A second officer’s tale

Back in the day when props were changing to jets, the Canadian Ministry of Transport – in collusion with Air Canada and in an effort to save training costs for the airline while nipping a lawsuit in the bud from the pilot’s union – contemplated creating a newly required third crew position on the huge DC-8s coming on line. The Douglas Aircraft Company had designed the airplane to operate with a flight engineer, and was operated that way in the United States as well as practically every other country. The change in Canadian regulations would mean that the third pilot crew member would be neither a fully endorsed DC-8 pilot nor a fully endorsed DC-8 flight engineer. Instead, a bastardized (or to put it more kindly, a hybridized) addition to the cockpit hierarchy was conveniently created.

DC-8
The DC-8 didn’t need a Second Officer, but Air Canada decided to hire one anyway.

The person occupying the third sideways facing seat would be a licensed pilot but only partially trained and as such his pilot license would not be endorsed to operate a DC-8. It meant that this hybrid pilot would only be allowed to handle the flight controls legally above 10,000 feet on the climb and would have to relinquish the controls on descent at 10,000 feet… “ten to ten” as it was then called. This pilot was not allowed to either take off or land the airplane and further even the ten to ten was at the combined discretion of the Captain and First Officer. This hybrid would also be unable to log flying hours to his pilot curriculum vitae towards attaining a higher class of license. The bastard was a Second Officer.

Some of the junior DC-8 Captains and First Officers more imbued by the spirit of aviation writer Ernest K. Gann’s band of brother aviators than others (who chose to spit in the face of these ill-conceived regulations) did allow some Second Officers to land and take off the lumbering hulks. The company must have been vexed by some senior second officers who seemed to be forgoing the overseas trips to which they were entitled with higher pay to fly with junior captains domestically for less money. For really junior people like me it didn’t make any difference… I was on flat pay.

I remember my first trip as a Second Officer with Ralph Leek. I wasn’t looking forward to it. He had a reputation with the Second Officers as a cigar chomping, gruff bully with an abusive manner. I had been drafted, as we all had been, on a crappy, freezing rain day in November 1965 to go to Kingston, Jamaica and back. I can’t remember who the First Officer was. Anyway, it was Ralph’s birthday and I rightfully assumed he would be in a bad mood. He grumped about it all the way to Kingston.

On the ground, after I monitored the refueling, I thought I’d go inside the terminal and since I’d never been there before, buy a small, chintzy souvenir to take home. While I was there, I spotted some cigars so I thought, what the heck. As a Second Officer with a wife and three kids, I didn’t have much spare cash, but I’ll buy the boss a cigar for his birthday and try to cheer him up.

When we were all seated in the cockpit, I wished Ralph happy birthday and handed him the cigar. It was a pretty cheap one but he graciously accepted my small gift and after punching the First Officer playfully in the left shoulder, I was happy to be out of punching range, and he bestowed upon the First Officer and me a great big smile.

Climbing out of 10,000 he yelled, “Come on up here, young fella and let’s see if you can fly this thing.”  I guess the First Officer had flown with him before because without question he gave up his seat and off I went.

DC-8 thrust levers
That’s a lot of levers for a “bastardized” pilot.

I hand flew that big DC-8 all the way back to Toronto at 33,000 feet, never relinquishing  control to the autopilot even for a moment. I was in my glory. Then we started down. The freezing rain had stopped and turned to straight rain with a slight cross wind. Approaching 10,000 feet, I started to get antsy.

I thought, “I guess I better get ready to get out of the seat.”

Ralph must have sensed my fussing anxiety. He leaned over and growled in his gravelly voice, “You stay put, young fella.”

I don’t think once during the flight I had looked back to see what the First Officer was doing in my seat. I was too busy having fun so I didn’t look at him now but, in retrospect, I think there was a conspiracy – no an understanding – between him and Ralph. It’s hard to define that kind of relationship where two pilots without saying a word completely understand each other’s thoughts. There was no need for Ralph to discuss with the First Officer that he was going to let me land the DC-8 nor seek a consensus from him for that decision. I didn’t understand it then but it became clear to me later that the First Officer had complete faith in Ralph’s judgement. It didn’t dawn on me until Ralph called for the in range check that I was actually going to land the thing. Anyway I landed it. Not a bad landing I must say and, during the whole episode, gone was Ralph’s gruff hazing as he calmly coached me through it.

It’s funny: once we were on the ground and taxiing in, Ralph reverted seamlessly to his contrived blustering banter as he boomed at the First Officer and me, “Okay you bone heads…let’s play musical chairs.”

That was the day Ralph became my new BFF (Best Friend Forever).

Some people are like badly-wrapped Christmas presents that give no inkling of the gem that might be hidden inside.

14 Comments

  • This mirrors what was happening in the US airline industry. As a B727 Captain with a US Airline in the 1970-80 time period I routinely allowed our “Second Officers” alias Flight Engineers to land and takeoff the aircraft. Most of them did a great job. I’m sure our pilot management knew what was going on but never cracked down or disciplined us for allowing this.

