Like Any Other Time, First Officer Lands Airplane Safely
Last Thursday, a MD-90 being operated by Delta Airlines from Minneapolis to Las Vegas arrived at the gate on time. There were no injuries, the landing was smooth and the passengers made it to their favorite casinos and buffets without delay. But a slight irregularity has had the media all worked up.
Part way through the flight, the captain left the flight deck momentarily to use the restroom. This is a normal situation on many flights because pilots, just like any other human being, actually need to relieve themselves from time to time. While this departure from the flight deck is usually very brief, a flight attendant will occupy the cockpit with the remaining pilot until the one with the smaller bladder returns. The pilot and flight attendant then swap places and the flight continues on to its destination.
But during this fateful flight, there was a mechanical irregularity. As the pilot attempted to enter the cockpit again, the crew discovered that the flight deck door was jammed. The door would not open, leaving the captain stranded in the cabin with the 164 and flight attendants on board that flight.
“Oh no!!!!” people cry out. “But the captain isn’t at the wheel, how could they ever land safely? Surly the co-pilot has no idea what to do up there and will inevitably crash into the ground!”
But I assure you, brave reader, this story does have a happy ending. The first officer, otherwise known as a co-pilot, heroically navigated the steel bird to the desert oasis of Las Vegas, NV!
Now all kidding aside, I can understand why the public would have been very concerned when the captain of the airplane was not up in the cockpit during the remainder of the flight. Unfortunately, there is an extreme lack of understanding by the public as to how airlines and their flight crew operate their aircraft. The majority of airline aircraft are technically advanced enough to fly themselves without pilots at all. But the flight crew is needed to monitor the aircraft systems and to react if there is an anomaly or even a rare emergency. Currently NASA is researching and testing the ability of airline aircraft to operate with only one pilot on board.
The purpose of two pilots is that one is the pilot flying while the other monitors. They also work together to monitor and make radio calls as well as other decisions regarding the flight. Most people assume that it is always the captain flying. But on most trips, the first officer and captain usually switch each leg. Both pilots are certified to fly that plane as a captain. They both have the same exact training. The difference is that the actual captain has probably been with that specific airline longer than the first officer and his captain position has been awarded to him only due to his seniority with the company.
As a pilot who spent over 5 years in the right seat of the airplane, I find it offensive when the media portrays the first officer as incompetent pilots who wouldn't be able to land the airplane. Granted, I’m sure the first officer was much busier on this particular flight, doing every checklist by himself. But on that flight, he was a fully capable captain. All airline first officers should still be given the same respect as any captain, because you never know when they’ll have to step in and take over when the other guy locks himself out of the flight deck.