Crew Dynamics (1) Captain’s Prerogative
It was the end of a three-day pairing, the last flight of the pairing, a red eye from Toronto, finishing off at my home crew base in Calgary. As part of my airport departure routine I filed the paperwork into the Docs bin before heading out of the office door.
My captain had long since disappeared into the morning sun, but first I stop by the Harvey’s inside the terminal just outside the crew room exit to pickup up a coffee “to go”, before heading into the parking lot and head home to Airdrie.
Next, a walk through the staff parking lot, I encountered a colleague inbound who was just about to begin his day. We stopped to catch up briefly, about the latest in the airline gossip and airport happenings. He queried on the usual stuff, like “How was the flight ?” to which I responded, “Uneventful”. “Where are you coming from?” he asked. The next question, seemed as though he dropped a small bombshell on me by asking me who had I been flying with over the last several days.
It was a bombshell because I realized I could not remember! At that moment an understanding descended upon me. I could not remember because through three days and 7 flight legs together, nothing really memorable occurred. It was a low stress series of trips after which I “zeroed” the memory bank of the last three days of my working life as I exited the office, just like zeroing the fuel counter on the post flight check of the jet, nothing remaining but zeros!
I finally recalled the skipper I had been with for the last three days. The skipper was nice friendly easy going guy, who was always a joy to fly with. This had been a near perfect pairing, i.e. series if grouped flights together stretching over several days. No trip reports, no near misses, nice weather, and pleasant conversation prevailed the entire trip. “No dramas,” as the Aussies would say.
Since most of my flying has been part of a “crew environment” it might be worthwhile to consider some of the experiences I have had in this realm. My understanding of the crew concept has morphed somewhat over the years. The industry has changed too, for the most part, for the better. I had spent half my airline career as a co-pilot, and it was in that phase I became committed to not living within the paradigm of those earlier times, and to change things was to make my own mark as pilot in command when I had the chance. I experienced at times what would be considered now as abuse, as did most co-pilots of the day, before earning a fourth stripe those many years ago. Some later chose to follow the tradition of treating people as commodities to be used and abused, while others worked to change the narrative for the next generation.
Some of my earlier flights were in fact memorable, some, memorable for all the wrong reasons!
It was the little things, the small choices that were considered the “Captain’s prerogative” that at times tested my understanding of humanity to the fullest in my First Officer days.
On one such trip after several legs of flying I was told by my captain that it was now my time to eat. The short flight sectors on this pairing, rebounding from Edmonton to Calgary a dozen times a day were advertized as “Airbuses” (not the aircraft type), meaning reduced turnaround times, and that would also mean that I would have little time to eat on the ground before departure. This short time was lessened still by the fact that I also had to first head outside the aircraft once parked at a gate to complete the walk around, a duty that this captain would never do. Only then would be given permission to eat.
When I returned from the exterior inspection, the captain instructed the flight attendant to bring my meal forward into the cockpit so that I could eat prior to push-back while he would complete the interior preflight duties. When it came to meals, there was no choice. I only ate what this captain would assign. He would usually tell the senior Flight Attendant ( F/A) at the beginning of the pairing when, and where he or I would eat. “Captain’s prerogative” he would say. We were not allowed to eat the same meal, nor eat at the same time, to mitigate the risk of food poisoning to both pilots simultaneously, and this was a company policy, a good one.
The flight attendant dutifully complied bringing the First Officer meal to the cockpit on the Captain’s command. She entered the cockpit and carefully passed over the meal and placed the tray on my lap, balancing the meal there and having just enough space to avoid bumping into the yoke of one of my favourite airplanes, the Boeing 737.
As I grasped the silverware I began to realize what was on this tray looked not too bad for a crew meal! It was a hot sizzling steak. I had not eaten a steak , or any other really good looking meal on this pairing as my skipper always seemed to get the best choice meals. Again, “Captain’s prerogative”. I was pleased with him, his change of heart, and thought maybe I had been wrong about how he viewed the nature of his entitlement. I imagined what was going through his head and heart as he allowed me to have a steak!
Then from across the cockpit, came hands stretched in front of me, reaching, grasping for my meal tray. It seemed like slow motion, the his spindly fingers reaching and grasping for my plate. The captain called a command decision as he picked the meal tray up off my lap, and in an all business type fashion said, “I will have that, you can eat the next meal, the tuna fish, on the ground at Calgary.” The flight attendant standing in the companionway between the seats looked at me in disbelief as I sat there in a momentary shock. Then the captain instructed me to get the clearance, tune and identify the navaids and then initiate and complete the cockpit scan flow while he ate. He would monitor what I was doing while he ate my meal, which had suddenly become his.
As the years went by I eventually became the pilot in command (PIC) and swore I would never be the like that prick ( sorry to offend ) who never considered the man or woman occupying the more junior co-pilot’s seat. Unless legal requirements prevailed, e.g. Low Visibility Approaches know in the industry as Catergory Two or Three approaches, Low Visibilities Depatures etc., I would either offer the First Officer, a choice of starting off the day’s flights, or at least flip for it, along with meal choices. I would often share in exterior inspections of the aircraft . “Captain’s prerogative”
To some this may have made me seem weak, not wanting to “assert” my authority. In fact I was quite comfortable with my capabilities, and allowing my partner to enjoy a meal or flight of choice was a joy for me because I remembered what it was like to be in the other seat, for so many years. I do remember that there were a many great captains who treated me well, sharing the choices in a way that allowed me to grow not only as a pilot but as a person. I don’t always remember the trips flown with such great captains, but I DO REMEMBER WHO THEY WERE. Because their management of the day’s events left me not only unscarred, but encouraged and uplifted. I hope that others who now do the job I did, choose a command style that reflects well on their own humanity through humility.
True humility is not thinking less of yourself, but more of others, and in flying like life, that still is the “Captain’s Prerogative”.