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Standards Captain

Leadership

From my first day as an Air Force student pilot I wanted to be an instructor pilot. I realized that goal three times in twenty years, in the Boeing 707, Boeing 747, and Gulfstream III. I twice had to fit in the more adversarial role of standards pilot, what we called a flight examiner. The first time I was told that meant my instructor duties were over. That was not true. A good flight examiner can be a great instructor.

Now as a civilian I have added the check airman role in two more aircraft types, the Challenger 604 and the Gulfstream V. Here again I discovered that a standards captain can be an extremely effective instructor pilot, if he or she knows how to do that. Let's see how it's done.



First, you must assess yourself

You may say that the qualities of a good standards captain I am advocating here are no different than the qualities needed in any good pilot in charge of a crew and that is probably true. But the damage done by falling short of these ideals will be far higher with someone who is supposed to set the standard and evaluate others against that measure. So take this seriously, please.

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Self Assessment (Photo courtesy of Ivan Luciani)

My first time at bat as an evaluator was when flying the Boeing 707 where our standards office was comprised of about 20 flight examiners. My last time was for TAG Aviation US where we had about 20 standards captains. Between those experiences the largest pool of examiners I had seen in one organization was at the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, where I think the number was nearly 50. In all that time I have come to the conclusion that the best people in standards had one thing in common: a sense of humility.

  • Confident (yet humble) — The first time you are given the title of standards captain, flight examiner, check airman, or whatever the name given to this role, you ought to feel something between fear and nervousness. Am I good enough? How can I be expected to measure others when I am so imperfect myself? But this will pass and then you must realize that you have been given the role because of a demonstrated ability to do the job. You must eventually approach the job knowing you can do it. (Otherwise you will fail.)
  • Capable (yet humble) — You cannot enforce a standard that you do not live up to. The old axiom "do as I say not as I do" does not work for a standards captain because your peers (and they are your peers) realize that your title is an awarded one that can be just as easily taken away. At best they will nod politely and continue as before once you have left. At worst they will openly (or secretly) mock you. Either way your credibility will be shot.
  • Knowledgeable (yet humble) — You cannot enforce a standard you don't know and making it up along the way will not fly with those who are more knowledgeable than you. One way to quickly lose credibility is to adamantly critique someone who quickly pulls out the book to prove you wrong.
  • Humble (yet confident, capable, and knowledgeable) — A sense of humility is important in a standards captain, no doubt about it. But in the end you are being charged with ensuring others measure up to what your organization considers to be a minimum level of professionalism. If you are not confident you can do this and don't have the credibility with your peers, you will have a difficult time succeeding.

Another way to approach this is to look at what makes a bad standards captain. I've seen a few over the years.

  • I'm here because I'm so good — Some captains end up in the standards role because they've outlasted the competition. They are typically weaker pilots who think their position alone means they are better than everyone else and typically critique others against personal techniques, not written guidance.
  • I'm here so now I can coast — Some captains will have a solid background and fine records of performance and may even start out as good flight examiners. But they end up thinking they no longer have to put in the work to keep proficient and knowledgeable. Soon the examinees will outshine the examiner.
  • I'm here to thin the herd — Some captains will have suffered at the hands of harsh check rides over the years and will seek to do the same when given the chance.

Second, you must assess your environment

We often said in the Air Force that the commander sets the standard, the training department teaches the standard, and the standards department evaluates how well the training department is doing their job. A poor performance was more a reflection on the trainers than the trainee.

In a smaller flight department your training department is probably an outside contractor like FlightSafety International and individual instructors. In fact, you may wear two hats and be one of those instructors. No matter the size of your organization, you need to "think vertical" when it comes to your role as a standards captain. You are in the middle and will be a target from those above you and below.

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Cartoon: Sitting Ducks

Rightly or wrongly, a poorly performing standards captain is an easy target.

A standards captain doesn't set the standard, a standards captain ensures others meet the standard. Well, that's true in theory but in smaller flight departments where everyone wears many hats the line between "set" and "measure" becomes blurred. So where does the standard come from?

