Attention Media: Copilots are Pilots



UPDATE: February 4, 2015

I don’t know what caused the TransAsia Airways ATR turboprop to crash earlier today — an accident caught spectacularly and horrifically on video. Early reports suggest an engine failure that was improperly handled by the crew. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that CNN didn’t read my original blog post, below. The emails I sent them on this topic also went unheeded.

In the network’s coverage of the TransAsia accident, reporters Euwan McKirdy and Vivian Kam wrote: “The plane’s pilot and two co-pilots were among those confirmed dead, authorities said.”

On and on it goes. This wouldn’t be bothering so much if I hadn’t just been complaining about it only a few days ago:


ORIGINAL POST: January 30, 2015

I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE. How many times can the media, whether it’s a print reporter or a celebrity newscaster, make the same mistake? And why aren’t the supposed experts, often right there on camera with these people, putting them straight?

What I’m talking about is the characterization of the copilot. This has been a topic du jour since earlier this week, when it was revealed that the copilot of AirAsia flight 8501 had been at the controls when the Airbus A320 was lost, and then on Thursday when the captain of a Delta flight was locked out of the cockpit, requiring the copilot to land the plane in Las Vegas.

Good god, a copilot at the controls! The media apparently has no idea this is perfectly normal.

“Is that a problem?” CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked expert Dave Soucie the other night, in a discussion of the AirAsia crash. Soucie’s half-baked answer did nothing to sway the accepted notion that a copilot is something less than a “real” pilot and thus not entitled to actually fly an airplane.

I’ve harped on this before. It’s in my book. I wrote about it numerous times in my columns at Salon, and in earlier posts on this site. That nobody is getting the message is a testament either to my own lack of reach or to stubbornness on the part of journalists. Maybe it’s both. Either way, allow me to cut and paste:

Dear Anderson, et al:

There are always at least two pilots in a jetliner cockpit — a captain and first officer — and both of these individuals are fully qualified to operate the aircraft.

The first officer is known colloquially as the copilot. But a copilot is not an apprentice. He or she shares flying duties with the captain more or less equally. The captain is officially in charge, and earns a larger paycheck to accompany that responsibility, but both individuals fly the aircraft. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, in pretty much all weather conditions, and both are part of the decision-making process.

In fact, while protocols might be slightly different carrier to carrier, it’s not unusual during emergencies or other abnormal situations for the captain to delegate hands-on flying duties to the copilot, so that the captain can concentrate on communications, troubleshooting, coordinating the checklists, etc.

Do I seem sensitive about this? That’s because I’m a copilot.



And a copilot becomes a captain not by virtue of skill or experience, but rather when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants to become a captain right away. Airline seniority bidding is a complicated thing, and a pilot can often have a more comfortable quality of life — salary, aircraft assignment, schedule and choice of destinations — as a senior copilot than as a junior captain. Thus, at a given airline, there are plenty of copilots who are older and more experienced than many captains.

Now, in some areas of the world, including parts of Asia, the experience disparity between captains and copilots tends to be more pronounced, and the typical new-hire copilot has considerably less experience than his counterpart would in America. The captain of AirAsia 8501 had ten times as many flight hours as the first officer, who even after working for three years at AirAsia had logged less than 2,500 hours total. In America that would be unheard of; the average new-hire at a major airline has around 6,000 hours and often many more. In the AirAsia copilot’s defense, the raw totals in one’s logbook are only part of the story and aren’t necessarily representative of skill or talent. Airline training is never easy, and any pilot, no matter his or her background, needs to be good to succeed at that level. Still, it’s not surprising for people to wonder why such a comparatively inexperienced person would have been flying the plane during violent weather. Maybe, when this is all said and done, the correct question isn’t “Why was the copilot flying the plane?,” but rather “Why are such low-time pilots in these cockpits to begin with?” That’s a different conversation altogether. And it remains to be seen if either pilot’s actions had anything to do with the accident.

It can vary country to country, but captains usually wear four stripes on their sleeves and epaulets, and copilots wear three.

On older planes there was a third cockpit station occupied by the second officer, also known as the flight engineer. (I spent four years as a flight engineer on a cargo jet in the mid-1990s.) Once upon a time planes also carried navigators, but the last known navigator in these parts was the old Howard Borden character from the original “Bob Newhart Show.”

Long-haul flights carry augmented crews that work in shifts. There might be two copilots and a captain, two captains and a copilot, or two captains and two copilots. It varies airline to airline and with the length of flight. For example, at my airline, a ten-hour flight will carry three pilots: two copilots and a captain. Each crew member will have roughly one-third of the flight free. He or she retires to a bunk room or designated crew rest seat, while the other two remain up front.

In most conversations the term “co-” implies equal. With cockpits though, the presumption is of something less. I’m not sure exactly from where this stems. The cockpit cultures of years past probably have something to do with it. In the decades prior the advent of “cockpit resource management” and all that, the cockpit hierarchy was very rigid and the captain’s authority went unchallenged. Copilots were expected to be subservient and were seldom treated as equals by imperious captains. This culture has not entirely disappeared in some parts of the world.

