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Airliner Cockpit Crews: Who's Flying the Plane, and How Safe are They?

written by: BuckJamesk•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 5/18/2011

This article describes the modern crew of a standard airline operation in the domestic United States. Positions, titles, experience, and duties are discussed as well as airline policy on non-crewmembers in the cockpit. The safety of airline cockpit crews is also covered, with regards to post-9/11.

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    The Classic Cockpit

    Many people are familiar with the classic scene of a young boy or girl being allowed to visit the cockpit of a massive airliner. A silver-haired, smiling captain would greet the young man or woman at the cockpit door with a cup of coffee in his hand, as the first officer (or co-pilot) carefully guided the jumbo-jet between islands of puffy, white cumulus clouds. After a friendly guided tour of the cockpit, the child would be returned to his or her seat with a fresh pair of golden wings pinned to their shirt.

    Who is qualified to be in the cockpit of such a technological marvel? In the modern age of heightened airport and aircraft security, who is allowed into the cockpit of an airliner? What safety measures keep the aircraft cockpit crews safe? Airline cockpit crews are made up of highly skilled, highly trained professionals, who each serve a specific and integral purpose on board the aircraft. This article highlights the current crew positions in a modern commercial airliners, as well as the security measures in place to keep the skies safe.

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    Modern Crewmembers

    Modern airline cockpit crews in the United States consist of a captain and a first officer. The captain is the senior pilot, having (in most cases) more experience with the aircraft being flown. All airlines are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to test those pilots who wish to become captains, ensuring that they have the skills, knowledge, and confidence with their particular aircraft to safely conduct flights with passengers on board. The captain is regarded as the “pilot in command" on the aircraft, and is the individual directly responsible for the safety and operation of his or her aircraft. This does not mean the captain is always the person flying – at most domestic U.S. airlines, the captain and first officer take turns flying the aircraft while the other pilot performs other duties such as radio communications and navigational computer programming. All the decisions made during a flight are made by the captain, and in the event of a problem or emergency, the captain will take over flying the aircraft. Pilots must train for years and gain thousands of hours of flight experience, as well as memorizing huge amounts of information to be qualified to be the captain of an airliner.

    The pilot sitting in the right seat of the aircraft is the first officer. The first officer is in most cases a less-experienced pilot. The first officer has important duties to perform just like the captain, and also provides a second pair of eyes to ensure the safety of the flight. The first officer aids the captain by flying the aircraft at times, and communicating with air traffic control. In return, the first officer benefits by learning from the experienced captain, and can quickly gain the knowledge and experience necessary to “upgrade" to captain. First officers have their own set of procedures and checklists to memorize, so that they may work with the captain as a team. The first officer has his or her own set of instruments and controls in front of their seat, to provide redundancy and safety for the passengers.

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    The Flight Engineer: Human Computer

    A prominent member of the cockpit crew that is no longer utilized is the flight engineer. Before the current era of computerized aviation, the flight engineer was a vital component of an airline cockpit crew. This position is no longer used except in rare cases, when older aircraft are being operated. In the era before airliner systems were heavily computer-controlled, a trained individual had to be on board to monitor fuel, aircraft weight, engine temperatures, and other vital systems while the captain and first officer took care of flying the aircraft. The flight engineer sat behind the captain and first officer, and had a large bank of controls and switches with which he or she would manipulate the various systems on the airliner. On modern airliners, the flight engineer has been replaced by the introduction of advanced flight management computers.

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    Who is Allowed to be in the Cockpit?

    Each airline sets its own rules regarding who is allowed to be inside the cockpit. These rules must be studied and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration before an airline is even allowed to begin selling tickets. At some airlines, off-duty pilots or flight attendants are allowed to ride in a small foldout seat in the cockpit called a “jumpseat". At other airlines, no person is allowed to enter other than airline cockpit crews essential for the flight. Only individuals that are explicitly allowed by an airline’s policy may be inside an airliner’s cockpit, and in most cases, only pilots for that airline will be allowed to pass through the cockpit door. The captain is given some amount of discretion at a few airlines, and on rare occasions will allow a curious passenger to view the cockpit - but never in flight. If you are seeking a cockpit tour of your favorite airliner, it is best to ask the captain politely as you de-plane.

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    Airline Cockpit Safety

    Cockpit safety has been a prominent issue after the events of September 11, 2001. Before the terrorist attacks on the United States, many aircraft cockpits were nearly “open to the public", and curious passengers could visit – sometimes even during flight. Some regional aircraft did not even have doors separating the cockpit from the passenger area, such as the Beech 1900. However, after the tragic attacks on September 11, the FAA declared very stringent guidelines regarding cockpit doors. Currently, cockpit doors are required by law to be able to withstand attempts at intrusion – and even small explosions. These heavily fortified doors are hoped to provide an extra layer of security to both the cockpit crew and the passengers. The armored doors must be closed prior to takeoff, and may not be opened during the flight. The FAA hopes to protect all the occupants of the aircraft by ensuring that no individual will have access to the cockpit at any time, unless the captain allows it.

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    Reference

    "The Cockpit, the Cabin and Social Psychology" AirlineSafety: http://www.airlinesafety.com/editorials/CockpitCabinPsychology.htm