The following applies in the cockpit: One pilot has the role of “pilot flying” – that is, the actual flight control over the aircraft – and the other has the role of “pilot monitoring”. This leads the radio and supports the flight.

This understanding of roles is defined in clear processes, the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Accordingly, the cockpit crew checks each other and even the most inexperienced co-pilot should not be afraid to point out mistakes to the experienced captain. The captain has the leading role, but the hierarchies are flat and the training is designed in such a way that every crew member is encouraged to communicate observations or doubts immediately.

Turbulence on the night flight

How important this clear understanding of roles is is shown by an anecdote that I myself experienced as a pilot in the cockpit: We were traveling over the Alps at night. The cabin service was in full swing, the weather maps were inconspicuous and there were no signs of turbulence. Around a dozen other planes were on the same route with us. I remember how beautiful that night was: cloudless, snow-capped mountain peaks in the moonlight, peaceful calm. Suddenly we got into a so-called clear air turbulence without warning. This type of turbulence is not noticeable to pilots in advance because there is no visible evidence of the movement of air masses in clear, cloud-free air.

lear roles, best handling

In our case, the turbulence was so strong that the autopilot switched itself off and had to be taken over manually. As a pilot, I have internalized the principle of “Expect the unexpected”. In the cockpit, we train to anticipate and react to emergencies, which is why we were immediately present and highly concentrated in order to complete the following steps perfectly: 

Step 1: Aviate or “fly the aircraft first”. As “pilot flying”, I immediately took control of the aircraft and tried to maintain altitude, course and speed.
Step 2: Navigate. The “pilot monitoring” took care of the observation of the airspace.
Step 3: Communicate . Fast and clear communication is essential. The “pilot monitoring” informed air traffic control so that the other aircraft in the airspace could be warned and immediately switched on the seat belt sign for the passengers. After a few minutes it calmed down and the situation was under control.
Step 4: situation analysis. With a check that all systems are working properly and that the cabin crew and passengers are well.

Importance of role awareness

We discussed the situation with the cabin manager and also considered a stopover. The assessment of the cabin crew was of the greatest importance here, as only they could experience and assess the situation in the cabin. We were very lucky: Although the crew was serving, there were no injuries or major damage. We decided to continue the flight and informed the passengers with a detailed announcement.

After landing, the last step was debriefing. As a crew, we discussed what had happened, how we had experienced it, how the communication was perceived, whether there were possible improvements from this situation and whether anyone still needed further support.

In the end, I remember the good cooperation in the cockpit and cabin from this extraordinary flight. Although this crew had never flown together before, each crew member knew exactly their role. We were therefore able to react ideally to this exceptional situation. Despite the horror, the passengers felt they were in good hands and safe – this was confirmed by the positive feedback after landing. And it showed me once again how valuable this clear understanding of roles is: It makes the difference in how a flight works – with or without an emergency on board.