Reporters’ frequent use of the term “the pilot” is another part of the problem. “The pilot” did this, “the pilot” said that. Well, which pilot exactly? Use of the singular implies that the other person in the cockpit is something other than, and presumably less than, an actual pilot. I’m not sure if reporters have a style guide for these things, but this is nothing a simple “s” can’t fix: “the pilots.” Alternately, one could say “the cockpit crew.” If a differentiation in rank is needed, I’d recommend using the terms “captain” and “first officer.” Just be aware that either pilot may be at the controls during a particular incident.


Epaulets photo by the author.


For more about pilot training, lifestyle and culture, see chapter four in the new book.


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94 Responses to “Attention Media: Copilots are Pilots”
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  1. David B King says:

    I thought that every plane had an air marshall on board. If an air marshall was on board every airline, either hired by FAA or airline, they should have ability to override cockpit door lock. In fact one anonymous air marshall would have the ability to enter cockpit in case of emergency. This would solve situations where one of pilots or crew decides to go rogue. An air marshall should carry a personal Oxygen kit as well. He or she could be the only way to save a crash any case of air pressure loss.

  2. Roger M says:

    I have to say that if Patrick wants any credibility over his stance over the use of the term ‘co-pilot’ then he should now and decease in using the term in his reports. If you want to be taken seriously then stop referring to yourself as a ‘co-pilot’ and stop using the term in your reports. How can you ask the media to take the matter seriously when you don’t. Refer to yourself and forever now as ‘First Officer’ and i am sure the media will follow.

  3. Eirik says:

    Fabricate, exaggerate and manipulate.

    Welcome to the modern media.

  4. Lou says:

    As a commercial pilot flying light planes for 25 years and working as a FAA Certified Flight Instructor, I have met many First Officers that are great pilots and yes they were type rated to fly the same aircraft as the Captain in the left seat.The First Officer could in fact be the Pilot In Command otherwise known as the PIC.Give credit where credits due.

  5. Todd says:

    Despite having been a pilot for almost 30 years, my mom still asks me if I actually get to land the plane, since I’m just the “co-pilot”.

  6. oblivia says:

    You make the point yourself in the article that aviation specialists (let’s not call them “experts”) often fail to pick up on this. I don’t know why, but what more can a journalist do than bring in someone knowledgeable and ask them questions? If they don’t answer appropriately, it’s hardly the journalist’s fault. Why don’t you beat up on the idiot “expert” who doesn’t know his own subject?

    People expect journalists to have insider knowledge on every single subject they report on—which for TV news in particular comprises pretty much every subject in the world. Then some smartass who’s done nothing else but fly planes for 20 years comes along and points out that Anderson Cooper isn’t an aviation insider. Now imagine that something similar happens with every single subject he covers. Do you want to know how much he cares?

    And yes, I’m a journalist. I write about technical financial products. I know my stuff, but there’s always someone willing to point out some tiny inaccuracy—because, y’know, everyone likes to beat up on journalists and accuse us of manipulating the truth, lying through our teeth, being dumbasses and whatever. You learn very early on to ignore it, because it’s relentless. We report to our editor, not to every troll on the internet. Most of us get paid a LOT less than pilots, work longer hours, get zero respect and endless abuse. Would we prefer to be 100% accurate? Of course. Would we like another hour to work on the story before subjecting it to the scrutiny of every asshole in the world? Youbetcha. Are you gonna pay for it? Not a chance in the world.

    You get the news you pay for—and you smartasses want to pay nothing, so… guess what happens?

  7. Tod Davis says:

    I was once on a flight between Canberra and Adelaide. The captain during his pre flight speech introduced the crew including the first officer, he then went on to say that the first officer would be the one doing the flying on that leg. I did a quick glance around to see if any ignorant people suddenly looked nervous.
    But back to the Air Asia and Trans asia incidents, is it worth looking at the rapid expansion of air travel in Asia and how that could potentially lower standards?

  8. A says:

    In a first officer’s training, the trainees for first officer are trained to fly the aircraft and do everything, that’s why they’re not copilots, they’re pilots too.

  9. nicholas Robinson says:

    I know this may not be the right place, but since Patrick hasn’t said anything about the Taiwan crash (and why should he) I just wanted to say that my heart goes out to the pilots on that plane. It seems the F/O was the PF and the engine auto-feathered, which could have been anything. But they apparently got a MastCaution light plus the flameout warning and were trying to fly by the book.

    I think it’s highly credible that the pilots deliberately kept the plane aloft as long as possible so it wouldn’t hit those apartment buildings.

    Which unfortunately didn’t happen in the El Al Amsterdam crash, but that’s another story.

  10. Gene says:

    Another article that gets it right, of course I wouldn’t expect anything less and they aren’t MSM.

    Engine 2 failed and then the crew shut down Engine 1.

  11. Eirik says:

    Asian airlines have lost 1002 lives in 10 accidents since April 2013.
    A majority of all commercial accidents in this period, carrying 30 or more passengers, include Asian airlines. Growing too fast? Or just coincidence?

