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How to turn a copilot into a captain

Written by: cptn. Vedran Sović.

© Avioradar
cptn. Vedran Sović


“Wait a minute! You told us that the opposite of 'captain' is not 'copilot' but rather 'first officer' and now you are trying to convince us that copilots get promoted to captains? Could this be a case of mixed-up categories?”. This is what my regular readers could remark. They would be right, yet practically aircraft commander is always a captain while first officer place is mostly taken by copilot, so the terms have gained a kind of equivalence in airline jargon. Also, “copilot” has less letters than “first officer”, so, being lazy, I'll keep insisting on the mistake. It makes typing easier.

Open any modern airliner's flight manual on the limitations page and you will find: “minimum crew: 2 qualified pilots”. Based solely on this, airlines should employ the equal numbers of captains and copilots. The ratio is slightly skewed to the captains' side; however. Some captains also serve as instructors or management pilots, so their working hours are split between flying, training and managerial duties but these few extraordinary captains can't move the ratio far from one-to-one.


General idea is that the new pilot gains employment as a copilot and spends approximately half of his career as such. Afterwards he gets to promoted to captain and flies happily till retirement. Such an ideal case occurs quite seldom, only in some quite respectable companies, with long and venerable record. Air transport advances (and retreats) by leaps and bounds. Required pilots numbers are shifting from season to season, even without huge shakes like the current pandemic. Requirements for promotions get changed as the new circumstances require. Couple of weeks difference in employment date can make a couple of years difference in the time spent in right-hand pilot's seat.


Naval heritage is evident all across the aviation, so it's from the navy we inherited the most important criterion in selection of the first officers for promotion; seniority. Seniority refers to time spent with the current airline. No flying experience accrued with other airlines or in other kinds of flying counts for it. People from other walks of life, in which promotions are based on competence, might find this horrible. I couldn't find them at fault if they considered it to stifle excellence and encourage mediocrity. Some objections might be valid, yet Winston Churchill's maxim on democracy is also valid for seniority: “The worst system, except for all the others”. Nice ideas that talented and diligent get promoted are too often in practice perverted into advancement of the most skillful bootlickers. Anyway, the promotion to captain is not automatic when the copilot's number turns up. Whether she spends twenty years in the right hand seat, two years or anything in between, copilot”s performance is constantly evaluated, as well as her potential to one day take over the command over the aeroplane.


I've heard a lot of ideas how and when the copilot should be promoted to captain. No matter how different they were, they had one thing in common: they represented the way it was done in my conversational partner's airline. Some companies or states can prescribe higher minima for accepting first officers for captain upgrade than the current worldwide accepted legal minimum to act as an airliner commander: Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL). ATPL can be issued after the pilot logs more than 1500 hours total flight time, of which 500 need to be on multi-pilot aircraft and 250 hours pilot in command (PiC). For those who went straight to airliners and never flew 250 hours solo in general aviation, some PiC hours can be substituted by “pilot in command under supervision” (PiCUS). During PiCUs flights, copilot flies as usual, from the right-hand seat, and acts as a captain, under the legal captain supervision. E.g. the copilot may make decision about the fuel required, communicate with cabin and operations control centre, etc. If the captain is satisfied with the copilot's performance, at the end of the day he will sign PiCUS flight time in copilot's logbook and this brings copilot closer to the coveted ATPL and left-hand cockpit seat. Last couple of decades, the airline pilots pass the theoretical exams for ATPL while still being in flight school, so after the required hours minima are met, copilots get sent to simulator ATPL checkride. If its successful, the copilots can be legally upgraded to captain rank. So, when do they get sent to upgrade training?


Simple: when the company needs new captains.




For example: one old and venerable company found out to its horror that the great management success in taming the pilot union resulted in the pilot shortage, just as it was expanding. It was no longer the career choice airline and usual decade-and-half or more in the right seat before promotion got considerably shortened. Forced to employ copilots who flew for the other airlines previously and already had their ATPLs with type ratings, it promoted some of them within a year of employment, so a few became captains merely five years after leaving the flight school. While this is quite usual in the low-cost, regional and charter world, it caused quite a few gray eyebrows to rise, when it happened at the legacy carrier. Worst case (for copilots, that is, for me it turned out to be best) is when the company expands so rapidly, it can't afford to promote copilots but is forced to employ the pilots who are already captains (DEC - direct entry captain).


