Twos Company

A second pilot on board can be a help or a hindrance. Take a page from the airlines book when flying with a crowded cockpit


About the only chance I get to fly solo anymore is in a single-seat glider. Usually Im flying with another pilot in the other seat and, quite honestly, thats the way I like it. In fact, these days it feels very strange to fly without another pilot in the cockpit.

There are many advantages to having a two-pilot crew. The most important facet is the second set of eyes and ears to catch errors and help lower the workload. The second pilot can find approach plates when the approach clearance gets changed to a different runway at the last minute. Theres an extra set of hands to tune the radios, another brain to point out if the aircraft is getting slow on final approach or approaching too fast or descending below minimums.

A second pilot can offer alternative solutions that arent so obvious to the person flying the airplane. He or she can point out mistakes that seem obvious to everyone except the person making them. When two pilots coordinate their actions through good cockpit resource management, actions flow like a well-oiled machine. Its also fun to fly with other pilots who also love flying.

Flying with another pilot in the cockpit can have some disadvantages as well, though. I flew for five years with an organization that had no formalized cockpit procedures. We had 10 pilots in the unit, and I never knew what the other pilot was going to do.

One pilot in this unit reported he was concentrating on events outside the cockpit when he noticed the other pilot pulling back the fuel levers, nearly to the point of shutting off the fuel to the engines, while they were flying over very rugged mountains.

The copilot was under the impression that pulling back on the fuel levers would lean out the turboprop engines. The copilot apparently didnt understand that the fuel lever was simply an on/off lever.

On another occasion, the same copilot had turned off the avionics, unbeknownst to the captain. The aircraft was in IMC at the time, in mountainous terrain. This was definitely not an area to have a self-induced loss of communication event with ATC.

Most of the inconveniences involved in flying with these two-pilot crews stemmed from the fact that there were no well-established procedures for which pilot assumed which responsibilities. Having to keep an eye on the other pilot constantly to see what they are up to is a huge distraction that can add significantly to the workload.

Multi-pilot jet transports have such well-developed cockpit procedures that, during the pushback and engine start, each pilot knows exactly what the other flight crew members should be monitoring, what controls they should move. Everything is rehearsed, including what call-outs they should say and which instruments they should watch at which juncture.

During initial training for Part 121 operations, weeks of intense study are filled with memorizing and rehearsing these flows until they become almost second nature.

In this kind of an environment, you can put a crew of pilots together who have never met each other before and they will flow smoothly through the various procedures in the flight.

In general aviation aircraft, however, there are no such procedures. Multiple pilots can result in a hodgepodge of activity in which no one is sure what anyone else is doing or what tasks are being left undone. You are on your own to establish your own procedures for interacting with the other pilot during flight.

Flying With Friends
When you fly with a friend who is a pilot, there are a number of topics that need to be covered before the flight begins so there are no misunderstandings in the air.

First, it must be established who is pilot in command. By custom, that tends to be the pilot in the left seat of an airplane, but complications can arise when the right-seater has more training, advanced certificates or a CFI certificate.

The responsibilities and limitations need to be ironed out before you fly. You need to clearly establish who is the ultimate decision-maker on the aircraft and who will assume the legal authority of pilot-in-command.

In addition, the crew should set clear ground rules for what the second pilot will do and what he or she will be allowed to touch.

This became painfully clear to me once while flying with a longtime friend. Our flying days dated back to our time together in the military. The sky was just murky enough that I decided to go ahead and use the ILS.

While being vectored for the approach, the controls suddenly seemed stiffer, the nose pitched over and the airspeed was dropping. I couldnt figure out why this was happening. The aircraft was behaving in a manner that was totally unpredictable.

After a bit of consternation – including wondering if I had some kind of flight control problem with the airplane – I discovered the flaps were in the approach setting. It was a potent reminder of the need to clearly establish what controls the second pilot is allowed to touch and agree upon the coordination and communication required before the nonflying pilot moves any controls.

Its rather common for the pilot in command to handle the flying tasks while the second pilot handles the radio duties, including communications as well as tuning and identifying navaids. The nonflying pilot might also read the checklists while the flying pilot accomplishes the items.

The non-flying pilot should avoid anything other than making the frequency changes with the radios unless the matter is discussed ahead of time and agreed on with the PIC.

The second pilot can call out the checklist items, and verify that the pilot in command did indeed position the switch to the correct position. But dont move any switches without communicating this information to the PIC. Now it doesnt matter too much if the second pilot opens an air vent, but other items in the cockpit should be left alone unless the PIC consents.

The second pilot needs to be aware of the operating conditions just as if there were only one pilot aboard – such as not calling out checklist items while ATC is giving clearances. Sometimes it is tricky trying to get a checklist done without being interrupted by ATC because of the party line concept of ATC communications.

Many pilots like to listen to ATCs communications with other aircraft because it allows them to get a handle on traffic flow, where other airplanes are located, what approaches are in use, what the weather conditions are, and a multitude of other important bits of information.

One way to minimize those kinds of distractions is to accomplish as much of the before landing checklist as possible outside of the airport traffic pattern.