    • Richard says:

      Are you including the Malaysia Airlines shoot-down in those numbers? If so, almost 300 can be removed from that total because they really can’t be held accountable for that one.

      Regardless, although the recent amount might seem high (less than 2 years is very difficult to draw any conclusions from because the overall number of crashes is so low), you would expect the majority of crashes to be in the regions where the majority of traffic is. (For the very simple reason that if the number of crashes per passenger journey is the same throughout the world, the region with the most passenger journey will clearly have the most crashes).

      • Richard says:

        Apologies, I misread your comment – I thought you were saying that the majority of traffic was in Asia (because of the growth), not the majority of accidents.

  12. Guy Hamilton says:

    I sympathize with your distress. However, in my far too long experience, whilst there are some sensible, educated and competent journalsits, many of them are far from it. I was at university in the early seventies and I was around when various campus disturbances took place. Since graduation I have worked all over the world on major projects, some of which got a lot of press. And in all that time I have rarely read a news story about a subject of a which I had some personal knowledge which did not have some error of fact in it. Often the whole article was completely wrong but almost always there was a, sometimes trivial often not, error of fact or terminology. This includes my student days and my working days. It isn’t only pilots whose world they don’t understand. They understand very little of anything.
    Have you noticed, for example, that every armoured vehicle is a ‘tank’. ‘Russian tanks roll into …’ reads the caption of a photograph showing armoured personnel carriers, armoured cars, self-propelled guns, etc. But not one tank. ‘Palestinian runs amok with bulldozer,’ reads another caption under a picture of a front loader.
    They refer to Titanic as a ‘cruise ship’ when it was a liner. There were no cruise ships in 1912 but these kids don’t know that. And, in my own field, they show a picture of an industrial plant on a bitterly cold day and highlight the ‘pollution’ coming out of the stacks. Clearly it’s water vapour, visible only because it’s condensing in the cold air. This is not an accident. It’s deliberate deception. Or they show a nuclear power station and imply that the clouds of moisture coming out of the cooling towers are radioactive. They’re not. They’re nothing but water. Again, deliberate. I respect and admire some journos and value their reporting. But the fact is that many, dare I say most, are venal and incompetent hacks who don’t know and won’t be told by those who do. I’m with you on this one.

  13. seashell says:

    As I was reading the article, I knew Patrick was going to rightfully lose it. From now on, whenever print media writes something stupid, I’m going to correct it in the comments. It’s a small thing, but something.

  14. Petra Bergfelt says:

    Wonderful article. This has been bothering me for soooo long. Your way of describing this issue is great. Thanks.
    Petra, a former copilot, nowadays a real pilot 🙂

  15. Jim Dollan says:

    One thing seems to be forgotten is the sensationalism which journalists of all media try to inject into all of their stories. “The Copilot was flying the aircraft when it flew into the mountain” sounds so much more dramatic than just simply reporting that the aircraft crashed in the mountains, and of course it adds a subtle element of probable cause, and therefor blame, by implication. If journalists were half as well trained as ‘Copilots’ then there would not be half as much crap in our daily newspaper. A fully properly trained and EXPERIENCED reporter would know that all copilots are fully trained Pilots anyway. Personally I believe that the word ‘Copilot’ is a journalistic term for’ First Officer’ which is in my opinion the correct title for the 2nd in command on the flight deck.

  16. Lou says:

    Outstanding post as always. I think the mistake you are making is that CNN as well as the other 24 hour news cycle channels, and even network news for that matter, is at all interested in presenting the facts. Ever since the news industry became a profit center, sensationalism and fear rule the day. Instead of putting these accidents in perspective, they frighten viewers with misleading and speculative commentary to keep people watching, likely with the goal of selling the crap offered during commercial breaks. A simple search yesterday revealed (to me) that the ATR 72 is a very safe aircraft responsible for under 500 deaths in various accidents (including yesterday’s) since introduced in the 1980s. Compare that statistic with deaths on interstate highways over the same time period. Of course listening to the talking heads, you might come away thinking the plane was put together with white glue and paper clips. One would assume that if “co pilots” were apprentices, with far less experience then captains, there would be far more accidents. Thanks for continuing to set us all straight on how the airline industry works.

  17. RIchie C says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve been complaining about the media’s portrayal of First Officers for many years. Personally I hate teh term ‘co-pilot’ as it begun to give a an impression to the public as being less than a pilot. None of us trained to be c co-pilot. We’re ALL pilots.

  18. Eirik says:

    On CNN they were talking about the possibility to land that plane on the river, just like Flight 1549 in the Hudson. But to me it looks like the plane was already out of control, and even if they did manage to get clear of the bridge, the way that plane “behaved” there would have been no chance to make a controlled landing. Much less keep it afloat.
    At least “Sully” and Skiles were able to control when, where and how, to a certain degree. These guys just fell from the sky.

    • Patrick says:

      Are they out of their minds? Did they not see the video?

