The news media has discovered that there was a third person in the cockpit when Southwest landed at the wrong airport in Missouri. I’m sure they immediately assumed they had uncovered a scandal of epic proportion. In fact, it’s not unusual at all to have a jump seat rider aboard. There are several groups of people authorized to ride in the cockpit (with the captain’s permission) including off duty pilots, FAA inspectors, NTSB investigators, company dispatchers, secret service agents, air traffic controllers, flight attendant’s, ground school instructors, and mechanics in some circumstances. The secret service agents are the only people who do not need prior permission.
I’ve been on both sides of that fence and benefitted greatly. When I became an airline ground school instructor I was authorized to ride the jump seat in order to observe the aircraft systems and the pilots operating procedures. It was an invaluable learning experience and I was always grateful to the crew for answering my questions and allowing me to observe the operation. Not to mention that I considered it great fun at that stage of my career.
Years later, when the company hired me as a pilot, I always tried to make jump seat riders feel welcome. As a captain I think I had jump seat riders from all categories and never refused permission to ride in the cockpit. Off duty pilots usually strapped in and fell asleep unless there was food involved. FAA inspectors usually had questions and always provided a critique at debrief. When I checked out as captain on the 767, all the flight training was accomplished in the simulator. I actually took the check ride and received the type rating before I ever saw the inside of a real 767 cockpit. As luck would have it, when I went out for my initial operating experience with a line check captain, we had a FAA inspector on the jump seat. It wasn’t part of the program; he just needed a ride to Miami. None the less, the first time I sat in the seat, the FAA was looking over my shoulder. Fate continued to frown on me when we had to do a go around in Miami because the flight ahead of us decided to homestead on the runway. Fortunately I had become accustomed to single engine missed approaches in the simulator so doing one with two engines was a piece of cake.
NTSB investigators were always informative and offered insight not generally available. I only had the secret service aboard one time and that was due to former President Carter and the First Lady riding in First Class. The Secret Service is…well, secretive. Ground school instructors were always most welcome in my cockpit due to my previous experience.
Air traffic controllers ride the jump seat on what is called FAM (familiarization) flights. It was always great to put a face with the voice on the radio and discuss mutual problems and how to solve them. It was an opportunity to express our gratitude for the outstanding work they do. I once had an early morning departure out of one of our smaller stations and when we called for clearance, the controller mentioned that his wife would be a passenger on our flight. The game was on. Being a small airport, the controller was also working ground control and tower from the same frequency. We were the only airplane in town. When his wife came aboard I invited her into the cockpit at the gate and coached her on how to speak to her husband on the radio.
“Uh…XXX 1214…Ground. You sound just like my wife.”
“Frank, I’ve been upgraded to First Class and I certainly hope there won’t be a delay for our departure.”
“Yes dear, have a good flight.”
Not only did we get an expedited departure, we received favorable handling all the way to Atlanta. Sometimes I miss the game.
Back to the subject at hand. The jump seat rider on the Southwest flight was a company dispatcher. Dispatchers are at the heart of airline operations and oversee, monitor and anticipate more things than we have time or space to discuss here. They work in a NASA environment with access to more information than Google. As a part of new hire pilot ground school, we were escorted to the airline’s Flight Control Center in Atlanta and each of us was allowed to sit with a dispatcher at his position for an hour. I was impressed. This guy is talking to pilots on the other side of the world and spitting out flight plans, providing weather, weight and balance, fuel loads and passenger information. He’s coordinating with ATC, crew scheduling, airport operations and I think Dominoes Pizza in Paris was part of one conversation. Meanwhile, he found time to answer my dumb questions.
Need I say that it was always a pleasure to have a dispatcher as an observer on my jump seat and it was always comforting to know that they were somewhere in that little radio box no matter where I happened to be in the world.
Who knows what led Southwest to the wrong patch of concrete? I’m just glad there was no damage and no injuries.