  • Governmental — As pilots we have no shortage of governing rules and regulations. In fact, we have so many that it is easy to find yourself in the dark because the rules vary by region and are changing faster than they can be reliably published. But as a standards captain you have to do your best to keep up and you must have a good library to fall back on.
  • Organizational — Your flight department should have written guidance of some sort, preferably a Company, Flight, or General Operating Manual. In any case, you cannot have a standard unless that standard is enumerated and published.
  • Personal — This may seem an odd category, but it exists. The more credibility you have in an organization the more recognized this standard becomes. But you need to understand that it is the weakest of these categories and the hardest to enforce. What is a personal standard? It is a technique, not a procedure. More about this below, under Providing feedback to the line.

You must always remember the vertical nature of the organization and your place in it. When I was a check airman for TAG Aviation US I was charged with enforcing the standards among other check airmen in the Northeast. We had a check airman in charge of a specific aircraft type who refused to comply with a change in our checklist criteria. It was silly: our company manual called the last checklist prior to takeoff the "line up checklist." He had grown up with "before takeoff checklist" and refused to change the checklists in his aircraft type. "We've always had a 'before takeoff checklist' and we aren't going to change it. There's nothing you can do to make me do this." Fair enough. My job was to enforce the company standard so I elevated the issue to the company. They put it in language the recalcitrant check airman could understand. "You either make the change or we will replace you." He made the change.

Vertical means from below as well as from above. When a standards captain starts enforcing a standard that doesn't exist, he or she will lose credibility. At best the captain will only end up a subject of behind the scenes ridicule. At worst, the entire organization will lose credibility. While I was getting my GIV type rating, the examiner at CAE Simuflight insisted on a flight procedure that isn't used by the manufacturer and can be unsafe if flown in mountainous terrain. I refused and the lines were drawn. In the end they backed down and my flight department terminated the contract with CAE. More about this: Drift Up.


Next, you need a plan

You might find that you are joining a well established standards department or replacing a highly respected standards captain who was doing everything just right. Your task is merely to fit in and continue what has been a great standards organization. But that is a very rare situation. You will more likely find yourself with a large challenge. Was the previous organization dysfunctional? Not respected? Or perhaps there was no standards department and you are starting from scratch.

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Cartoon: Then a miracle occurs, Sydney Harris from "What's so funny about science?"

You cannot think of being a standards captain in terms of simply doing a job, it is much more than that. You need to have a goal in mind and a plan to accomplish that goal. Here are a few thoughts to get you started.

  • No existing standards organization
    • Goal: Establish a standards organization.
    • Plan: Understand the organization's needs, translate (and shape) those needs into your standards group's procedures, introduce yourself in your new role to the organization, live up to your promises.
  • Dysfunctional organization and standards group
    • Goal: Educate the organization's leadership of the need for stronger standards and obtain "buy in" from above and below.
    • Plan: Find real world examples of similar circumstances resulting in aircraft accidents or other ill effects and show how a better standards program can prevent these ill effects. Examine the existing standards program to find where the organization is lacking or failing to live up to its taskings. Ask others still in the standards group, or those who have recently departed, why things are as they are. Use these explanations as a guide to steer your efforts to repair what is broken.
  • Good organization, dysfunctional standards group
    • Goal: Elevate the standards group to meet organizational needs.
    • Plan: Listen to organizational leadership's complaints about the current standards group and their ideas to improve the situation. Reach out to line pilots, other crewmembers, and others in the flight department for more input. If members of the previous standards group are still in the flight department you may have to be very diplomatic in your approach. "What can I do to make your job easier and safer?" "What worries you?" "How can we elevate this flight department to the next level?"
  • Good organization and standards group
    • Goal: Learn from the best and find your own niche to make things even better.
    • Plan: Start in the "learn mode" while trying to maintain the high level of performance you are fortunate to find yourself in. In a larger standards group there will be experts in many subdivisions and areas where expertise is shared. Find one of those shared areas or an area where expertise is lacking, and become that expert.