      • Rod says:

        I too initially thought of a badly handled engine failure just after take-off and assumed the crash site was very close to the airport. But apparently it isn’t that close. And from what I can see of the longer version of the video, the airplane was sinking fast but wings level. Now the BBC is saying that both engines “lost power”. So maybe it’s fuel contamination. And maybe the final roll was to avoid the buildings visible in the video.
        Those poor guys.

        • Eirik says:

          Latest news (I think) was that one engine had problems, and to make it even worse, they turned off the healthy engine and totally lost power.
          Its happened before, but I still wonder how that is possible.
          First thing that comes to mind is an extremely stressful situation, but anyway, the instruments should tell them which engine that has problem, so how can they turn off the wrong one?

          • Rod says:

            I don’t know. Yes, it has happened before, notably the British Midlands 737 that crashed in 1989. Even looking at it coolly after the fact, one can see how it happened, and the cockpit crew, who survived, were fired for screwing things up. I believe they defended themselves on the basis of inadequate training on that aircraft type.

            I think Patrick has flown the ATR72 (didn’t he say this in his ‘topless FO’ story?). No doubt there are ways on that airplane of getting confused about which engine is under-performing and why, and then Doing the Deed. Though Patrick probably doesn’t want this comment space to degenerate into an accident-discussion thread.

            Possibly it isn’t such a great idea to turn your attention inwards just after take-off and start pulling levers and whatnot, rather than Flying the Airplane until it’s safe to figure things out.

  19. Michael Rasmussen says:

    Oh my gawd! The cohost welcomed me to the party!
    Put it in terms they can relate to. Or at least understand.

  20. Alex says:

    A horrible accident, but The Washington Post did get it right: “…the two pilots, both men, have been identified as Liao Jianzong and Liu Zizhong. A third trainee pilot was identified as Hong Binzhong.”

  21. Johannes says:

    I don’t know where you fly, but in the real world a 2500 hour pilot is hardly a low-experience pilot…

    • Patrick says:

      Well, it depends if you’re referring to a private pilot or to an airline pilot. It also depends on the quality of those hours. In what aircraft types, and in what environments, were the hours accrued?

      For the record, and for what it’s worth, when I was hired by my first regional carrier back in 1990, to fly a non-pressurized 15-seater, there were about 20 of us in the new-hire class. We were mostly in our early and mid-20s. The AVERAGE number of hours we had was around 1,500. I had about 1,600 total, if I remember right, with an brand-new ATP certificate, and I was borderline for a new-hire candidate at many regionals at the time. That’s how it used to be. Those were the norms. It is only very recently that the regional airlines began hiring pilots with totals substantially lower than that. And like I said, at the majors in the U.S. you can expect the typical new-hire to have at least 5,000 hours.

      Now, that’s for civilian-trained pilots. On average (though not always) pilots coming from the military have less.

  22. yahya says:

    i think the copilot should called co-captain. because some people assume the copilot is a trainee pilot.

  23. nicholas Robinson says:


    It’s like pushing a ball of sand uphill. You will never win this battle. It;s become so ingrained in our culture that you could never escape this stereotype for 1.000 years.

    Who do you have to thank/blame? How about Charlton Heston and Dean Martin, among others? They, and the perpetrators of almost any airplane movie since Oscar Wright first took wing (he was the little-known cousin of the Wright Brothers) and plunged to his death in an attempt to be the first man to fly using a six-by-four loaded with lead ingots off the cliffs of Dover) have always made the co-pilot/copilot to be the apprentice in the cabin. Good god, man, just look at the latest travesty — a movie made by a pilot, no less — “Flight” — in which the copilot is a bible-thumping lunatic with a chip on his shoulder — and you will see what you’re up against.

    I know you have squared shoulders with such august company such as Richard Quest and Mary Schiavo on CNN, but it truly appears that solemn gazes and dignified pronouncements notwithstanding, NO ONE has ever had the temerity to actually address this fact in any manner other than perhaps a one-off for Trivial Pursuit entitled “What is a co-pilot’s role in the cockpit of an airliner?”

    You might as well be asking “What does an atom look like?” for all the good it will do.

    Just for the record, *I* know what a First Officer does. He flies the plane when the pilot has a heart attack.

  24. Sebastiaan says:

    Can I point out, Patrick, the irony in reading the URL above this article?

  25. Stephen Finney says:

    A wise instructor at Flight Safety I am told use to make this
    quote : “Log books don’t cushion crashes!” Very constructive in this
    conversation ( from a long suffering first officer…me)

  26. Betsey Sanpere says:

    Hello Patrick:

    Perhaps your next book should be “Media Guide to Aviation and Aerospace.” Then, consider organizing a conference or workshop for members of the media at a national meeting such as at AAAE or ACI or at a separate venue. Finally, please encourage reporters that when they report on an aviation incident, it is not necessary to do their “stand-up” in front of the local airport – a facility not related at all to what happened. I truly believe that most reporters have a set script and simply fill in the blanks with airline name.

