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The cockpit career

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There are a good few misconceptions about the first officer’s job. So let’s clear some of these up…

When we talk to family or friends, we first officers often have a particularly difficult task: explaining that many of the widespread assumptions about our work are just not true. Some of my favourite questions here: “Oh, you’re a co-pilot. So when do you actually get to fly?” or “So as a first officer, you just sit there and watch the captain work, right?”

As my colleague Thierry explained last month, the truth is that first officers fly the aircraft just as much as captains do. They’ve both been fully trained to do so, and are equally capable of safely conducting a flight. On a normal day with, let’s say, four flight legs, the cockpit crew will generally divide these up so that the captain and the first officer are “pilot flying”, as we call it, on two legs each. The pilot flying is responsible for steering the aircraft and programming the autopilot, while the “pilot not flying” will handle the radio communications and will monitor the pilot flying and assist them as needed.

The career path of a pilot is more or less predetermined when you start to work for an airline. The first step is to become a first officer on short-haul aircraft, such as the Airbus A320. After gaining some years of experience, the first officer will then be “upgraded” to the long-haul fleet: the Airbus A330 and A340, in SWISS’s case. And after another couple of years in the first officer’s right-hand seat, the next important step will be taken: becoming a captain, for which the pilot will return to the short-haul fleet.

On several of my recent rotations I’ve been rostered to fly with “new” short-haul captains, with both of us supervised by a training captain occupying the cockpit jumpseat. These rotations really gave me some interesting flights. Besides being a change from the normal working routine, they also offered me a good opportunity to pass on my short-haul knowledge (especially of airports and their special procedures) to the new captains, who appreciated this a lot.

Another advantage of rotations like this is that many of our training captains are also qualified to fly in the right-hand seat as a first officer (yes, they do need special training for this!). So on some flight legs I was able to give my job to the training captain and just be a jumpseat passenger on my own flight: something that doesn’t happen very often!

My own upgrade to captain (and even to long-haul first officer) still has to wait a bit. But I’m looking forward to my next rotations with other new captains…