Manager in the Cockpit

Teamwork above the clouds

What are the crew’s tasks on a long-haul flight? Which rules determine their cockpit communication? Come along on a Boeing 747-400’s scheduled flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco, and learn more about the processes aboard. Know this in advance: when you aspire to land an aircraft safely at its destination, you have to be a team player.

Aboard a passenger aircraft, the captain makes the decisions. However, he or she must always take the team into account. As a manager in the cockpit, he or she is obligated to master complex situations along with the team. Listening to each other, combined effort, and clear communication are the requirements for decision-making in the air.


Frankfurt International Airport, 7 am: a Boeing 747-400 is supposed to take off in 70 minutes headed for San Francisco. But the captain and the two first officers begin their work now, in the briefing room. Which route was planned by dispatch? How is the weather over the North Atlantic? Which alternative airfields have been provided? Are there special conditions to be aware of at the airport, such as construction sites? When was the machine’s last repair?


The colleagues take a look at the weather map on the screen. Have rough weather or thunderstorms been announced? Or, depending on the season, snow or ice? Based on the weather data, they have to make an important decision together: how much jet fuel should be filled into the Boeing’s tanks? In order to avoid extra weight, they can’t fuel up too much. But they also have to be prepared for anything unexpected.

A Little Bit Like Mountaineering

Next door: the cabin crew is preparing, as well. After that, the whole team meets for a second briefing. Many colleagues know each other already, while others are meeting for the first time. But aviation is a little bit like mountaineering: everyone is on a first name or nickname basis. Nobody worries about formalities here, but professional and precise communication is key. After half an hour, all questions are answered and a bus takes the crew over the tarmac to the aircraft.


Upon arrival in the cockpit, the captain and one of the first officers work through the pre-flight-check, a recurring process of security routines to check all computers, systems, and functions. Then the moment finally arrives when the pilot can roll the Boeing to the runway. Soon after this, the machine accelerates up to about 280 kilometers per hour, and seconds later, the captain pushes the thrust levers forward on runway 07C. A gentle push and the Boeing – about 350 tons take-off weight and about 500 passengers on board – takes off.


Pilots describe the moment they break through the cloud ceiling for the first time as magical. No matter how many take-offs you have under your belt , this feeling is always overwhelming. Even if you leave under gray skies in Frankfurt, know that it is always sunny above the clouds.  


A dream route is scheduled today: Frankfurt – San Francisco, 9,140 kilometres linear distance. The aircraft flies over the North Sea towards Greenland. Then it travels over the Arctic for hours. Polar high-pressure areas ensure a clear view on infinite icescapes most of the time. This makes for an overwhelmingly beautiful panorama, but in the cockpit, structured processes and work routines remain the top priority. Emotions are side issues, because turbulence and irregularities can occur at any moment. This means the cockpit crew must stay focused and alert during the entire flight.


Discipline and Trust Prevail in the Cockpit

Captain, First Officer: despite the fact that many notions in civil aviation refer to the military, there is no strict hierarchical system within commercial aircraft. To the contrary: every opinion in the team should be heard. Vague feelings are taken seriously, too. The era wherein the captain ruled their crew are gone. The three pilots sitting in the cockpit discuss every important decision. The youngest with the lowest rank speaks first. The first officer with the higher rank expresses himself or herself next. The captain decides after he or she has heard them both.


Discipline and trust instead of a dog-eat-dog mentality and power struggles — this kind of cooperation in the air is systemic, and this system has a name. CRM – crew resource management – ensures that decisions are questioned and checked. Air traffic becomes safer when there is a climate aboard in which every crew member not only can but should express his or her opinion.


There are diverse strategies and manuals that help with decision-making during stressful situations and events. One strategy is a model that was developed by NASA to evaluate options and risks. Its name is FOR-DEC – “F” is for “facts” and could, for example, be a medical emergency in the passenger compartment. “O” is for “options”: continue flying or land? Now one has to think about “R”, the “risks”. “D” follows for “decision”, “E” is for “execution”, and “C” is for “check”, the final check of the situation.

There is Only Togetherness Above the Clouds

Suddenly, there is turbulence over Canada. Uneven layers of air make the Boeing shake and drop a few meters. The seat belt signs light up. This does not trouble the experienced long-distance pilots and the service crew. But how do the passengers react? The captain decides to make an announcement. He or she tells the passengers that everything is under control. There are still some ripples in the beverage cups for some time, but the aircraft makes its way through calmer air layers.


Pilots not only need aeronautical know-how. They move within a complex environment of technical and human factors. Is the technology running smoothly? How is the weather? How are the passengers? How does the crew work? Whoever wants to get an aircraft safely to its destination has to be a team player. One who can listen but also decide. One who understands that the flight attendant who does his/her job diligently and finds a burning cigarette on the on-board toilet also contributes to the successful journey – just like the pilot who ensures a smooth landing. There is only togetherness above the clouds.  


The cockpit is getting busy again. Another, intense briefing looms: airport data and features of the landing approach are analyzed. A bit later, the Boeing leaves its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet and begins to descend. It glides through a few cotton-wool clouds, with the famous cliffs of Point Reyes and the shining bay of San Francisco soon becoming visible. The aircraft touches down smoothly on the landing strip of San Francisco International Airport. The passengers say thank you and goodbye, only then does calm descend over the cabin.


Mission accomplished. After eleven and a half hours in the aircraft, the Boeing’s crew from Frankfurt checks into their hotel in San Francisco. The next long-distance route, to Singapore, is on the flight plan in a few days. Until then, pilots and flight attendants have the chance to relax. Time for a visit to the wild Ocean Beach. Time to swim, time to surf, time for a drink with colleagues. It is clear that the Golden Gate Bridge is not new for the crew: they feel at home all over the world.



In the video, our students explain how they got to the European Flight Academy, what motivates them, and how it feels to finally fly solo