    • Rod says:

      As someone pointed out above, the commercial media get more money by scaring the bejeezus out of people than they do by supplying the facts.
      I think it would be water off a duck’s back.

  27. Allan L. says:

    So, let’s summarize: the co-pilot (a colloquial term) is less experienced than the captain, has less seniority, and is the captain’s subordinate. It is the job of the media to suppress these facts. Have I got it right?

    • Patrick says:

      So, let’s re-summarize: How carefully did you read this article? The co-pilot is NOT necessarily less experienced than the captain, and does NOT always have less seniority. And no it is NOT the media’s job to suppress any facts. It’s the media’s job to portray things accurately and realistically. Portraying a copilot as a novice or apprentice, who is subservient to the captain and who doesn’t actually fly the airplane, is neither. Does the copilot have the same licenses and training qualifications as the captain? Yes. Does the copilot takeoff, land, and fly the airplane as often as the captain? Yes. Does the copilot share in the decision-making process? Yes. I rest my case.

      • Richard says:

        Wasn’t one of the contributory factors to the Tenerife disaster that the Captain used to be seen as being superior to the rest of the flight crew – and that that was one of the specific things that changed as a result of the disaster? (My point being that in the current era, the crew are much more level in terms of responsibility and decision making)

      • TJ says:

        Ah, but does the FO share responsibility of the flight and all that entails with the Captain? You say, “…he’s in charge…”. I’d say, “…he’s responsible…” You are absolutely correct in all other aspects of your reportage, but seem blind to who has ultimate responsibility in the cockpit.

        You (and many of the other comment writers in this thread) are also correct that if you have specialized knowledge, you’ll be in constant wonder at what the media gets wrong. I’ve been a practicing mechanical engineer since 1988 and have recently cancelled the local newspaper for failure to give a sh*t about technical facts.

  28. Jim Griffith says:

    Great piece…liked your comment on second officers…here’s my version:

    Back in the day when props were changing to jets The Canadian Ministry of Transport in collusion with Air Canada and Canadian Pacific Airlines in an effort to save training costs for the airlines and at the same time nip a law suit in the bud from the pilot’s union contemplated creating a newly required third crew position on the huge DC-8’s coming on line. The McDonnell Douglas Corporation had designed the plane to operate with a flight engineer, was so licensed and operated that way in the USA as well as practically every other country globally. 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. The person occupying the third sideways facing seat would be a licensed pilot but only partially trained and as such his pilot licence 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 10,000feet on the climb and would have to relinquish the controls on descent at 10,000feet…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 licence. 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. Ghan’s band of aviator brothers than others chose to spit in the face of these ill-conceived regulations and 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.

  29. Gkane says:

    I note Howard Borden became a co-pilot in the series.

  30. Francois Legrand says:

    I am a retired European airline captain. I fully agree with your article, Patrick. A few comments anyway. We all know that the FAA and the american airline companies have other rules as far as the first officers experience concerns. Why does a first officer need 6000 hours (on what kind of planes???) to get a seat in an airline cockpit?? Here in Europe, most big airlines have their own flying schools, where young people are trained according to strict EASA (former JAA) rules, supplemented by still more strict company rules. As soon as they have their professional licence and the type rating, with the “frozen” ATPL theory, they are in the right seat, supervised by an assisting first officer on the jumpseat. This system is used since so many years, and the efficiency has been proved by extremely good safety records for the European airline industry. I refer to Lufthansa, British, Sabena, Air Lingus, KLM, Luxair, Air France, SAS, and so many others. What the Asian companies concerns: since I have a family member flying for an asian national airline as first officer, I understand that young “unexperienced” expat first officers with 1000 hours on type are much safer than their local “experienced” captains.

    • Rod says:

      The relationship between captain and FO in a Confucian culture has caused a lot of ink to flow in the last couple of decades following accidents prior to which the FO had mildly expressed misgivings but had been slapped down and then not dared say anything more.
      Perhaps having a mix of cultures (combined with clear emphasis by the company on healthy “crew resource management”) is no bad thing.

    • Capt Sudhir says:

      I expected this coming,(this “superiority complex” you guys seem to have vis -a vis Asian vs European pilots) and from the sound of all the chatter coming out it is utter bullshit.(name me one study done by any scientist or reputable University that has proven this)

      If you do not have the sense to be able tell cultural diffence from Skil, Knowledge and Attitude, I wonder what your Decisoin making ability was based on? Professionalism? puleaseez. Some of your so called senior European pilots cannot perform in many of the difficult terrain and weather conditions out here, so they turn around to start labeling the local guys as unsafe. Then they start bringing in low time guys from Europe to fly in this challenging conditions (Werent’t all of the Pilots in the Susi Air (Indonesia) accidents Europeans..low time to boot?).

      How would it sound if I were to make this observation; “Since the Air France accident also involved a French low time pilot and this Air Asia Accident also involved a low time French Pilot, the French pilots are not up to the mark!” You would say ridiculous right?

      As we all now know, each accident has it’s unique chain of events that leads to “All the Holes lining up in that swiss cheese”.. so let us be objective in making observations.