There are other call-outs the pilot not flying can make to help out the pilot flying. An air carriers operating procedures contain a complete script of required call-outs that flight crews must follow with precision. General aviation typically has no such script, and when flying informally with multiple pilots on board those pilots must agree on what call-outs are appropriate and helpful.

In this respect, GA pilots can borrow a few pages from air carrier operations.

The Airline Way
The industry standard for crewed jet transports is to bring up the engines to takeoff power, which the pilot not flying verifies. The pilot flying releases the brakes to begin the takeoff roll, while the pilot not flying monitors the engine instruments for abnormalities and flight instruments for proper operation.

Simple call-outs such as two good engines are common at some air carriers, while other air carriers take the silent cockpit approach and trying to keep call-outs to a minimum during this high-workload phase.

At the very least, the pilot not flying should verify that engine parameters are in the green and that the instruments are reading correct trends. In the event of any abnormality, the pilot not flying should point this out.

Pointing out anomalies can get tricky, however. Do you annunciate a problem or a solution? Do you say oil pressure low or abort takeoff?

Because takeoff is such a critical operation, the two pilots should brief ahead of time that any problems below a certain speed will be an automatic reason for an abort. Aborting at 10 knots is rarely going to do much damage to an aircraft, but as the aircrafts speed increases, the chances of blowing a tire or losing directional control rise considerably.

High-speed aborts are generally shunned unless the failure is so catastrophic that getting airborne risks imminent danger. Its often safer to take an aircraft into the air and solve the problem away from the ground than attempt a high-speed abort. The pilots clearly need to brief these situations before taking to the air.

One exception to this is in a single-engine aircraft or a loaded light twin that shows indications of impending engine trouble. In cases such as those, continuing takeoff could spell disaster because of the uncertainty that youll be able to get back to the airport. Sometimes it might be worth risking a high speed abort if other elements dont play in your favor.

During approaches, a second pilot is worth his weight in avgas. It helps considerably when the pilot not flying calls out the altitudes, such as 200 feet to go. During an instrument approach, it clearly helps for the second pilot to obtain the ATIS as soon as possible so the appropriate approach plates can be pulled out and briefed, and the nav aids tuned.

Helpful Hints
It also helps to have the pilot not flying call out when the course deviation indicator begins to move. Its a simple course is alive call-out. As the glide slope tickles to life, the pilot not flying can call out glide slopes alive. It is also handy to call out altitudes to go to minimums, such as 500 to minimums and 100 to minimums.

Real-world approaches down to minimums require good pilot coordination. If the weather is really low, consider having the pilot flying remain strictly on the instruments while the pilot not flying looks outside for the runway environment and calls out the altitudes.

If you break out of the clouds to find yourself in a crab during a crosswind or on an NDB or other non-precision approach, its very possible you wont find the runway straight off the nose of the aircraft. The pilot not flying can keep a visual scan outside the aircraft and, upon spotting the airport, state, runway, one o clock.

Up until this point, the pilot flying should have maintained full concentration on the aircraft instruments. Once the pilot flying goes visual, then it would be wise for the pilot not flying to shift his scan inside the cockpit and continue to monitor the instruments, particularly the airspeed and sink rate.

Now lets say the pilot not flying notices the airspeed getting too slow. It might be best for the pilot not flying to call this out. Try to be specific, such as five knots slow. The pilot flying should acknowledge this deviation verbally and should make a correction.

If the correction is too mild or non-existent, it is important to call out the deviation again. If the pilot flying still does not make a correction, it might be time for the pilot not flying to assume aircraft control and take the safest course of action.

This is called the two command rule, which some air carriers have adopted. This rule stems from several unfortunate accidents in which captains suffered from subtle physiological incapacitation and the copilots did not assume control of the aircraft.

In general, a cockpit companion in a general aviation airplane is probably a friend, and you may feel a bit hindered from issuing corrections for fear of offending them or bringing out an adverse reaction. If you are sitting in the right seat and the pilot flying is doing something that raises your eyebrows, you have to decide if this is simply a difference in technique or if it will have a safety consequence.

Differences in technique can be discussed at the diner after landing, but decisions, procedures and aircraft deviations that could have safety consequences need to be pointed out on the spot.

There are a couple methods you can use that depend on the situation. Time allowing, you can try, Im uncomfortable with the fuel situation. If the winds increase or the runway is closed because of a gear-up landing, Im afraid we would be caught without a fuel reserve and without the ability to divert. It will only cost us 30 minutes to divert and get fuel. Thats nothing compared to what itll take if we run out of gas.

Remember, your job is to get the aircraft safely on the ground. Dont be afraid to bring up the pilots errors.

There have been many times when another pilot in the cockpit has caught one of my mistakes or brought up a different way to solve a dilemma. It doesnt bother me to be on the receiving end, so it shouldnt bother you to dish it out.

I enjoy the aspect of sharing the flight with someone who loves to fly. While many of these practices are used in jet transport cockpits to ensure the safety of flight, they can also be applied to a general aviation cockpit. Just because you arent flying a Boeing doesnt mean that you cant adopt some of the same professional standards and procedures used by those who do.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “The Sterile Cockpit.”
Click here to view “Cockpit Pairings.”
Click here to view “Tricks and Traps.”

-by Pat Veillette

Pat Veillette is an air carrier pilot and aviation safety researcher.


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