and watches their every move like a hawk. You would be surprised how smart I am when I sit in the third seat. I generally set the seat height so as to look down on the other two Pilots. It sometimes makes for a scary view while landing, since the view from the front window is so different, but, from that vantage point, I can see both sides of the instrument panel with the clarity of a superior being.

Over the years, I’ve caught a lot of little things from that seat, but I’m not the only one. One time, quite a number of years ago, we were arriving in San Francisco after a long-haul allnighter from Japan. The sun was up as the controllers vectored us for a right downwind leg, landing to the northwest. We passed abeam the airport at 10,000 feet, and I knew what was coming. If this sounds eerily similar to a recent accident that occurred there, it’s because it is.

We were told to turn onto our base leg over the bridge and then navigate back to the airport visually. Throughout much of this approach, Pilots can’t see the airport, so we sort of have to do some guesswork as to how fast or slow to descend. The runway we were to land on did not have a glideslope, which only added to the complexity.

The moment I turned onto final approach, I realized I was both high and fast. So, knowing the Airbus, I slowed my descent to a crawl and selected our minimum approach speed. It’s a bit unnerving, knowing you are high, yet slowing your descent. I knew the airplane would fly less distance forward if I first slowed down, and then I could use the extra mile or so later to get down. Unfortunately, I kept my plan to myself. Almost immediately, the Pilot in the smart seat announced loudly, “I show you high.” I thanked him and said that I was planning to slow first. He waited nearly a minute before he reiterated his observation. I knew I had to get more aggressive, so I called for the landing gear to be extended. Nothing stops an Airbus faster than the gear hanging in the wind. The rest of the approach and landing was uneventful.

I admit, when the third wheel expressed his displeasure with my flying, I was momentarily annoyed. I knew what I was doing. The problem was that he didn’t know, which is why he scolded me a second time. I knew I was tired, but figured everything was still under control. Regardless of that, I accepted his judgment and rewrote my plan. He was only doing his job, and I had no ill feelings about his reprimand whatsoever. Of course, airline culture has a lot to do with accepting input from others in the cockpit. There can be no egos.


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One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the Pilots sitting in one of the control seats may find it difficult, on occasion, to accept input coming from the other. That same unwillingness is utterly missing when the third Pilot speaks up. That’s because everyone knows that third Pilots do not speak unless they feel they have to. If they do, pay attention.

Another thing that Pilots hate is being told how to fly. New Pilots readily accept any and all input in how to best get on the ground safely. But when they have a few thousand hours under their belts, neither do they need, nor do they desire the input of another unless something that they are doing is clearly not working.

I recently sat in the jump seat on a flight on which the Captain insisted on flying everyone’s leg. When the co-Pilot called for flaps, the Captain actually asked, “Really, do you really want the flaps now? We have 30 miles to go.” The co- Pilot accepted the suggestion and canceled his request, but I could see frustration on his face. The Captain did not.

It seemed that, each command the co-Pilot gave, the Captain questioned. I should mention that this co-Pilot had more time on the airplane than the Captain; yet, each time he abided by the Captain’s ‘suggestions’—even though none of them would have any effect on the safe operation of the flight and made no difference whatsoever—from the smart seat, I could see the tension building and hoped it would resolve itself.

Finally, when the co-Pilot asked for something and the Captain again suggested waiting three more seconds or some such thing, I was about to say, “looking good,” to sort of put my seal of approval on things and perhaps get our domineering boss to back down. But, before I could, the co-Pilot raised his hands and said, out of frustration, “You’ve got the airplane.” The Captain wasn’t sure what he’d heard, so he asked for clarification. The co-Pilot did not yell, scream, or get nasty; he simply said, “Take it; you’ve got the airplane.” It was then that the Captain realized how overbearing he had been and tried to make amends, but the co-Pilot was done flying for the day.

One time, I recall flying the DC9 with a new Captain. There was weather ahead, so I asked whether he’d like me to query ATC and see if we could turn 20 degrees to the left to avoid the worst of it. He thought about it for a second and then replied, “No, just make it 10 degrees.” I laughed to myself because I figured he was trying to show me who was in charge. I wondered what he would do if 10 degrees proved not to be enough. Would he tell me to ask them for another 10? No, he didn’t.

A few years ago, descending into Amsterdam, I was sitting in the third seat and saw a small thunderstorm ahead of us. In the early spring and fall, thunderstorms over the water in the Netherlands can top out around 9,000 or 10,000ft. They don’t look like much, but their bite is worse than their bark. The Captain fiddled with the radar while he and the co-Pilot discussed the tiny noise maker. Meanwhile, we edged closer. Finally, I said, “Ask them for 20 degrees right.” Neither Pilot questioned me, nor did the Captain try to show me who the superior Airman was; they simply got the clearance and we avoided the cell.

Back when I was a controller, I was jumpseating on a United Airlines Boeing 737-200. It was a tight cockpit, but more so because there was a Pilot sitting in one of the two tiny cockpit jump seats. When I asked why there were three Pilots sitting there, when clearly the third guy had nothing to do, I was informed that it was a contractual obligation. The union had fought the loss of the Flight Engineer because they felt that removing that set of eyes made things less safe. I thought it was ridiculous.

That was then. Now, sitting in the third seat has showed me more than once that it is much safer to have someone onboard with a God’seye view. You can’t get away with anything when someone is looking over your shoulder.

I am now a firm believer that every opinión counts and that three sets of eyes and ears are better than two. If something looks bad, I’ll say something and apologize later. Sort of like the time when we were taxiing around in thick fog and I suggested that we had missed our taxiway. Then, after elevating everyone’s blood pressure, I realized that I had been wrong. I was mad at myself because I knew that it was I who would be honor-bound to buy a round of beer later. And I hate it when that happens.