The six jobs of the private pilot


Photo by Blake Guidry on Unsplash

Some years ago, flight crews on at least the largest airplanes had five members, each one of whom would have a full-time rĂ´le to fill during the flight and without each of whom being present some important things wouldn’t get done. Technology has reduced the number of crew for large airplanes to two, a captain and a first officer, but they still have to fulfil the same roles. And when there’s only one pilot present, as there is for any plane being flown by a PPL holder, that pilot has to cover all the same responsibilities by themselves. If you wondered why it feels like there’s a lot to do during a typical flight it’s because there is! Here are the positions you need to cover:

1. Pilot flying

The pilot flying is the one operating the primary flight controls – elevator, ailerons, rudder – and keeping the plane going in the right direction at the right altitude. Students spend most of their early flight lesson hours learning to do this. This includes learning to climb, descend, fly level, make turns, fly at different airspeeds, as well as takeoff, land, demonstrate stalls, and other exercises.

2. Pilot monitoring

In a large two-crew airplane the pilot who isn’t the pilot flying is the pilot monitoring. That job is all about watching, checking, confirming and backup. The pilot monitoring has to spot any configuration errors or errors in manoeuvring and bring them to the attention of the pilot flying early enough for them to be corrected. The pilot monitoring also finds and reads the checklists that are used at different phases of flight.

This is one of the harder things to teach students to do – to watch themselves, and to check what they’ve done. As you fly along, every now and then you should be checking the state of the airplane, including the mixture setting, the flap setting, the RPM, the oil temperature and pressure, the electrical bus voltage and battery current, the fuel levels – and other stuff – so that if there’s anything that’s wrongly set or any indication of a problem it can be corrected or dealt with. Every pilot makes occasional mistakes with airplane configuration but you’ll be better off and live longer if you train yourself to check your own actions and inactions. As pilot monitoring you might notice the flaps are incorrectly set, or you’ve drifted off altitude, or the carburettor heat isn’t on or aff as you desire – and you’ll alert the pilot flying of things they need to correct, as you notice them. Even if the pilot flying is you yourself.

3. Navigator

Before the rise of radio navigation aids, and long before the advent of GPS, the navigator sat at a large(ish) table with charts and rulers and kept track of the airplane position, feeding a heading to steer to the pilot flying, so the plane reached its destination. For the private pilot alone at the controls of a small plane, they still have to decide in which direction to fly. For PPL training we still teach how to do that with a chart and a watch, by reference to checkpoints en-route. In the traditional order of priority for pilots “aviate, navigate, communicate”, making sure you’re going the right way is second only to keeping the airplane under control.

4. Radio operator

Which brings us on to the “communicate” part. Airplanes don’t carry a dedicated radio operator any more, but still in Canada the privilege of talking on an aeronautical radio is reserved for those who’ve passed their radio exam and received a Restricted Operator Certificate – Aeronautical from Industry Canada. So, the private pilot who is both flying, monitoring and navigating, also has the job of keeping track of who to talk to, on which frequency, when to talk to them and what to say. That means asking for and receiving clearances when in class C airspace, following ATC instructions when in contact with ATC, using common traffic advisory frequencies to advise other pilots of intentions, to listen to other pilots announcing their own intentions, as well as making the required position reports when in mandatory frequency areas. With modern VHF radios there’s not a lot of tuning and adjusting to do on the technical side, but radio work is still an important part of flying.

5. Flight engineer

When long distance commercial flight was conducted with heavy piston-engined airplanes, and well into the jet age, the third member of the flight crew after the captain and first officer was the flight engineer, who monitored and controlled all the various engine parameters and controls – oil and fuel used, air/fuel mixtures, throttle settings and so forth. You may only have one engine up front but that engine is well described as a loose collection of four (or six) individual cylinders all connected to a common crank shaft helping to turn the propeller.

If you’re lucky the airplane you’re in is equipped with a digital engine monitor that can tell you the cylinder head temperature and exhaust gas temperature of each cylinder so you can tune the operating parameters (throttle mixture, RPM, manifold pressure) to achieve better power, or more efficient use of fuel. The knowledge of how to do so is something you learn as part of your role as the flight engineer of the plane you’re flying. You’ll also be monitoring parameters such as the oil pressure and oil temperature and the fuel levels. If you spot any problems bring those to the attention of the pilot flying (yourself) so you can decide to divert or terminate the flight early if necessary.

6. Flight attendant

If you have any passengers then you as a single-pilot of a small plane are also responsible for their safety and comfort. You’ll provide a pre-flight and pre-landing briefing, of course, but also you’ll advise them of any emergency information they need before they need it, as well as instruct them when to tighten their seatbelts in case of turbulence, make sure they’re not getting air sick and confirm that bags are stowed at appropriate times during the flight. And if you brought any coffee or other refreshments, you’re responsible for sharing it out! If you’re the PIC you assume the role (and gain the powers) of a peace officer while the flight is in progress. That means you can even arrest your passengers if they don’t obey your lawful commands! If you try that, do let me know how it goes.

7. Weapons systems officer

Ok. This one I’m not serious about, at least not for the kinds of planes I fly. But the other six roles are important and serious. So you have to be flexible enough to switch between them as needed, as well as to decide which is the most important to be working on at any given time. Everyone expects to take on the responsibilities of the pilot flying – but you might not have thought about the others, and they’re important too. Happy flying.

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