      Subjective opinions of journalists are fed by idiotic statements from people in our own industry, whether active or retarded err I meant retired.

      • Capt Airbus says:

        @ Capt Sudhir, it’s statitics, not science. There’s good pilots everywhere and we all know that. But when you say “Some of your so called senior European pilots cannot perform in many of the difficult terrain and weather conditions out here…” you’re acting exactly the same as what you’re complaining about. You know, we have challenging weather/terrain here too and we fly in Indonesia too, planes fly everywhere… But I agree with you, some comments may be false and disrespectful sometimes and it’s not acceptable. That being said, statistics are showing a very bad safety record for some regions such as Africa, Russia and Indonesia and terrain/weather are not the only explanation. Oh! And yes…copilots are real pilots too. And I have confidence in them every time I have to leave my seat for whatever reason. I just don’t leave my seat if I know there’s tunderstorms ahead in the forecast.

        • Rod says:

          In the old, piston-powered days, the situation in the West was very bad indeed — the captain could be as tyrannical as he pleased and the FO was a passive labour-saving device for the captain. Hence the following:

          I am the copilot. I sit on the right.
          It’s up to me to be quick and bright;
          I never talk back for I have regrets,
          But I have to remember what the Captain forgets.

          I make out the Flight Plan and study the weather,
          Pull up the gear, stand by to feather;
          Make out the mail forms and do the reporting,
          And fly the old crate while the Captain is courting.

          I take the readings, adjust the power,
          Put on the heaters when we’re in a shower;
          Tell him where we are on the darkest night,
          And do all the bookwork without any light.

          I call for my Captain and buy him cokes;
          I always laugh at his corny jokes,
          And once in awhile when his landings are rusty
          I always come through with, “By gosh it’s gusty!”

          All in all I’m a general stooge,
          As I sit on the right of the man I call “Scrooge”;
          I guess you think that is past understanding,
          But maybe some day he will give me a landing.

          — Keith Murray

  31. Muhammad Wahab says:

    Well explained…it should clear any doubts for the Media…fly safely

  32. Royce says:

    If I may add, the prefix in “copilot” means equal. If he is inferior, he should have been called “subpilot”.

    • Rod says:

      Fair point. But technical semantics aside, what counts is what people actually understand when they hear or see the term.

  33. Eirik says:

    Patrick, I have a question, although a little on the side. And perhaps you dont feel like answering, but anyway;

    Have you ever been in a situation where you guys in the cockpit were facing a real challenge which, if not handled correctly, could have caused a disaster? I mean, did you really have to work hard to avoid a potential crash?

    I do know you guys work hard every day to get us all in one piece to our destination, so dont take this the wrong way.

    And the second part of that question; did the passengers even know? Or did they just sit there, enjoying their wine and movies and thinking the flight was smooth and awesome?

    Thats the only thing, if anything, that bothers me when flying. I dont really know whats going on up front 🙂 And I guess the passengers would be the last to know if something was going south. I mean, why cause drama in the cabin if you can avoid it. And by the time they would find out, I guess it would be time for prayers anyway…

  34. Michael says:

    Glad(not really) to see another career field enjoying the medias interpretation and explaining how you should do your job. Being in Law Enforcement field I see all the time how the media twists things to make stories more dramatic(especially lately) and really have no clue what they are talking about. I’m also a recreational pilot so I completely understand your frustration on multiple levels.

  35. Jeff Izo says:

    I agree. Maybe not so much on the major level, now a days on the regional level you have some FOs with more flight experience then the Captain. Truthfully flight hours shouldn’t be what measures experience in my opinion. One should look at what has been done with those hours. In currency and present day skill a pilot who flies 6 legs a day with six takeoff approaches and landings is probably a lot more sharp compared to a pilot who flies four overseas trips per month. Yet the long haul guy will fly more hours. And Yes the news media and general public are a bunch of idiots when it comes to aviation. Turboprops verses jets is another prime example. I have a Dash 8 type. Flew C130s in the Air Force and have an E175 type as well. The E Jet is about 5 times easier to fly then the other two aircraft. But the 175 is a jet….so it must be harder to fly.

  36. Roger Wolff says:

    Hey Patrick,

    Here is an article that gets it right:
    One of the pilots locked himself out of the cockpit, the other pilot landed the plane.

  37. ERJ175Captain says:

    This ignorance by the media is intentional, since they makes money by scaring people.

  38. Gwailoh says:

    If they can’t understand the copilot concept after this long imagine the media accuracy when reporting on something as new and confusing as remotely piloted aircraft. Hint: it’s vanishingly small. Keep fighting that good fight though.

  39. Kevin B says:

    I have a quick co-pilot story from my father, who was a WW2 pilot, co-pilot and eventually a captain with Eastern. Flying out of Atlanta back in 1975 in an L-1011 with a full load in hot weather headed for San Juan, he had an uncontained engine failure at takeoff. In simpler terms the engine exploded, the plane buffeted like crazy and the tower told him there was 100 feet of flames coming out the back. The co-pilot was flying, he turned to him and said, well we’ve both practiced this many times, perform the engine out drill, turn around and land. I’ll handle the communications with ATC. And he did, with the exact same skill as my father would have!

