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The Evolving Role of Aircraft Commander

When I began my aviation career, achieving the rank of Captain on a multi-crew aircraft was a goal that seemed distant.

Only the best pilots were selected for this role and this selection would be based on total hours or seniority number.

In most cases, the relationship between hours or seniority was a valid reflection of experience but as with everything in life there are exceptions.

In aviation there is a saying that “there are pilots who have 10,000 hours and there are pilots who have 1 hour 10,000 times”.

A minority of these “experienced” pilots had survived through circumstance, never being challenged, or working with competent crewmembers who had “saved the day”.

Experience is a very personal thing and sometimes hard to observe or quantify.

Advances in pilot training including crew resource management have increased the competency of crewmembers.

These improvements have directly translated into a safety benefit as borne out in the accident statistics.

Industry initiatives such as Competency-Based Training and Assessment (CBTA) and incorporation of adult learning principles into training programs will continue to enhance pilot competence and hopefully identify those individuals with underlying weaknesses.

Even with all these improvements recent history has shown that some individuals still slip through the system.

The recent pandemic has affected the experience gradient within the industry and only the future will show how this manifests itself in the flight deck.

When the industry returns to its new normal, we may have lost a whole cohort of experienced crewmembers who would pass on their knowledge to the less experienced.

I read something recently advocating that Captains allow First Officers to fly most flights and make key operational decisions to increase their experience at a more rapid pace.

Some companies promote this practice as First Officers approach their command upgrade.

We have all operated in these environments where we are told to allow First Officers to “be the Captain in terms of decision making” when its their sector as Pilot Flying (PF).

In most cases both parties understand this is a bit of theatre as ultimately the Captain will override decisions they are uncomfortable with.

Fuel decisions are a good example of this. In briefing, the Captain says “its your leg you make the decisions” so after careful analysis the First Officer requests additional fuel due to his/her unfamiliarity with the route, destination and some concerns over enroute weather.

The Captain then overrides and reduces or eliminates the additional fuel adhering to the company’s fuel policy and dispatches with flight planned fuel.

The flight operates to schedule, and the burn is as per flight plan. So, what did the First Officer learn? In this case he/she had decided on a fuel amount that was not required to complete the mission.

Was this learning experience carried forward in the right context? Next flight he/she goes on their decision may be biased by the previous experience, possibly not understanding everything that went into the Captain’s decision.

It is possible that the Captain made their decision out of a desire to comply with the company policy yet uncomfortable with the policy or because this was the correct decision.

How would the First Officer know?

Some Captains are excellent at explaining a process, others are not.

I believe Mentoring will become an important competency going forward as the industry struggles to fill the flight deck vacancies in the coming years.

We could add an additional competency to the suggested ICAO nine or at least amend the existing ones (Leadership, Teamwork, Mentoring).

If we look at the dictionary definition of mentor it states, “advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague)”.

In my career I have observed many Captains who said, “it’s not my job to train, I don’t get paid the big bucks”.

The other key word in the definition is Advise “offer suggestions about the best course of action to someone”.

Now, lets look at another scenario.

The First Officer is pilot flying as you approach some thunderstorms enroute.

He/she begins the avoidance maneuver but due to previous experience the Captain knows that a different deviation would put the aircraft into a new ATC sector with more favourable direct routings available.

The Captain has three options: allow the deviation as initiated to let the PF gain experience through experimentation, order the more optimum deviation with little context, or order the more optimum deviation and provide a full explanation of this decision.

This is more in line with advising than training. It might take additional fuel and time initially to complete the diversion but once in the new ATC sector we will be able to climb to optimum altitude, get a direct routing and an arrival to destination that has less track miles hence we will save fuel.

Due to distance to destination and workload this full explanation may not be possible in-flight.

Rather than the First Officer leaving the flight deck with a few holes in his/her understanding taking a few minutes post flight to mentor would provide a better learning experience than learning through experimentation.

Sometimes after a long flight it’s difficult to suggest staying behind to discuss learning opportunities that occurred. In this case an email or phone call the next day would be helpful to ensure all the knowledge holes are filled in.

I believe mentoring as a competency should be added to all command upgrade programs as this may not come naturally to all individuals.

As aviation continues to flourish in the next decades mentoring within an organization and externally will need to become a more integral part of the system.

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