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Becoming a Southwest Airlines Captain

rstark
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How does one make the transition from First Officer to Captain? is there a "Captain Exam" that must be passed? Is there any kind of formal ceremony? Except for the walk alone through the woods without food or water for six days and six nights and then the pealing of every church bell in the state for the entire seventh day as the new Captain emerges from the sojourn, annointed with total enlightenment, it's pretty much a low-key deal. NOT! It's a huge deal. A really huge deal. The First Officer (FO) has been watching and learning about the Air Traffic Control system and how the airplane performs. The move to the left seat now exposes the new Captain to paperwork (aircraft logbooks, Company required reports, etc); knowing where to taxi on more than 60 airports; direct management of the Crew (personnel issues, job critiques and counseling, issues between Crew Members and passengers, combat field marriage counselor, issues between the aircraft and outside agencies, etc); absolute responsibility for the passengers; direct responsibility for the safe operation of his or her aircraft; dealing directly with Maintenance and the Minimum Equipment List (MEL); working with Company Dispatch; directing Crews in an inflight or ground emergency; making the call on whether to actually declare an emergency; final authority on about every aspect of what happens "if"; and a host of other decisions and judgment calls that have been made by every Captain the upgrade FO has ever flown with--and some   the new Captains have not even contemplated yet. Upgrade begins on the first day an FO shows up for work. That FO will watch and learn what differentiates a great Captain from an average one. The FO learns what kind of Leader is the easiest to work with and how vital or appreciated FO input is with certain Captains. Many personal skills will hopefully be developed before the FO moves to the left seat. It is a seasoning and a learning process that cannot be avoided or substituted. It just takes time. The actual training is only about a month long. The first ten days consist of a quick review of airplane systems and Company policy and procedures. Then, the new Captains pair up with a student buddy to go through roughly seven training simulator rides, each four hours in length. Here the new Captain gets used to seeing everything he or she has known inside the cockpit turned around because he or she is on the other side of the center console. Nothing is where it should be and the natural feeling of being able to find something without looking at it must be relearned. (The pressurization panel that used to be over his or her head is now on the other side of the ceiling. Above the new Captain's head now is a fuel pump panel.) I refer to it as about as disconcerting as putting your clothes on backward. Nothing comes easily. Even your hands must relearn their primary duties: The right hand that used to steer the plane now operates the throttles. The left hand that used to run the throttles, now gets to fly the plane with the yoke and drive the plane on the ground with the "tiller," a nifty steering wheel that steers the plane, while negotiating tight corners on the ramp and taxiways. There is no tiller on the FO side. Everything your body knows is wrong. Once complete with the training, the new Captains fly a four-hour checkride. The next day, one will fly a simulated four-hour sequence of flights while the other plays the FO. The next day after that, they swap positions for another four-hour ride. Then they go to a Pilot Base and fly a week or more with a Check Airman who monitors their performance in the real plane with passengers and Crew. At the end of this week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rides along and observes the new Captain, and upon the FAA's blessing, the Captain is now the real deal. HOWEVER, most shiny new Captains now go back to their crew base and fly as FO's, occasionally picking up the odd Captain trip because most airlines upgrade pilots prior to their falling off the top of the FO list and to the bottom of the Captain seniority list. This keeps the supply of Captains ready available should they be needed on a short notice. After six to eight months, most are flying pure Captain lines, never again flying from the right seat. In a nutshell, that's it.
16 Comments
FriendofBlogBoy
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Captain Ray, You mean that's all there is to it? A piece of cake!! LOL Obviously, it IS a big deal, and your explanation of the process was very interesting. Reading that process should help reassure nervous fliers about something that us seasoned travelers have already known -- the folks in the front office are TRUE professionals and once the person has made the promotion to the left seat, they have had many hours of outstanding training and experience, resulting in the production of a truly skilled pilot. I do have one question that you didn't cover. After the "official" FAA sign-off on all of your paperwork, is there an "official" ceremony where you slide the three-stripe epaulet off and slide on the new four-stripe one? If so, is it like it is in the military, where you can request a friend or relative who is a senior officer to "pin" your new rank on your shoulders? Or does Herb just show up with a permanent marker and draw an extra line on your shirt? :) We're blessed to have so many wonderful pilots at Southwest Airlines, because in addition to knowing that they are good "drivers", we also know that they LUV those of us sitting behind them! Thanks for another great post, Captain! Kim Who Is Always Confident When Flying on Southwest Airlines Because of People Like Ray Stark 🙂
jmalone
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Ray - I recently flew with an upgrading Captain on his check ride. I was curious about it so I asked the question, "What is the biggest challenge about upgrading?" His reply, that is the longest three feet in history. I am assuming he was talking about distance from the FO seat to the Captain's chair and as you so eloquently said, everything is on the opposite side. I got to thinking about it and yeah...I can see where it would be a very difficult thing to do. I'm glad that we have some of the BEST pilots in the industry commanding our flights! Thanks to you and all of the other men and women out there for the job that you do each and every day!! Regards, James Malone MDW FA
Captain_Ray_Sta
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Kim, Nope. No special ceremony. You just show up and get in the left seat after training is all complete. Kind of like flight school in the Air Force. One day you are a student and see your name up on the flight schedule with your instructor's name. When solo day arrives, your name is all by itself. It's showtime. It's often a schizophrenic lifestyle the last few months before moving over there permanently. One day you are an FO. The next , a Captain. Then a week of FO until you can pick up another Captain trip. Some days, you don't know what you are. Ray
FriendofBlogBoy
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Ray, Thanks for the reply! I think I've ridden with some of those "transitional" pilots, because I've had flights where I saw two "four-stripers" up front, although I would think that all the flopping from left to right seat would make the mental adjustment to instrument and switch location even tougher. At the company where I used to work, the head of our aviation department (for our bizjet) had a policy that he and the #2 guy swapped seats every other trip. That kept them both very current in their "left seat" hours, but I always wondered what their brain would tell them if they suddenly had to reach out to do something in an emergency. We're proud of all of the pilots and the FOs who fly for Southwest!! As a friend and former career USAF driver used to say, "just keep flying between the red light and the green light!" Kim Who Has No Stripes 🙂
Leah4
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Thanks for another great post, Captain Ray! You wouldn't happen to be the one who will be my Captain tomorrow on Flight 537 (TUL-STL) or 850 (STL-MCO), would you? :) When I was waiting to go back to Love (LUV) Field after my second FA interview last August, I talked with two people who finished Pilot interviews that day. I think I'd better stick with trying to become an RSA, a CSA, & an FA. Being a Pilot/Captain would really be cool, but I better not try! I have pictures of me in the Cockpit, & in one of them, I was sitting in the left seat. Well, I must go to bed now! I have to get up very early for my flight to MCO tomorrow, but that's okay! :) SWA LUV!