Captain upgrade training is mostly done while flying the regular routes. If the copilot is upgraded on the same type, just a couple of simulator sessions are needed before going to line. Eventually, some landing practice with an empty aeroplane might be required. During training, prospective captain sits on the left, instructor on the right. Flights are performed as usually, the difference being that cruise chit-chat is not about catering quality, that latest Netflix show or what is the expected pay rise. Instructor and trainee discuss the items relevant to captain for airplane's everyday operation, e.g. aeroplane systems, flight planning, emergency procedures etc. When the instructors are satisfied with the progress the copilot-but-not-for-long has made, line check flight gets organized. Experienced copilot goes into RHS, instructor moves into the jumpseat and doesn't interfere with the flight progress. In the end, if the instructor is happy with the flight, our hero gets fourth uniform stripe, bigger pay and greater responsibility.


I guess I have bored you with all the theory, perhaps I might write a word of two what was my captain upgrade like. In a word, it was bizarre. From a decade's distance, I am able to find it somewhat amusing.


First problem I encountered was how to get my ATP license. Somehow, I managed to end up in no-man's country, with Croatia not been quite sure how to make transition between Yugoslav and European rules. European method is the one I've described, now about that used by Croatia in the first decade of its independence. All theory needed to be re-done, exams included. After theoretical part, ATPL candidate would fly 250 hours from the left hand seat, instructor in the right. Airlines would usually be content with their copilots having only commercial pilot license, until upgrade time, so ATPL training would practically become captain upgrade course. Occasional unlucky pilot would return to right-hand seat after gaining his ATPL but not for long. Just a quick check would turn him into captain. This route, beside being arduous and using a lot of instructor time, got closed.


The big question happened to be compatibility of the theoretical courses I took in college with the JAA (Joint aviation authorities – EU aviation authority that preceded EASA) requirements. Croatian aviation authorities, with characteristic wisdom, concluded that something is slightly amiss. Solution was to either give full credit or to require the candidate to attend some lectures and pass three exams, dependent on flight hours. I found myself about 200 hours below the line. To make the matters worse, specific cut-off date was specified, so I could not simply fly for another 200 hours and then get my ATPL. On the top of it, my company officials made clear they considered our licenses to be our private matter. So, I went through the European differences course, at my own expense, during my vacation, with the group of the first officers from our (in a way) competitors.


Soon, my company offered me an opportunity to become the captain of the mighty turboprop, DHC-8 400, the (in)famous Dash. My first reaction was: “I'll think about that”. It was a bit less than two years since I'd moved away from the props and life on the Airbus 320 was far more comfortable than on turboprop ATR that preceded it. Also, as A320 first officer, I was far more valuable on the pilots' market than I would be as Q400 captain. Upgrade bond was horrifying; penalty amount was eye-watering, there were no penalty reductions with time, I needed to sign somewhat shady contract, attach signed blank promissory note to it and find two guarantors, who would pay off my debt if I decided to slip away. Company's response? “Please don't consider our offer too long. You might be waiting quite long time for the next opportunity”. I thought about all the shenanigans my colleagues needed to cope with to get upgraded, took a deep breath, suppressed the gag reflex and signed on the dotted line.


As I changed types with upgrade, I needed to pass complete type rating. Ground school and simulator training were done in Toronto, near Bombardier's Downswiev plant. Had no problem with that, I even found working with foreign instructors less stressful than with some of my compatriots. Got back to Croatia. Performed six landings, in rapid succession, without passengers. Passed line training. Got my fourth stripe – literally. Instead of getting captain's jacket, I was issued just the golden cloth stripe and the address of the tailor that can sew it on, to convert my three striped jacket to four striped one. I started flying from the left hand seat, signing the aeroplane's technical log book and now i was allowed to (and had to) taxi.


I resigned myself to the fact I'll be a turboprop captain for quite a while. At the time, I didn't realize what a blessing in disguise what election of one pretty wild character into my union's executive board. Sent to negotiate collective labour agreement with company, he underperformed, to put it mildly. Twice during his tenure, negotiations broke down and that lead to strikes. One of the concessions we managed to get by striking was the reduction of compulsory stay after the command upgrade, from five to three years, which was quite a stroke of luck for me. As I completed my fourth year as a Q400 captain, certain low cost carrier started accepting direct entry captains on Boeing 737 NG. Type currently flown did not matter, as long as it was heavier than 27 tons. So I applied. Got invited for the entry check – theory, simulator check, board interview. Passed. Next three months were spent in my second captain training.



Seven years later, I'm still flying for the same company. CoViD-19 crisis hit us hard, so currently I'm flying a bit less than third of my usual hours, for about third of my usual pay.

However, I do consider myself very lucky to still have a flying job... or job at all.


Toodle – pip!