No matter which situation you find yourself in you should remember the adage, "if you don't know where you are going you will end up someplace else." You need to have an end result in mind before you devise your plan to get there.


How you fly the line is critical

"How you fly" does not refer to your stick and rudder skills as a pilot; if you have been selected to be a standards captain you should have long ago reached the skill levels needed to earn the respect of the organization and your peers. "How you fly" refers to how well and consistently you live up to the standards that you are charged with enforcing. There is no room for hypocrisy

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Photo: Fly the line, from Eddie's cockpit

A standards captain's greatest challenge doesn't come when administering a written or practical examination, it doesn't come when speaking in front of a group, or even when arbitrating an issue between the boss and the troops. The greatest challenge comes from flying the line on an everyday trip with the troops watching your every move. Do you live up to the same standards you expect of others? You can look upon this as an added cross to bear. I look on it as an extra motivation to do things the right way at all times. A few examples:

  • Our Boeing 707 squadron had a very good flight examiner who knew the rules and was quick to critique violation of the rules and was fond of saying, "when in doubt, take 'em out." But when on an operational flight he was known to break those very same rules. One day he put his navigator in a pilot's seat for a landing and was found out. He was fired and was gone from the squadron within a month.
  • When I was at Andrews the Gulfstream squadron was filled with pilots who thought they knew better how to fly the airplane than the people who wrote the rules and were fond of flying outside the limits in the flight manuals. These pilots tended to gravitate towards standardization and evaluation and would enforce their personal techniques on the rest of us as the procedures of the organization. This created a two-tier organization of pilots who blindly adapted or those who flew one way for check rides and another for operational trips. Fortunately a military organization tends to churn people through the system and the bad apples were eventually replaced.
  • Our large standards group at TAG Aviation US was comprised mostly of very good pilots who were on a mission to make TAG the best flying organization in business and commercial aviation. But we also had a few who seemed to draw a line between their conduct in the jump seat and when actually flying the line. We had a Gulfstream pilot who was an exemplary professional when in a standards captain role but anything but that as his flight department's chief pilot. He abused his fellow crewmembers, wasted his client's money, and stretched the rules in an effort to satisfy the aircraft owner's requests. Those who didn't know him well respected him, but anyone who had personal contact with him knew he was an unprincipled pilot. It took a few years but soon enough of us knew and tired of the act. He was let go.

The bottom line here should be obvious. You cannot credibly advocate standards that you do not personally follow.


Line observations

When is a check ride not a check ride? When it is a line observation. A check ride is given to attain a license, to gain the continuing privilege of that license, or to demonstrate competency to regain that license. In other words, there is something hanging over the applicant's head. A line observation is a chance to see what is going right with training, standards, and the mechanisms needed to keep the crew force safe. When you find a problem, more often than not, it is the system that has failed the pilot, not the other way around. It is your job to fix it. More about this: Line Operation Observations.

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Photo: Line Observation, from Mark Eisner (with permission)

There are check rides and there are check rides. One that ends with a new type rating, license, or admission into a new tier of aviation is of the former. Everything else is of the latter. Having given both types, let me explain.

If you are in the business of adding to a pilot's license, or granting the pilot's first license for that matter, then you have an exact list of accomplishments you must observe and an exacting list of requirements that must be met. That is pretty cut and dried.

If you are a standards captain charged with monitoring the pilot health of an organization and perhaps observing pilots on the line, you have a different calling. You can call this a check ride if you like, but I prefer the term "line operation observation." The purpose of such an observation is:

  1. Observe crew performance under normal operating conditions.
  2. Assess the effectiveness of training programs.
  3. Determine awareness of company policies and regulatory requirements.
  4. Provide a feedback opportunity for crews.

It is a vital function and every flying organization should have some sort of line operation observation program. It can be an outside auditor, a standards captain who is also assigned to fly the line, or even a guest pilot from the next hangar. If you are that standards captain you need to learn how to conduct a line operation observation. Here's how: Line Operation Observation.