    Here’s to the co-pilot!

    • Aviator says:

      Excellent comment ! Some times the F/O was a Captain for a previous job but just for seniority rules now is a new F/O in a new airlines. I agree with you the F/O is ready to handle any kind of emergency.

  40. Paul Walcott says:

    In the case of the Delta pilot who was locked out of the cockpit forcing the First Officer to land the plane alone, would you please comment on this:
    While the First Officer is a fully qualified pilot, how much more difficult is it for one pilot rather than two to land a big plane, simply because there are a lot of things to be done in a landing cycle?
    Could you get to the point where any single pilot has problems simply because he or she doesn’t have enough hands?

    • Patrick says:

      A good question. So much of what goes on in a cockpit is procedural and, for lack of a better term, choreographed. Finding yourself alone during an approach and landing would definitely throw off your normal routine. The pace will be different. You’ll be busier and it’ll be somewhat more challenging. But not dramatically so. Unless something strange were to happen, like some major malfunction or emergency, there’s little danger.

    • Chris says:

      Along with what Patrick said, you need to also remember that all of our training up until the airlines is done as single pilot. This includes aircraft with retractable gear (sometimes hand cranking or pumping the gear down), throttles, prop levers, flaps, etc. So the first officer in the Delta incident just needed to revert back to his original training (however many decades ago) and it adds very little difficulty in the normal scheme of things that it was an airliner.

  41. Matthew Carrick says:

    As soon as the story broke I knew you would be up in arms. Get ’em Patrick!

  42. Rod says:

    I too saw this rant coming. But why say “I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE”? Because you’re going to have to take it — again and again.
    If you have a little (or a lot of) expertise in any given area, you’ll notice that the media repeatedly get their facts wrong when writing about that subject. Reason tells you to extrapolate and realize that you’re not getting a whole lot of reliability from the major outlets on any subject at all.

  43. JuliaZ says:

    WOW. I think the Guardian actually gets almost all of the nuances just right:

    Also, their very last sentnce echoes something that you say quite often. Did they lift it from you? 🙂

    The one phrase I question is, “leaving the junior pilot to fly the jet manually in delicate high altitude conditions”. I actually don’t have a problem with “junior pilot” here because not only was he a pilot, but he WAS in fact quite junior to the captain, and it’s probably relevant in this accident. No, my issue is with the word “delicate”.

    Anyway, it’s like they read the chapter in your book and tried hard to get it right. They deserve credit for that.

  44. Aviator says:

    Excellent point! My concern is with all the new regulation for the pilots and the requirements out of this world . Why the airlines still pay F/O as a simple pilot, all of them are professionals with ATP Rated! with more than 1,500 hours of flight time.

  45. John says:

    It seems that the media does have it’s misconceptions that they are reluctant to let go of. Glitz it up, even at the expense of the truth. The medias motto is, “there is no news in the truth, and no truth in the news”.

  46. Richard says:

    I really don’t think much about the media. They seem to think
    they know everything about all things. My son spent 4 years
    at a well known College for its aviation training. It was no
    kindergarten school. So, before you start talking about
    Something you don’t know nothing about.. Read some books
    And get the correct information.

    • Highflyer says:

      While congrats on the 4 years in college, exactly how much total flight time and/ or time on type did he have? There used to be a minimum flight time qualification before the airlines would even look at hiring (5000 hours), however due to pilot shortage these minimums have been greatly lowered. Also, notice there are no pilot shortages in USA, CANADA, UK, GERMANY!! We have well trained competent pilots. Now look where there are shortages……the Far East, Asia, Middle East, China, Korea, Malaysia etc. all lack of qualifed people and the ones coming out of the military have very little flight time and almost zero crew resource management training. Put that together with an airplane/manufacturer that relies more heavily on computers rather than pilot experience and hands on flying and you have a recipe for disaster. I know – 36 years/ 15,000 hours and eight type ratings. The pilots graduating today with 250 hours and a bare instrument rating have not had time to learn Basic airmanship and decision making.

  47. Yo Moer says:

    The media and many people can’t get into their head the fact that the prefix co- in copilot means together or in equal position. Same when referring to cofounder, coowner, etc

    • Patrick says:

      That’s a good point. In most conversations “co-” means equal. With pilots, for some reason, it insinuates something less. I’ve added in a couple of paragraphs explaining where this likely stems from.

      • Todd says:

        We need to start saying, “who’s the anchorman? Nope sorry there’s only one. The rest are interns.”

        The media are idiots. Lambs leading the sheep

  48. Dick Waitt says:

    In an extreme emergency, could you, as a passenger on that Hong Kong to Amsterdam flight have assisted the flight crew or actually flown the aircraft? This is presuming that you were qualified on the aircraft and had the necessary certificates or license?

