Captain Lim Khoy Hing explains what it takes to become the commander of an aircraft.
Words: Captain Lim Khoy Hing Images: Ariff Shah
The flying profession seems to attract people from varied backgrounds, including engineers, dentists, lawyers, and even medical professionals! Recently, a doctor surprised me by seeking advice about becoming an airline pilot.
You’d expect a medical specialist, someone who commands respect in his field due to his seniority and special expertise, to move laterally and perhaps, becomes an aircraft commander. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. He would still have to start at the bottom of the aviation ladder!
PILOT TO CAPTAIN
Promotion to the position of aircraft commander in Asia is generally faster than in the West. This has led many to think that younger Asian captains are less experienced. This is not true. Most of these airline-sponsored pilots are well trained from day one, whereas promotion in the West is slow and getting into a legacy airline is arduous.
Cadet pilot programmes are unusual in the West, where the majority of airline pilots start their career in general aviation and build up their flying hours along the way. As such, it is not uncommon to see a 50-year-old first officer in the US, with about 15,000 hours under his or her belt, still waiting for an upgrade to commander in a legacy airline. In Asia, on the other hand, cadet pilot programmes are available and a pilot with 5,500 hours can be selected to become a captain of a jetliner in about eight to 10 years from the day he was specially recruited to undergo rigorous training. A pilot may even be as young as 26 to 28 years old when he/she first earns his/her four bars (the golden or silver stripes on the shoulder that indicate the rank of captain). Our pilots may be young but rigorous training prepares them to assume the role at a younger age without compromising on expertise.
UNIFORM AND RANK
Airline pilots must be seen to be smart-looking to exude confidence to the flying public. The first pilot uniforms were introduced in the early 1930s by Pan Am (the now defunct Pan American World Airways).
In the beginning, Pan Am operated seaplane services from the US to Britain and France. Hence, pilots’ attire resembled naval officers uniforms. They were designed with the intention of reassuring nervous passengers so they’d feel more confident about their ‘overseas’ journey.
Today, practically every airline in the world has uniforms similar to the naval-style Pan Am design even though flying boats are no longer used in the airline industry.
Due to the advancement of the modern cockpit, planes are now operated by fewer humans than before. As such, the airline industry has mostly done away with flight engineers, navigators and radio operators on planes due to the introduction of computers, GPS and satellite communication.
That leaves only a pilot (the captain) and co-pilot (the first officer) in the cockpit. Sometimes, on medium-haul (around nine to 10 hours) flights, an additional crew known as a ‘cruise’ pilot is also carried to satisfy flight crew rest limitation regulations. These rules stipulate that a flight crew member must not fly for more than regulated hours to prevent fatigue.
In some airlines, a ‘cruise’ pilot is known as a second officer. This pilot operates the plane from the captain’s seat outside the critical phase of the flight or during the cruise at around 20,000 feet or higher.
While all pilots wear gold or silver pilot wings that are either made from metal or embroidered and attached on their black or dark blue blazers, one can determine each crew member’s duty by the uniform and rank worn. A captain has four stripes (either in gold or silver) on the shoulder epaulets and four stripes on the arms of the blazer.
A first officer would sport three stripes and a second officer would have two. Depending on the airline, a second officer under training may wear a single stripe on his epaulet.
ROLE AND RISE
Many are under the impression that the co-pilot or first officer is merely an apprentice who assists the captain. In reality, a first officer is second in command and is trained to match the standards of the captain. They normally share flying duties equally; the captain flies the outbound leg and the first officer flies the return one, or vice versa. When a captain is incapacitated, for instance, due to a heart attack, the first officer is fully competent to land the plane safely. It is nothing heroic, as is quite often portrayed by the media, as he is trained to do so.
The difference between a captain and a first officer is that the former has generally more flying experience. So, how then is a first officer evaluated before he is promoted?
Many airlines promote their pilots based on seniority within their own company. As such, an airline first officer may sometimes be older in age or have more flying hours than a captain by virtue of having the experience gained from other airlines or in the military.
If you see a senior first officer with three stripes, this generally means that the pilot has passed most of the requirements for captaincy and will be ready promotion when he has accumulated sufficient flying hours and, a command position becomes available.
Before being promoted, the potential captain is interviewed and thoroughly checked in a flight simulator, flying in the captain’s seat. Once found to be adequately trained, then and only then, would this pilot be allowed to fly commercial passengers.
Due to the limited positions available, only the best pilot applicants are selected. For the younger readers out there, do you think you have what it takes to be a pilot?
Well, besides having a strong academic background (Math, Science and English), you must, amongst others, have excellent communication skills and lots of self-confidence, be able to make prudent decisions under pressure, be good at problem solving and be physically fit.
Of course, having all the above attributes doesn’t automatically qualify you to become a member of this exacting flying community. There’s more to it. In reality, there are many challenges along the way – but the initial requirement of excellent academic grades is still crucial. To all aspiring pilots, I wish you all the best in achieving your dreams!
Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with AirAsia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.
Capt. Lim’s first book, LIFE IN THE SKIES is now available for purchase onboard all AirAsia flights (AirAsia X, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia) or online at AirAsia Megastore at www.airasiamegastore.com/life-in-the-skies.html It is also available at all major book stores in Malaysia and Singapore. Enjoy the great collection of articles, anecdotal stories and observations of this veteran aviator in this book.