Francisco_Delga1
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Captain Ray, Thanks for giving us an insight into your stressful world. I remember my dad and i used to go the airport to watch the planes land and take off. we used to stand in amazement. thanks for the job that you do... i don't know how you guys do it but you guys do a good job.... right now our pilots are kicking butt and flying long missions. what gets me is that after a long day of flying they still can land on a moving ship with such ease. USS BLOG BOY
FriendofBlogBoy
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Hey USS Blog Boy, The pilots you're hanging around currently are wimps. They have to have a hook and a wire to grab them to be able to land. Ray and his buddies land on a wide open place with no wires and have to wrestle those planes to a halt the old-fashioned way!! LOL Kim External Blog Boy P. S. Don't anyone else take this the wrong way -- Francisco KNOWS that I am teasing and that I am HUGE supporter of our military pilots! 🙂
Gina_Goodwin
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Recently took a flight from San Antonio to Orlando with my 8yr old son who sat by a young pilot named Marcus, needless to say my son thought this was the greatest thing. Upon my flight home I found out that my cousin and her boyfriend also sat by some pilots on their flight (taken withing a few days of mine). Is it a new thing or a Southwest thing that pilots are flying amongst us passengers? In the past when traveling that was something I never had seen or heard of? No big deal, just thought it was cool to meet members of the crew who get us safely to our destinations.
FriendofBlogBoy
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Gina, You are correct -- it is much more common to share the cabin with Pilots and First Officers these days. That is because of tremendous advancements in electronics by Boeing that actually allow their newer 737s to be remotely piloted from a dark room hidden inside a mountain in Colorado. This allows the pilots to sit among the passengers, since with the addition of radio-controlled flight controls, the only thing they have to do now is keep the FAs entertained. Seriously, I think that you are seeing what I've observed over the last few years, depending on the time of day that you're flying. Since the number of crew bases hasn't changed much, while the number of Employees has grown, more and more of them are "commuting" to start or end their work days somewhere else. Some folks sit stuck on a freeway going to work; those folks sit at 37,000 feet going to work! Happy Flying, Kim Who is Not Remotely Piloted 🙂
Captain_Ray_Sta
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Deadheading... Routine part of the job. Always has been. Always will be. Sometime pilots are just getting to or from work (on their own time). Others are deadheading on company time between locations to either pick up another flight or to an overnight location -or home to their home base. Some are scheduled. Some are the result of aircraft taken out of service for maintenance or weather cancellations or re-routes. Ray
Bob23
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Hello all, Would love some input. I am flying 737-700, 737-800, and 737-800W, as Captain, in China, and loving every day of it, except for the pilots/Check Airman whom smoke in the cockpit. I was a 747-4/3/2 Captain, in a previous life. I do love flying the 737, maybe more than the 74s. What Cost Index does SWA program into the FMC? Does it change per aircraft, per day over the same route, etc.? Thinking about fuel conservation. Any help or ideas, would be appreciated. Please reply to SHEPHERDS_PIE (AT) YAHOO.COM (lower case letters, replace (AT) with @ and ...e@yah... Thanks
Jean_Wil
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Hey am black like I or "we" all know thre arent that many black pilots is this one of the careers that is greatly segregated or just maybe the way it is cause i am seriously persuingmy drem of becoming an airline pilot specificaly southwest or American airlines and if this is one of those fields then i guess am gona have to give.and can you work for an american airline if you are not an american by birth but have leagal documents and your a parmannt resident? please reply extencively
David1
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Kim- An FO is a pilot. And while Ray failed to point this out, All FO's at SWA have been captains at other airlines or in the military.
Joshua4
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Question to Capt. Ray Stark: I am a 19 year old Indian citizen whose only ambition since the 6th grade was to be the captain of one of the biggest flights (such as an Airbus A380) in one of the largest airlines (such as Southwest or Emirates). I will most probably be joining a flight school by 2011. But I am still in a dilemma of whether a flight school will actually get me to the left seat of, say an Emirates Airbus A380, because in all flight school testimonials, I only come across pilots who are flight instructors or fly for small regional airlines. Is this the beginning for every successful captain? Will people who start of as such really get to the top? If not, what really is the secret to get to the top?
Anonymous17111
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Joshua Did you join a flight school yet that will put you straight into an Emirates A380...
rhys
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Random question here but, by any chance how exacly do you become FO or even in the airline with southwest airlines? What are the procegers?