airline pilots
7 min read

During the last days of 2018, a Learjet 31A was being repositioned from England to Portugal. The airplane was being flown by a captain, acting as pilot flying in the left seat, and a first officer, pilot monitoring in the right seat. Although the FO was more experienced both on the type and as an ATPL, in this operator he was in the right seat, probably because he was less senior at the company (which is not unusual). Two passengers, also employees of the aeromedical operator, were in the back.

The captain, almost a decade older, asked the first officer during the descent if he agreed with doing a barrel roll, which, as per a written statement later released by the FO to the investigators, he did not agree with. Because there were no voice recordings, it is impossible to tell, but the fact is that the roll occurred, over Algarve around 11-13,000 feet. How did it all came to light? By a routine reading of the FDR (flight data recorder) afterwards.

Learjet roll graphic

Not a normal flight in a Learjet.

Since there is no information without persuasion, I’ll give another one away: the PIC did indeed have aerobatic training, although that did not prevent him from stressing the Lear with 2.46Gs while exiting the 10-second maneuver, as you can read yourself on the Bundesstelle für Flugunfalluntersuchung, or, to make it easier, German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation final report. Needless to say, as soon as the operator found out about it, both pilots lost their jobs. And here, our reflections on it start.

The German Bureau itself reminds us of a similar event, also in Europe, where both pilots were killed when they could not exit the roll maneuver in a Citation as they got disoriented. Simply put: it is illegal to do so, and you may well not be able to do it correctly. So… why even trying?

But the focus today is on the right seat guy. What was his role in it?

Well, the operator of the Learjet event states very clearly in its manuals that the co-pilot is responsible for assisting the commander with inputs on correct procedures, just to start with—and these are typical responsibilities of an SIC throughout the industry. Now, how sad is it that you, as a first officer, are actually required to do so? I mean, with the routine stuff, with a doubt that may show up, of course. That is a primary role of a second in command: to give the best information to the first in command so he or she can make the best decisions. But when it comes to violations, isn’t it frustrating, to say the least? Wasn’t this person on your left given the ultimate role in the crew because they could tell wrong from right better than you, probably?

Well, it’s not that simple… anyone honest enough understands how much luck is involved in this: an upgrade has merit, of course, but with a seniority-based system, it often has more to do with being in the right place at the right time. If your company is growing, you grow with it. If it is not, you don’t, no matter how many requirements you meet.

Therefore, let’s switch sides for a bit: in many cases, a captain—either on private or 135/121 operation–is having the first leadership job of his career. Therefore, if the operator does not train him or her on leadership, they end up completely depending on… I don’t know, the values that they brought from home? Things they have observed as second in command when they were not captains yet? If you read Ernest K. Gann and the early days of airline operations, that was pretty much the way it happened, with something worse: multicrew was also not an old concept itself, and many of those first captains had spent the beginning of their careers flying alone. No surprise CRM (crew resources management) was completely alien to them.

Almost a century later, that problem should have been solved, and in several instances it has been. But the 800 lb. gorilla is still on the sidestep of the room. And that is one of the excuses for the multi-pilot license (MPL), a concept that is questionable in many aspects, but directly addresses the essential flaw of the traditional pilot formation path: we are trained, from the start, to be PICs, not to work in a team. But, as you remove this factor with the MPL, then you have a high risk of creating a pilot who was only designed to be a SIC–and this is controversial by nature. Any second in command must be ready to become PIC instantly, as that is the essence of the very existence of that position on the flight deck.

A practical way of solving part of it is with the multicrew courses, the likes of which FAA requires nowadays for you to become an ATP. Obviously, even before, most of the operators were doing a decent job converting lonely wolves into team workers. But the gorilla reminds us of the animal side of it: ego.

airline pilots

You don’t have to be friends, but you do have to work together.

The saying goes, “if you want to know someone, give them power.” It is amazing what people can do–or become–once you empower them. And if they are not prepared to deal with it, they will eventually freak out. So, it becomes the task of the poor guy on the right to bring Caroline back to the light, without having hierarchy by his or her side. In the swamps of regulations and operator’s manuals (and even more, culture), the second in command has to do the best to keep the operation safe. But although “co-pilot” is an awful term that is usually very imprecise for those not close to the matter, it is a fact that captains, as pilot monitoring, also have major struggles with how far they must go. And much more: how early should they act to prevent something weird from happening? So, the road goes both ways.

