In today's ask Oscar The Pilot post, we aim to answer the famous question: Who flies the plane? Is it true that the co-pilot can fly? Or they just sit to help the Captain only.
Who flies the plane?
My answers are mainly based on an airline environment.
In a two-pilot operation, the roles are designated as Pilot Flying (PF) and Pilot Monitoring (PM). Meaning that before a flight starts, in the briefing room, when both the Captain and First Officer meet, they decide jointly on which one should fly the first leg and which one should fly the second leg. In my ex-airline, captains were very friendly and always asked first the First Officer which leg they wanted to fly unless there was a restriction that didn't allow it.
What do this PF and PM mean?
Let's clarify it using an example:
I'm "Oscar", a First Officer and flying with "Alpha" a Captain, and the route is from London to Barcelona and back. When I meet with the Captain in the briefing room, we decide who flies the first leg (London to Barcelona), let's say it's me, so that means "Oscar" will be the one flying the aeroplane from London to Barcelona. I would act as (Pilot Flying - PF), and Captain "Alpha" would act as (Pilot Monitoring - PM). We automatically swap on the way back from Barcelona to London as "Oscar" then would act as (Pilot Monitoring - PM), and Captain "Alpha" would act as (Pilot Flying - PF).
What are the roles of Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring?
The roles of Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring are defined by the Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) of the airline they work for; nevertheless, here are a few general roles:
- The PF is in charge of controlling the aircraft's flight path and issuing commands to the PM according to the SOPs.
- The Pilot Flying is in charge of controlling automation.
- The PF is the one who flies the takeoffs and landings.
- The PM is responsible for monitoring the actions of the PF and confirming actions before they are taken as per the SOPs.
- The Pilot Monitoring is responsible for Radio Communications.
- The PM must call out any deviations as early as possible—this is a vital role, especially during both the takeoff and the approach phase.
PF and PM duties may change during a flight. For example, the captain could be the PF during taxi but be the PM during takeoff through landing. Check out the next pages that I extracted from the Flight Crew Operations Manual found on the 737ng.co.uk website here.
It shows the change in the area of responsibility based on three different scenarios:
- Preflight and Postflight Scan Flow.
- Captain as Pilot Flying or Taxiing.
- First officer as Pilot Flying or Taxiing.
Observe the change in duties over the course of the flight. Keep in mind that the main duty of flying doesn't change unless the crew decides otherwise.
Although roles are designated, flexibility is still present, meaning that both pilots are still responsible for maintaining their big picture gained through cross-checking each other's actions.
Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring at Once:
When one of the crew has left the cockpit to go there toilet, for example, they will transfer the controls to the other crew member, which will act as both Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring at the same time.
First Officer "Oscar" was Pilot Monitoring, and Captain "Alpha" was Pilot Flying; he needed to use the toilet, he would inform me and then transfer controls to me. At this point, I would be flying the aeroplane and doing radio communications and doing the roles designated for both Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring and vice versa If First Officer "Oscar" leaves the cockpit.
What are the roles of the Captain and First Officer?
If the crew flies the aeroplane as PF and PM, then why do we have titles such as "Captain" and "First Officer".
The answer is seniority, experience, and legal roles.
The cockpit is for two pilots, someone needs to take the final decision at the end, especially in ambiguous scenarios, and this will come down to the Captain as he is usually more experienced than the First Officer, and that's why the Captain is called a Commander as well, as he needs to have the final word. They take responsibility for all decisions taken on board the aeroplane. If anything terrible happens onboard, both crew members will be questioned. Still, the Captain would take more responsibility depending on the course of actions and other factors, which we can't discuss here as it's outside the scope of what's meant by this short term post.
I said "usually" up there, as, in some airlines, you would find that some First Officers are more experienced than the captains. Still, they are not in the left seat due to their seniority; as they probably joined the airline after the Captain had joined; so the latter had priority to be a captain on them.
I hope that this article answered the question: "Who flies the plane?" and gave you a general idea of how a multi-crew environment works.
CAA. (2013, February). Monitoring matters: Guidance on the Development of Pilot Monitoring Skills - CAA. Retrieved March 2022, from https://publicapps.caa.co.uk/docs/33/9323-CAA-Monitoring%20Matters%202nd%20Edition%20April%202013.pdf
FAA. (2015, November 17). Roles and Responsibilities for Pilot Flying (PF) and Pilot Monitoring (PM). Retrieved March 2022, from https://www.faa.gov/other_visit/aviation_industry/airline_operators/airline_safety/safo/all_safos/
The Boeing Company. (2005). Flight Crew Operations Manual. Retrieved March 2022, from http://www.737ng.co.uk/737NG%20POH.pdf