I often facilitate workshops that are focused on the human factors in aviation. Through discussion, the participants always recognize the most valuable component of crew effectiveness is the interaction between the members. In other words, it's all about the relationship.Marriage and family are all about the relationship as well. These are the relationships that most people are most familiar with and serve as a model for all others. What can we learn about crew relationships from marriage and family? It has been said, "Behind every great man is a great woman." The source of that saying is not specific, but it originates from the American south. An early reference appeared in the Texas newspaper The Port Arthur News, from February 1946. This was headed - "Meryll Frost - 'Most courageous athlete of 1945'":
"As he received his trophy, the plucky quarterback unfolded the story of how he 'came back'. He said 'They say behind every great man there's a woman. While I'm not a great man, there's a great woman behind me.'"
Are there good First Officers behind every good Captain? Absolutely! Are poor First Officers responsible for a bad Captain? No, but they can sure make the Captain and crew less effective. While reading the many references to the “Behind every man…” quote I couldn’t help but notice what one respondent wrote, "It's hard for ANYONE to become successful without the help of a partner for support; a person whose partner actively opposes him stands little chance of success." We know how true that is on the flight deck!
So what ARE the characteristics of a good First Officer? Knowledgeable and dependable are certainly important, but if the effectiveness of the crew is dependent on the relationship there must be more. Help the Captain do the right thing. Remind them if they forget. Encourage them when things get difficult. Challenge them when they get complacent. We can see these traits in the TV characters Claire Huxtable from The Cosby's and June Cleaver from Leave It To Beaver. Their goal was for their husbands and families to get along and do the right thing. Sometimes they challenged their husbands, but usually the simply guided and encouraged them to do the right thing.
These women epitomized the anchor point that all good wives and mothers become. When their families strayed, they would nudge them back toward the correct path. We have all heard those famous words from our mothers when they challenged us to make the right decision, "You do what YOU think is right." That was usually game over. Effective First Officers do the same thing by tactfully encouraging their Captains to explain and justify their decisions.
June always seemed to see the situation quite clearly.
Ward Cleaver: Let's face it, June, Wally and Eddie have been friends for four or five years now - nothing's ever really happened.
June Cleaver: But Eddie has that look about him that makes you think something's always about to happen.
Claire was certainly not a pushover.
Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable: Now, when I left here yesterday, it was under some strain, and we all said some things we didn't mean.
Claire Hanks Huxtable: Not me.
Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable: But, it's all over now, and I'm sure we're all big enough to apologize!
Claire Hanks Huxtable: NOT ME!
Did Mrs. Cleaver and Huxtable always get their way? Of course not. Did they pout and give the silent treatment? Did they slam the door and walk out? No, they didn't. They supported their husbands and families, but continued to look out for possible threats. They made sure their loved ones were made aware of all the important information before they got behind their plans. Marriage and family relationships are much harder than flying with other crew members. They’re aren’t any regulations and universally accepted SOPs that husbands and wives and fathers and mothers are obligated to follow. They succeed or fail on mutual respect and the quality of their relationships. Knowing the “Right Thing” is much easier in the airplane. That is especially when everyone has safety as their primary goal.
Like the mothers epitomized by June Cleaver and Claire Huxtable, First Officers are the anchor point for the crew. They may not set the tone on the flight deck, but they have plenty of influence on the relationship. The best First Officers I have ever flown with do this with style and grace. It's been said that you need to be a "chameleon" to be a good First Officer. I believe it would be more accurate to say "politician". Good First Officers don't need to change with each Captain, but may need to have a different kind of relationship. Some Captains are more serious, some less talkative. A good First Officer will learn to observe the Captain and respect his style. Along the way they might even learn something. They can certainly do this without compromising their standards. Every Captain wants the same thing, and incident free flight.
There is one situation that all good Captains dislike. Making a choice between being a “good guy” and doing the right thing. A Captain that compromises what is right to please their First Officer is not a Captain. A First Officer who tries to get their Captain to compromise his pursuit of the right path is at least disrespectful and at worst mutinous. How will this First Officer handle the tough decisions when they move to the left seat?
If it IS truly all about the relationship, First Officers have an opportunity to make a profound impact on the effectiveness of their crew. Just like the women characterized by Claire Huxtable and June Cleaver, supporting and encouraging our partners to do the right thing is always a highly respected responsibility.