    • qmc says:

      Sure. Flight attendants and private pilots have been known to assist in the past, usually picking up Pilot Monitoring duties wrt comms, checklists, etc.

  49. bode says:

    I must admit whenever I read Patrick’s rants about this I think pilot flying (PF) and pilot not flying (PNF) would be a lot better. I guess that would confuse everyone more? Certainly it works for the NTSB accident reports.

  50. Roger says:

    It is worth mentioning (again) how messed up the financials are for pilots. Training is expensive (around $100k) and no one will hire you until you have sufficient hours. Then your pay is determined by a seniority list, starting with a pitiful amount.

    It has now got to the point where some airlines even let pilots pay to fly the airline. This is insane. There was some talk on PPrune about Air Asia being a pay to fly airline, and hence the copilot possibly being in that situation.

    Here is a (5 year old) discussion on PPrune about the practise:

  51. Tod Davis says:

    As soon as i saw a related article on (which i sent to you) i knew that this post would be coming from you.
    Keep up the good work with holding the media to account

  52. Speed says:

    Every airplane has two pilots, a Captain and a First Officer. Now we need to get that information into the AP stylebook.

  53. Good points, as always, Patrick. I remember the two of us talking about this a while back. This really IS one of your pet peeves. But the AirAsia issue IS NOT about the LABEL of the person controlling the aircraft. The issue REALLY IS about experience. The copilot had 20 TIMES fewer flying hours than the pilot. That forces everyone to ask a legitimate question: Why was a vastly less experienced person flying the plane during bad weather? Was that a responsible decision for the captain to make? No one can ever know the answer to that question with any certainty. What do you think? Thanks for letting me weigh in! Best wishes, Thom

    • Mat says:

      Hi Thom

      “Why was a vastly less experienced person flying the plane during bad weather?”

      While I wouldn’t argue that the FO in this incident had less total flying hours than the Captain, it would be incorrect to classify him as inexperienced. Assuming he was hired after completed a European Integrated course that would have given him about 2000 hrs flying the A320. This isn’t long haul flying like the AF447 crew, this is short haul, multi-sector days with considerably a lot more exposure to take offs and landings. And in an area (South East Asia) where the weather is hardly benign at any time of the year. While he wouldn’t be at an experience level to take an airline command yet, it would be incorrect to class him as a inexperienced fool fresh out of flight school.
      As for why he was flying during bad weather, weather related limits for first officers are only applicable during take off and landing (at airline at least). Ie a slighty reduced max crosswind limit and limits and slightly higher approach minima limits, but not by much. During the enroute phase there are no weather limits and like I said previously by the time a pilot has a few years experience flying in the local area they should have a good idea about local weather patterns and avoidance techniques.

      Was that a responsible decision for the captain to make?
      It’s not like a Captain is a passenger putting his life solely in the hands of his FO. If the Captain, Pilot Monitoring in this case, is not happy with the direction an FO is flying the aircraft whilst penetrating an area of weather (like through a strong red return on the radar) they won’t allow it. As well if an FO is unhappy with the course of action a Captain is taking they will speak up, it’s called good Crew Resource Management.

    • Sili says:

      It doesn’t make any sense to focus on proportions like that without context. If, for instance, the captain was near retirement, it makes sense that he had an awful lot of flight hours. Or would you prefer to always put two equally (in)experienced pilots in the cockpit?

  54. Dan Ullman says:

    Yet another for your collection:

    One curious aspect:
    “Because the first officer was accustomed to the controls on the right seat of the cockpit, he remained there, the crew explained to passengers. That meant the only issue was a lack of taxiing controls once on the ground, necessitating a tow from the runway to the gate, Dougherty said. ”

    I assumed he remained in the right seat because there wasn’t a reason to shift. However, why can you not taxi from the right seat?

    • Patrick says:

      A lot of commercial planes (though not all of them), have a ground steering tiller only on one side — normally the left. There is always LIMITED steering available from either side, using the rudder pedals, which connect to the nose gear as well as to the rudder, but you need the tiller for tighter turns and close-in maneuvering.

      • Tim says:

        I don’t see why he couldn’t have swapped seats after he landed instead of calling for a tow. If a mechanic can taxi from the left seat I think a copilot probably can, too.

        • Vince says:

          Tim, it’s not nearly that simple:

          1. If he is locked by himself in the cockpit, there is no one at the controls to guard the brakes if the airplane were to start rolling while he switched seats…this is remarkably unsafe, even with the parking brake set.
          2. If he had never taxied an airplane of that size or with a tiller (ground steering wheel), he would do so at risk to his certificate (license) for engaging in an operation he is not trained to do and for which no emergency need exists.
          3. Mechanics receive formal training to taxi the airplane from the left seat. First Officers do not.

  55. Gene says:

    Saw the reports about “OMG! The copilot was flying the plane!!!11!!” and knew this was coming.


  56. BostonMike says:

    Well stated, Patrick.
    It’s about time for a Boeing versus Airbus discussion as well as the maintenance of basic airmanship skills.
    Stay warm and don’t shovel too much snow.