Providing feedback to management and to the line

This is the most difficult part of standardization: providing the feedback up to management and down to the line. You can have the greatest insights and the best answer to fix what is broken, but if you lack the skill and diplomacy to telegraph those ideas you might as well not have had them in the first place. But before you even cross that line, you need to be sure of yourself.

Getting it right: procedure vs. technique

A procedure is something "the book" says you must do. Most procedures are obviously important and will rarely, if ever, generate any push back when you bring them up. A few procedures, however, may be dated or your organization has agreed to institute something better. In this case these work arounds should be documented. Once something is agreed to by the organization, they become procedures that must be followed and it will be up to you to critique pilots who fail to follow them.

A technique is something you and others have decided are good ideas and will make things easier, more efficient, and safer. But if these are not specified by "the book," they are not mandatory. You can recommend the pilot adopt them, but you cannot critique them as something the pilot had done wrong.

Getting it right: individual vs. systemic issues

If you know a procedure is not being followed by more than just a few pilots, you will have a difficult time convincing a few pilots that what they are doing is wrong. "Everyone does that," can be a powerful argument. Even worse, if you were unaware that "everyone does that" and are offered that as an excuse, you might feel you are stuck. You are witnessing a system issue, one that is generated by the system, not by the pilots. This calls for a few extra steps. During the critique you should first ask why the pilots think the breach of procedure is okay and sincerely listen. Then you can say, "let me look into this, but let me also recommend you start following this procedure because . . ." and give the reasons. If their reasons appear valid, it may be time for you to look into getting the procedure changed. Otherwise, you will need a discussion with the trainers and management to come up with a solution.

Here's an example where the pilots might have been right to change a procedure. In the "classic" Gulfstreams (from the GII through the G550), the climb checklist has you raise the landing gear, retract the flaps, set the guidance panel, and set climb thrust before disarming the ground spoilers which are procedurally step five. Most Gulfstream pilots realize the ground spoilers should be disarmed as soon as possible to prevent inadvertent ground spoiler deployment, so they've moved that to step two. In my flight department we've moved it up to step one. As a flight department, we have codified this procedure into our books and the entire organization has "bought in." For you Gulfstream pilots, more about that: G450 Climb Checklist.

But what about behavior some might call "rogue" in that a procedure is being ignored without the organization's knowledge? When I was a check airman for JetDirect, a company that no longer exists, I was asked to look into a large flight department that had an altitude violation, a taxi accident, and an aborted takeoff due to a skipped preflight inspection. The flight department manager was convinced his pilots had run into a string of bad luck, and nothing more. What I found were eight pilots who all agreed wearing headsets was too uncomfortable, leading to a misheard clearance and the altitude bust. They all believed it was much more efficient to complete post mission paperwork after landing while taxiing than waiting until after engine shutdown, leading to multiple taxi incidents. And they also believed that if the airplane was okay when they left it, it was going to be okay the next day without an external preflight, leading to the aborted takeoff. Incredibly, they held onto these beliefs even after their multiple incidents. I brought this up to the flight department manager who accused me of being out to get "his boys." JetDirect gave the manager an ultimatum to "shape up or ship out." He decided to ship out and took the flight department to another management company. After a few months that company fired all 8 pilots and the manager.

Conducting the debrief

You should conduct a fair and unbiased debriefing based on identifiable factual items. A balance between friendliness and firmness should be maintained. If everything went well you should cover the flights chronologically. I've provided a form you can use to guide the discussion here: Line Operation Observation / Form.