    • Hi Ken: I had no idea the same thing was happening in the states. As it happens as a 727 Captain I allowed some S/O ‘s to fly. Unfortunately a few small minds in our company were not that forgiving. It was the S/O’s duty to fill out the log book which the captain would sign. So while the S/O was flying I’d fill the log out and sign it. I was called into the office because it was noted the log book had been filled out in my handwriting noticed because my child like scrawl was so easily identifiable. I was never disciplined officially but the message was clear. I think I should write another story about the new hybridized crew position needed because aircraft now have ranges exceeding the human body’s need for enough sleep to safely perform it’s duties. The new bastardized crew member is called a relief pilot or as we call them dozers … why … because while they are sleeping they are dozing for dollars. I won’t even suggest the satirical metaphorical fun you could have with the term ” relief pilot”.

      Jim Griifith

    • At some US airlines “seat swapping” as it was called was actually sanctioned by management to help professional Flight Engineers (FEs) make the transition to FO when the time came. Prior to the mid-60’s, FEs at US airlines did not need have piloting backgrounds, many were mechanics that made there way into the cockpit as FEs. But during the mid 60s it became company policy at at least a few major US airlines that FEs now had to be pilots. So the Professional FEs that wanted to get a window seat someday got there necessary pilot ratings and then gained their experience back flying the airliner. Ah, the good old days!

      • Hi George: At Air Canada I can’t remember any captain or F/O actually being disciplined for allowing the S/O to fly. I think the pressure, if indeed there was any, from the company was subtle. I know from my own experience as a 727 captain that a few F/O’s, I’m guessing worried about their own jobs quite rightly I suppose, put pressure on the captains who were known to allow the practice not to do it. In any case I don’t think anybody suffered from it either way. What I do know is the company was a little vexed why senior S/O’s were bidding domestic when they could have held overseas pairings. The reason for that was twofold. First while nearly all the S/O’s at the time I was on the DC-8 were furloughed pilots recently recalled and were on flat salary making less than flight attendants. So why would overseas pairings pay more? Quite simply overseas expense money was better than domestic and in Canada expense money was tax free. Second most of us preferred to fly with the younger captains who were generally easier to get along with. Many of the old Air Canada pilots had some of the O.P. Jones syndrome of the BOAC captains who still thought they were captains of ocean liners … a few were even a bit like the captain on the Titanic. Remember though this is only the way I saw the situation and like every else who is on short final, my memories might be a little bitter-sweet.

        When Navigators became redundant at Air Canada they gave the navigators, many quite old, the option to get a pilot licence which would allow them to fly as S/O’s. Quite a few did and eventually ended up as captains.

  • I had a similar experience although it involved a somewhat smaller airliner. My brother and I were flying as unaccompanied 7 year olds from
    Atlanta to Columbus, GA on a DC-3 in 1958. The stewardess informed us the captain wished to speak with is on the flight deck and we wasted no time getting there, the only other passenger was a grandmotherly lady who seemed pleased by our good fortune. After making our acquaintance the captain ask me if I thought I could fly the airplane, I assured him that I could and was then set on his lap and proceeded to demonstrate my piloting skills as we cruised over the darkened fields and small towns of central Georgia. In retrospect I believe the autopilot may have been engaged although it is certain that it was one of my most enjoyable experiences. Although I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to land it.

    • Back in the heady days before 9/11 at Air Canada flying Viscounts we were tacitly encouraged to allow cockpit visits and we especially enjoyed children. I’ve often wondered how many of those wide eyed kids actually ended up with pilot careers. Here’s one that probably didn’t. In the Viscount the captain’s brain bag with it’s overflow of manuals and the ever present amendments that seemed to gather there sat in a convenient location just aft of the centre pedestal on the floor. My friend Wally invited up some excited children and one precocious youngster walked straight up to pedestal his eyes nearly bulging out of his head whereupon he leaned over and threw up right into Wally’s flight bag filling it with the milkshake, big whopper and chocolate sundae he’d had for lunch. Like the simulator check pilot used to say after a horrendous round of simulated engine fires, hydraulic failures and other sundry emergencies … “okay it’s a new day and a new airplane so lets do a three engine approach or”.

      Same day different airplane and Wally now with without a flight bag. He always liked to impress visitors by pressing the master fire warning. The loud bells and flashing red lights really impressed the customers except on this day only three of the four engine fire lights lit up … the airplane was grounded at the next stop.

  • Very interesting, but I have one question. Why did you put a picture of a B747 classic throttle quadrant when the story was about DC8s?

    • The answer is simple. I didn’t have any photos of my days as an S/O … with an expanding young family on flat pay I couldn’t afford a camera. So thankfully Air Facts supplied the photos including the Air Canada DC-8 taxiing.

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