Having said that, itis essential that the pilot in command be open minded: if his colleague is questioning something, it is worth giving it a second thought. As PMs we often see threats before the PF. If you are seated in the jump seat–and that is why examiners and safety pilots do so–then you see even more. Be open, be suspicious, show and exercise the will to learn. That is valid for any pilot, in any position, as our very survival depends on the excellence of our duty. As a co-pilot, second in command, or pilot monitoring, get to know your tools: specially the intervention model. Ask, suggest, direct, take over. Usually, in a high quality culture environment, ask or suggest are more than enough. Unless, of course, the problem is more time critical. That’s when we use direct or—and this is a very hard one to do because you have to be super sure of what you are doing—take over.

Being a co-pilot is an art, and the techniques we develop along the years (even decades) we spend in the right seat nowadays help to preserve our careers and lives. But there is a clear limit to it. As much as we have to learn still—and will, until the day we retire—we depend on our captains to understand they are not above the laws of men or physics.

We have been studying and perfecting for decades the relationship between the pilots and themselves, between them and cabin crew, ATC, mechanics, etc… looking at the past, enhancing our practices for the future. And the balance is a hard one to find. After all, hierarchy is essential for aviation to work: there is no democracy in it, and the PIC is alone in making the decision. But as a commander, you must remember: you are not alone in the consequences of the decision you make.

Enderson Rafael
Latest posts by Enderson Rafael (see all)
11 replies
  1. John Ward
    John Ward says:

    It’s 60 years (horror) since I did aerobat training, however I do remember that a properly executed barrel roll is a 1G manoeuvre. (I doubt many of mine were!)
    So this was a fumble as well as ill considered??

    • Chris Barker
      Chris Barker says:

      I suppose if you got the nose high enough on the first part the second part could remain at 1g. But the barrel roll is a deceptively risky manoeuvre: I have several colleagues who have either died or have come very close to doing so. I watched a Eurofighter pilot at the Royal International Air Tattoo almost write off himself and a very expensive aircraft, but a friend who went through training with me in the Royal Air Force did kill himself while demonstrating a Hawk at the Bratislava air show in 1999. It wasn’t strictly a barrel roll but I believe it turned into one. The danger comes when you turn the exit manoeuvre into a looping rather continuing the roll – easy to do if you get disorientated – for which you don’t have the height to recover safely. I’ve taught barrel rolls in light aircraft for nearly twenty years and, even up at 5,000ft, I’ve seen a tyro let the nose get too low and feel quite worried. You have to be very careful . . . and that’s in an aerobatic aircraft, not a biz jet!

      • Chris Barker
        Chris Barker says:

        The Eurofighter at Fairford:
        At 1:31 . . .

        This was not long after I had watched a Royal Navy Historic Flight Firefly crash near Duxford carrying out a barrel roll – not enough speed, not enough power to balance the lack of speed and the nose got too low.

    • Carson Wagner
      Carson Wagner says:

      I wonder if he kept it in the roll recovery too long? I’m not sure. Just a student pilot. The closest I’ve come to aerobatic is stall recovery.

  2. Charlie C
    Charlie C says:

    I have always taken the view that the person in the RHS is equally qualified to operate the aeroplane and as such has a right to be heard. He or She may have less experience ( not always as this case demonstrates) but nonetheless gets a vote.

  3. JR
    JR says:

    “So, it becomes the task of the poor guy on the right to bring Caroline back to the light, without having hierarchy by his or her side.”

    “…bring Caroline back to the light…”

    Huh?! I understand what you’re trying to say, but your reference is way too obscure for me.

  4. Paul Schulten
    Paul Schulten says:

    Shoot I remember as a freight dog in the Lear 24 it was abnormal to NOT do an aileron roll descending through 10,000’! If I remember correctly it was pretty much a non-event. You just pitched up about 10 degrees approaching 10,000’, full aileron for about 4 seconds, the nose would be just about on the horizon after the roll, couple blips of up trim, your now doing 250 knots and keep descending. Yawn. I guess it was a different era.

  5. Carson Wagner
    Carson Wagner says:

    Wow. If I were the FO in the Learjet 31A I would have physically overpowered the captain if he tried to execute the barrel roll.
    What about the people in the back? Wouldn’t they have noticed the barrel roll? And if they did, what were their statements?

  6. Carson Wagner
    Carson Wagner says:

    I also don’t agree with the way airlines work. I think that they should rank you as Captain or F/O based on experience and flight time. Lots of incidents like that one with the Lear being re-positioned would have been avoided if that FO with more flight time had been in the left seat.


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