Always keep in mind the line operation observation requires a thorough debrief. You can be brutally honest if you phrase your critiques skillfully. The observed pilots should welcome the feedback if they understand the entire exercise is aimed at helping them and will not circle back to hurt them. A few examples from line observations I have given over the years:

  • Two Global Express pilots made FMS programming errors resulting in one descent that was too early and a second that was too late. Both said their FMS was prone to these types of miscalculations. They were simply waiting for the FMS top of descent cue. "The box can be pretty smart until its pretty stupid," I agreed. But then I showed them how simple arithmetic could help them double check the box's math.
  • Two Falcon 900 pilots didn't trust the blended mode of their dual FMS set up but didn't know how to use the initiated transfer function either. The dual mode would commit them to programming errors without a second chance, the initiated transfer mode would have solved the problem. Instead they both operated independently, and simultaneously programmed their FMS in tandem. I watched as they did this right after takeoff while the pilot hand-flew without looking at his instruments or outside. I timed the event. "You flew with the wings perfectly level for 20 seconds while heads down," I said. "I'm not sure I could have done that. Let me show you how initiated transfer can fix this."
  • Two Challenger 604 pilots had expertly flown from one small airport to another and my only critiques were trivial in nature. When I was done they started to pepper me with questions about company procedures. I had an answer for all but one question. They were very happy to receive direction on the questions I had answered. The one unanswered question revealed a glaring omission in our company manuals that we immediately fixed.
  • Another Challenger crew loaded their aircraft to a weight authorized by our company operations manual using airport obstacle analysis software. Right after takeoff the crew accelerated to 200 knots and the flight was fairly uneventful. During the debrief I asked them if they would have had obstacle clearance had they lost an engine 500 feet above the runway. They didn't understand why they wouldn't. When I pointed out their obstacle clearance was based on flying at V2+10 knots and had they lost the engine at 500 feet when they were doing 200 knots all of the software's assumptions would be invalid. "Could you have cleared the peak at 7,000 feet MSL?" I asked. "I don't know," I admitted. "But you cannot assume you will because the takeoff weight was based on different assumptions." Both pilots agreed this was a big, big problem. I recommended that if they loaded to the specified takeoff weight, they keep the speed profile, even with both engines operating, until the obstacle was beat. They agreed.

If you think there will be a lot of discussion you should try a facilitative approach to flush out the details of procedures and techniques to be learned. Pilots tend to learn best when participating in the learning process and will "buy in" to a change in behavior better this way. One effective facilitation method is to:

  1. Start with an overview of the LOO, covering the positive points only.
  2. Cover other points and ask a few opening questions per issue.
  3. Get the applicant to do the thinking and talking.
  4. Summarize at the end (it can be useful to get the applicant to summarize), steering the conversation in the direction you think best.

Try to cover good as well as bad points. With the good points, emphasize that you will profit from having seen them in action. For example, "I am going to add that technique to my bag of tricks!" With the bad points, try to interject procedures and techniques that will help them avoid them in the future.

Critiquing Procedure

The best way to critique a procedure that was executed poorly or omitted completely is to show how the procedure is safer or more efficient. Following published procedures also make the pilot's actions more predictable and that enhances crew coordination. While you should not begin a critique citing chapter and verse of the rule or regulation, it is always helpful to know where the procedure is listed in case you get the "who says so?" question.

Critiquing Techniques

If you have a better technique that compliments an existing procedure, you should offer the technique as a friendly suggestion. You should make it clear that the technique is not required, but a good idea.

For example, let's say most of your pilots prefer to remove the chocks as soon as the brakes are set during the preflight. They say this insures they won't forget them. But let's say you prefer to keep the airplane chocked until the fuel truck pulls away, to ensure you don't move with a vehicle parked so closely. If your technique is not mandated by your company operations manual, you should not "scold" the pilots for pulling the chocks. You would do better to note the dangers involved with having a fuel truck parked within a few feet without having the airplane chocked, and recommend they leave the chocks in place. If you feel strongly that your technique should be procedure, you should recommend it be added to the operations manual.

Letting management know

Upper management will want to know when their pilots have excelled and you should certainly do that. When the news is less than stellar, however, there are a few techniques to improve how well your critiques are received.

