Written by Doug Taylor   
Let's Get a Few Things Straight...
Whenever I watch a movie that depicts airline pilots in the cockpit, I find it extremely laughable because Hollywood seems to never "get it right". You first clue to the "cluelessness" of Hollywood should be when they show the captain and the first officer, dressed in their jackets wearing their hats with the 1930's headsets adorned over the top.

Well, the reality is, is that no one wears their coats in the cockpit, the hats are stashed away on the hat hooks or in the closet, we use single piece earpieces (Telex 5x5's or Plantronics) or lightweight headseats (Telex 750's), loosens their ties (or just flat out remove them like myself) and start plugging away at the FMS.

Secondly, the "Crew Concept" doesn't exist in Hollywood either. I've seen more movies where the captain is a older gentleman with gray hair and wrinkled eyes barking commands to a eager to please young first officer and flight attendants (not stewardesses, no one has used that word since the Carter administration) that are scared to death during in flight emergencies. That may be the case in rare instances, but let me talk about what actually happens in the aircraft.

What makes a crew?
When we talk about a crew, most people new to aviation think about a pilot and a copilot. Well on a "narrowbody" aircraft like the MD-90, there may be a crew of ten.

"A crew of ten?" you ask? It does seem strange at first glance, but allow me to explain. A crew consists of a captain, a first officer, a non-flying pilot, a flying pilot, three flight attendants (on the MD-90), a dispatcher, a maintenance coordinator and an air traffic controller. Are they all in the same aircraft at once? yes and no. Lets look at the crew:

Crew Member
The captain is the person who has full authority for the safe operation of the aircraft. He has the duty to make the "go/no-go" decision and has 51% of the vote when it comes to all decisions.
First Officer
The first officer is second in the chain of command in the aircraft. He will assist the captain making tough but informed decisions.
Flying Pilot
Can be either the first officer or the captain. This person will set the autopilot, program the flight management system and perform the takeoff, enroute navigation and landing.
Non-Flying Pilot
Can be either the first officer or the captain and is responsible for talking to air traffic control, setting speed, heading and altitude bugs for the flying pilot when the autopilot is not engaged.
Flight Attendants
The primary responsibility is ensuring the safety of the passengers, leading during a passenger evacuation and is a secondly customer service liaison for the company in flight. They are also an important role in abnormal situations - if something doesn't look or sound right, they notify the cockpit with details.
The dispatcher is the person responsible for producing a flight plan with the best routing, watches the weather situation and being there to report unforecast conditions to the flight crew via a radio uplink. The dispatcher has enormous access to on-staff meteorologist, mechanics, air traffic control centers and worldwide operations centers.
Maintenance Coordinator
This is the central mechanic that we'll talk to during a in flight abnormality with the aircraft. She knows all of the aircraft systems, has access to all of the maintenance manuals and can help you correct a problem and find a solution.
Air Traffic Control
The airways would be absolutely chaotic without the help of air traffic control. The have the "big picture" on the radar screen, provide traffic separation, arrival and departure sequences, airport conditions, emergency assistance/coordination and more.

As you see, there may be seven people playing ten roles. Each person, or role is absolutely crucial in the safe operation of every flight. Let's look at an example of an emergency situation where each role will come into play.


Traditionally, the captain and first officers will alternate legs. For example, the captain may fly from JFK to DCA, then the first officer will fly DCA to ATL.

Some special airports require that the captain perform the takeoff or landing. For example, I believe the departure procedure for Boeing 757 pilots at SNA (Orange County, California) requires that the captain perform the takeoff.

The crew in action
You are the captain and it is the first officer's leg to fly the aircraft. Since the first officer is flying, you are the non flying pilot answering radio calls to ATC as the flying pilot (the first officer) is flying the aircraft. The flight attendant calls the cockpit and mentions that there is a strange odor in the back of the aircraft.

You, as captain, make a mental note of the information and tell the flight attendant to keep you notified if the odor continues or gets any worse. Suddenly, you receive the audible "FIRE RIGHT ENGINE, FIRE RIGHT ENGINE, FIRE RIGHT ENGINE" alert from the aural warning system.

You silence the warning and announce the situation as per procedure and tell the first officer/flying pilot to handle communication with air traffic control as you begin the procedure in the "Engine Fire/Engine Failure Checklist" and direct the first officer to declare an emergency.

After following the procedures and confirming each switch movement with the first officer, the fire indication ceases and the checklist indicates that you may have a bleed air leak from your engine which is only a problem at high power settings. As captain, you begin a discussion with your first officer about your options. Do we shut the engine down and operate single-engine? Do we leave the engine running at a safe low power setting having extra power available if needed?

You both decide that you're going to call your flight's dispatcher and maintenance coordinator to discuss the situation. The maintenance coordinator suggests that you should shut down the engine and divert to the nearest suitable airport. The dispatcher, who is always listening when you talk to the maintenance coordinator suggests that the nearest suitable airport may be Albuquerque, NM which has clear skies, favorable winds and a crash/fire/rescue response team standing by. The maintenance coordinator would also like you to make a full stop, straight ahead on the runway in order to the crash/fire/rescue response team to make a visual inspection of the aircraft to look for any signs of impending danger.

You discuss this with your first officer and you both agree that a diversion into Albuquerque is the best alternative and then the dispatcher will uplink a revised flight plan, fuel burn information and current weather data to the cockpit printer (yes, we have printers!). As captain, you'll notify the flight attendants of the situation, including the diversion and whether or not evacuation will be necessary, but to review the procedures with the other two flight attendants in case the situation worsens. You tell the flight attendant that your command will be, "This is the Captain. Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate!" if the situation worsens.

Important Quote:
"Flight attendants are here to save your butt, not kiss it."

At this point, the flight crew will notify ATC of their intentions of diverting to Albuquerque, NM and begin discussing the arrival, approach and special considerations which will be faced on landing. Dispatch will contact ATC through the hotline and discuss the situation with your flight as well, including any special needs.

Air traffic controls clears the aispace, gives you clearance for a visual approach and clears you to land.

After a successful landing, crash/fire/rescue notifies you that you have a fire brewing on the right side of the aircraft. At this point, you'll configure the aircraft for evacuation, make the command clearly and loudly over the PA system and run a quick evacuation checklist. Everything should go fairly smoothly because everyone is "in the loop" by knowing the what the situation is, what your plans are and what to expect.

That is basically how the crew concept works in an abnormal situation. Your job, as a crew member, is to use all of the resources you have available to make the best, most appropriate decision. You crew arrangement may consist of pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and flight attendants and it's your duty to your passengers and family to use all of the tools you have at your disposal to safely operate the aircraft.