Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Proud Captain

Hi Jackson & GaP, Your e-mail is a catalyst. It sparked some thought on how I see the role of an airline captain vis-a-vis captains of ocean ships. Like you, Jackson, I've read and re-read O'Brian's Master & Commander series, about Aubrey, along with the stories of Hornblower, Ramage and Bililtho. I love them! I've also been a fan of Star Trek. My favorite Star Fleet captain is Picard ... now there's a man with great CRM. Recently I read the autobiography of Capt. Harry Grattidge, late commander of both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth (number 1 of both series, the "WWII Cunarders"). Grattidge once again reminded me of the parallels between sea captains and airline captains. By Grattidge's time were long gone the days of flogging, with ships months away from government or corporate control and with cultures having no regard for human life or liberty. Grattidge was the appointed master of his vessels. Among his responsibilities was making sure the rules of the sea and Cunard were strictly carried out. He could not wield personal whim. To do so would be to his professional peril. So the "master" was actually a servant. And so he is today. One of Grattidge's stories stuck with me: On one of his weekly inspections aboard Queen Mary, Grattidge found a pile of unwashed linens under a dining room table. He said, "I didn't have to rant or rave. I just held the light of my torch (flashlight) on the dirty linen for just a moment or two longer than I would have normally. I didn't have to turn and stare at the man responsible or his officer. I did not have to speak. I could see out the corner of their eye that they knew that I now knew." He didn't flog anybody. He didn't even have to say anything. He didn't yell, "Take that man's name" or "Lash him to the grate!" "On the next week's inspection," he said. "That dining room was perfect." He spoke of the calm, quiet approach and how it is important to exercise discipline while preserving a crewmember's dignity ... CRM. Unlike the days of Bligh and Cook, when flogging, hanging & keel hauling were common, our style is more subdued. But the responsibility and charge remains the same; the safe and efficient operation of the vessel. So it is with airline captains. The "ultimate authority" is the caretaker and coordinator of a myriad set of rules, customs, over-lapping responsibilities and authorities ... he must step a careful dance all the while knowing that the final decision and responsibility for keeping all safe and orderly rests squarely with him. We often hear in the cockpit, "They've taken away all our authority." That is simply not true. We operate in a complex array of overlaps. Often there are forces that would like to eliminate a captain's "ultimate authority." But all the authority goes right through the captain's seat. He ultimately says yes or no to the operation on the aircraft. He can refuse to move or he can declare an emergency at any time. There are many examples in the O'Brian books where Aubrey comes up against the Admiralty. Sometimes he must bend to its will in his execution of duty. Sometimes he fights the Admiralty and wins. He is the ultimate authority on his ship ... but he always remembers he serves at the pleasure of the Admiralty. The First Lord can fire him at any time! He is the custodian of official rules, laws and orders. So he'd better be damn careful! To break rule or custom in furtherance of personal whim would be done at his own peril! Can you imagine what it would really be like to have Capt. Picard's job on board Enterprise? Star Fleet would permanently have a dispatcher, Mayo doctor and even Doug Steenland holographically staffing the bridge! Even so, Picard would still be captain ... the ultimate authority (that is, unless Star Fleet decides that a vessel in the stellar void is best commanded by a committee ... and then God help them!). It has long been my feeling that captains (be they on the sea, in the air or in space) who don't understand the age old traditions and laws of navigating away from land, and either try to wield personal power or feel that "they've taken away all my authority" should, in fact, show the maritime signal "red over red, captain is dead," for in many ways that vessel is truly "not under command." A captain must command and accept the responsibility of his command. Sometime his vested authority requires the commander to explain and justify himself. How many times did we read of Capt. Jack Aubrey doing a "carpet waltz" in the office of an admiral or First Lord? Have "they" taken away my authority? Are airline captains captains in name only. Are they nothing more than airplane drivers. They'd better not be because a vessel needs a captain! I may choose, however, to not exercise my lawful and responsible authority. In doing so I would have abdicated. Best complete the abdication, retire, and leave the job of commanding to someone else. There's a big difference between being a pilot and being a captain (see Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain). A modern airliner has two pilots; skilled airmen, systems experts & navigators. But a ship in the air also requires a captain. On an airliner the commander is Pilot and Captain. That's not unlike the old Master and Commander (Keep in mind that larger ships in Aubrey's time had a captain and a seperate sailing master, a warrant officer posting. Smaller ships, like the fictitious Aubrey's brig Sophie, didn't rate a sailing master, so the captain served a dual role ... (Sailing) Master and Commander (Captain). There's a good article about a ship's master at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_Mariner. I doubt that the "hell fire and brimstone" Captain Ahab types were very common at any time in history. One of the best attributes a captain can have is humility. It seems to me that a quiet, respectful command presence is the best kind. Thanks, gents, for giving me a chance to think about this stuff and get my thoughts on "paper." Best regards, Russ. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Russ...Wow. Just Wow. Just did my second trip as lead and I made very sure that the Captain and his Officer had everything they needed, felt welcome, and I made it a point to tell them that I take the meal-cart barrier-rule VERY seriously. I know Spokane isn't exactly a terrorist target, for example, but I'm letting any potential troublemakers out in the cabin know that I'm not screwing around nor taking any chances...Call me overcautious...and I'll say "Thank you..." Hope you're well...Do you have an address I can send a Christmas package to?

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