  • If the problem stems from a shortcoming in the manuals or training environment, say so. Rather than say the pilots were unable to properly sequence the FMS for an RNAV approach, say their training was inadequate and perhaps a greater emphasis on this item is in order.
  • If the individual pilot seemed rusty, say so. Blaming the pilot's proficiency on a lack of flying can tell management the pilot needs to fly more (if that is true), or that the pilot isn't keeping in the books and requires motivation.
  • But in some cases the fault lies with the pilot and no amount of "sugar coating" will soften the blow. I once had to let a chief pilot know that his son was unfit to fly a Citation Ultra because he simply could not keep up with the airplane. The chief pilot assured me he only paired his son with the strongest captains, but he appreciated my honesty. I began the steps needed to have our management company disqualify the pilot but the chief pilot must have read the handwriting on the wall and pulled his son from the flight department.

Providing the line a voice

As pilots we are expected to never compromise safety. But as business or corporate pilots we are also employees paid to help the company get its work done and our decisions can often have measurably adverse impacts on the company's bottom line. Non-union pilots flying the line don't have much of a voice with management. A standards captain does.

Complaints

Pilots can be reluctant to complain, especially if they think management will react negatively. As a standards captain, you can listen to the same complaints and perhaps come up with a solution short of notifying management. Or, with your level of experience, can phrase the complaint in a way that will not anger management. Or, finally, with your credibility, you can convince management something needs to be done. In both of these cases, you can provide the line pilot an avenue they would not normally have.

I once provided a series of line observations in a flight department that was going through considerable turnover. As I praised a senior pilot's performance he made an off handed comment about how management didn't appreciate experience because they were paying new hires more than some of the older pilots. I brought this up to the director of aviation who said it wasn't true. He wasn't aware of the pay inequity rumor and took steps to assure his more experienced pilots that their seniority was valued with higher pay.

Suggestions

Sometimes an idea isn't a complaint, it is just a suggestion about how to do something better. But the suggester feels reluctant to speak up or unsure that the effort will be successful. Here again a standards captain can provide the necessary "mojo."

A standards captain's unique position in a large organization

A standards captain holds a unique position between line pilots getting the job done and a large organization's management team who do not suffer the normal trials and tribulations of day-to-day line flying. But the standards captain does represent upper management. This position allows the standards captain a louder and more credible voice to make changes and voice the concerns of line pilots.

A standards captain's unique position in a small organization

A standards captain in a smaller organization also holds this unique position. The chief pilot in a smaller organization may have day-to-day flight experience and may feel solidly connected with the average pilot. But this isn't always the case. Few people like to give the boss bad news and the boss may have a better support network to deal with adverse situations. Flying the company's hardest schedule can be much easier for the boss than anyone else. Here is where the standards captain can serve an invaluable service, letting the boss know how things are for everyone else.


The "I" words

One of the problems with growing up in a peacetime military is officers who place a priority on self advancement tend to get promoted and you end up with leaders who are not competent in the basic skills needed for the job and willing to sacrifice those they lead. So for me the "I" word has always meant integrity. But I will soon equal my 20 years in a military uniform with 20 years in civilian flying clothes. Here I've noticed integrity continues to be an issue but the driving force is rarely career. More often than not it is a desire for more income. The two "I" words tend to be at odds. That is an important factor in a standards captain's calculus.

Over the years I've always wanted to hold the top instructor position in every flight organization I've ever joined but have always been steered to another path. Quite often that path was either standardization, flight evaluation, or senior leadership. Looking back on this, I now realize my greatest opportunities to instruct were as a standards captain and these jobs were the most satisfying. But these jobs aren't for everyone.

You can look upon your elevation to a standards captaincy as being placed on a pedestal and in some ways that is true. But on that lofty pedestal everyone can see you and can examine your personal behavior with a magnifying glass. Anything you do that doesn't meet standards becomes a red X against you and will subtract from the integrity you have.

On the other hand, your good work as a standards captain will add to your perceived integrity and that "I" word is currency you can use to increase the weight of your opinions, evaluations, and recommendations. Sometimes the right thing to do is not what management wants you to do and that can interfere with the other "I" word, income. I cannot tell you how to behave, other than to leave you with Rule Number Nine of my list of rules:

If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity; but if he demands integrity, then give him loyalty.

—John Boyd

More about this: Integrity Versus Loyalty.

Revision: 20170706
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