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Moving to two-crew

Learning the flight deck division of labor

By Rob Mark

Pilots earn their certificates once they truly understand the magic of how an aircraft flies, whether they’re flying on instruments, towing banners, flying multiengine or turbine aircraft, or even helicopters or seaplanes.

Aerial photography of AOPA Editor at Large, Tom Horne, flying Thierry Pouille's Cessna Mustang off the coast of California between Monterey and San Francisco.
Zoomed image
Aerial photography of AOPA Editor at Large, Tom Horne, flying Thierry Pouille's Cessna Mustang off the coast of California between Monterey and San Francisco.San Francisco BaySan Francisco CA USA

Understanding that magic is what transforms once land-bound folks into real aviators, men and women who understand that real pilots in command keep the airplane, their resources, and the safety of their passengers or cargo in balance all the time, especially when things go south unexpectedly. If only a pilot had a little help now and again.

The idea of another pilot in the cockpit sounded interesting to me when I was hand-flying a Piper Navajo Chieftain around mostly by myself.

Then my flying life began to change.

After completing a couple of classroom training sessions and a few bumps and jumps to meet FAR 61.55, I was invited to fly right seat in a Cessna Citation II part-time for a small Chicago company. The other guy did most of the flying while I worked the radios and kept track of our position using an endless stream of accordion-folded paper en route charts. We never really discussed my actual duties except to say they included whatever the guy in the left seat needed. Things ran pretty much the same as in the Navajo, except when I did get to fly, I noticed everything happened much faster. But I had help when I needed it. What more could a pilot ask for?

This experience was enough to eventually catapult me into a full-time right-seat job in another Citation II flying on-demand charter. This time I rode with someone from the flight standards district office to make it all legal, but again, I knew my job was to support the PIC.

When I logged about 300 hours in the right seat, the chief pilot said it was time to upgrade, which meant a 10-day trip to FlightSafety in Toledo, Ohio, to earn my first type rating. Since I was the only company applicant at the time, I headed to Toledo alone. But I felt comfortable flying the Citation from the right seat. I figured flying from the left would be like the musical chairs I’d experienced when I earned my CFI and learned to fly from the right seat. Besides, I’d already flown a full-motion simulator…once. Still, I was nervous. What if I busted the ride? How could I ever show my face back at the airport? Anxiety-generating too was the midnight to 3 a.m. training slot at FSI. I’ve never been a middle of the night guy, despite the on-demand charter world usually dragging me out of bed at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. for a trip.

Because the Citation required two pilots and I’d arrived alone, FlightSafety assigned another pilot to act as my right seater for the duration of my training. He turned out to be Jerry, an experienced Citation PIC attending for his recurrent training. During our first simulator session, I sat right seat for an hour for Jerry. The next hour was my turn to hop into the captain’s chair. It felt strange at first, but also right somehow, even if my left-seat perspective of the cockpit was a bit different from what I’d been used to.

“You’re not managing your resources very well. I’m not here to sightsee. One day you’ll get busy enough that you simply can’t handle it all yourself.” 

The first hour I flew PIC for a two-engine takeoff followed by some air work to make me comfy with speeds and power settings. It was a snap. I was always in control. I shot an ILS in about 800-2 and landed. After a debrief, Jerry and I headed back to our various hotels for some shut-eye. I was so jazzed, though, I remember seeing 5:00 on the digital alarm before my own eyeballs went out for the night.

The next night training was a bit more involved. It reduced my anxiety a bit to watch Jerry breeze through his first hour of system failures and emergencies. Then it was my turn again. The first takeoff was into low IMC, but I easily felt the simulator yaw right. “Aha. Engine failure,” I called. I pitched for the proper speed, retracted the gear and then the flaps at the right altitude, finally calling for the engine failure checklist. As Jerry pulled it out, I looked over at the Citation’s famous floating tabs engine instruments and identified the right one as the powerless engine. I pulled the power lever back to cutoff and we continued around the pattern for a full stop single-engine ILS. Jerry commented, “Nice work. You’d hardly know I was even here.”

Each sim session became a little more complicated with compound failures and ever-worsening weather. I managed to keep the airplane flying well enough, but it wasn’t pretty. During one debrief, the instructor suggested I use my co-pilot and the automation more. Jerry’s eyes seemed to agree.

“Did I do something wrong?” I asked.

“Not technically wrong,” Jerry answered, “but you’re not managing your resources very well. I’m not here to sightsee. One day you’ll get busy enough that you simply can’t handle it all yourself.”

Our instructor chimed in too. “Passing the checkride isn’t only about performing the maneuvers to standards. It’s about figuring out how to convince the person in the right seat to work with you as part of a team.”

Jerry picked up. “If an engine catches fire after rotation, you don’t need to handle the entire emergency alone. Fly the airplane first. Tell me to run the checklist and I will. Tell me what you’re planning to do so you keep me in the loop. The co-pilot can’t be much help if they don’t understand your plans.” The light bulb finally came on for me. I wasn’t in the Navajo by myself any longer. After the big chat, my training performance seemed to improve each day. I was still a little nervous, but I finally passed my checkride one morning about 2 a.m. Before leaving Toledo, I told my two new training buddies how much I appreciated what they’d taught me. Jerry patted me on the back. “We’re all here to learn, not just pass a checkride. You’ll get better like we all do.” The Citation II was my first type rating, but it wasn’t my last.

Rob Mark is an aviation journalist and the publisher of


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