Reflections on Upgrading to Captain
There are days in every pilot’s life that are destined to be remembered forever: first solo, the Private Pilot check ride, the first time landing a taildragger or seaplane. Those of us who fly for the airlines don’t have many memorable flights, which is by design. Airline flying, done properly, is a mildly enjoyable experience, and a perfectly forgettable one. That said, even at the airlines there are a few prominent milestones, and upgrading to captain for the first time is a big one.
All who have done so distinctly remember their first time in the left seat. In my case, it was April 15, 2008, and I was flying an Embraer 175 with 76 passengers from Minneapolis to Washington’s Dulles International Airport. As I lined up on Runway 12R and pushed the thrust levers forward, it seemed utterly surreal that so many souls were entrusted to my 26-year-old hands, and they all had no clue that it was my very first time. And then I got busy and forgot about it, and as with most things in aviation, after a few more flights the surreal became routine. But I always remembered that flight, and that feeling.
The airlines make a pretty big deal out of being a captain, which often seems a bit strange to general aviation pilots. So why the big fuss about the left seat anyway?
The airlines, as well as several other segments of aviation, have cultures rooted in the maritime tradition and the structures of the military. Respect for command is integral to both of these traditions and has always been a deeply ingrained part of airline culture. Many older pilots still remember the pre-CRM days when the captain was akin to God. But even if the captain’s dominion is perhaps not quite so absolute as it once was, he or she remains the final authority once the plane leaves the gate. There’s a hard-nosed business reason for this: Each time an airliner takes off, millions of dollars in equipment and billions of dollars in liability pass out of the airline’s direct control until it returns to terra firma. It’s imperative that this person be somebody the airline can trust (or can at least justify trusting in a court of law).
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