Last time, I talked about the FAA program that allowed Controllers to ride in cockpit jumpseats for Familiarization Flights – FAM Flights.
Each airline had its own procedures and customs for access to the jump seat. Generally, all one had to do was present yourself in dispatch with an FAA ID and a form signed by your supervisor. Compliance with the airline’s grooming and dress code was mandatory. We would always get a laugh out of seeing someone who normally favored t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops show up for work in a brand new suit accompanied by a brand new haircut. This person would be greeted with “Going for a FAM trip, huh?”
The reception by the flight crew could also be interesting. Their first reaction would often be “Oh crap, a Fed is riding with us today.” After patiently explaining that we were from Air Traffic and not Flight Standards (FSDO) doing a line check, the Captain would relax and invite the Controller into the cockpit.
The best trips were when you were actively engaged as part of the crew. A good crew would start with a safety briefing, explaining the oxygen mask, radio controls, etc. It made you feel part of the crew. “If you see something you do not like, speak up” was a frequent comment. (Of course, I would not question a B747 Captain’s choice of flap settings.) I tried to help as much as possible with an extra set of eyes looking for traffic.
I learned a lot about how a professional flight crew operates under often-stressful conditions. When I retired from the FAA and started flying as Captain of my own two person crew, I tried to recall lessons and build on experience learned from those senior Captains.
Veteran jump seat riders picked their trips by the type of equipment flown. There is a surprising difference between different airliner cockpits. The worst was the ubiquitous B727; especially in the aft or 2nd jump seat. The forward jump seat was about 6” behind the Captain’s seat. You prayed for a short Captain. If he or she had to put their seat all the way back, you were riding sideways for 3 or 4 hours.
Then there was the DC9/MD80s. This was not too bad for room but the seat back rest was also the cockpit door. Every time the cockpit door opened, you had to lean forward and duck the coffee cups, meal trays, etc. that were passed back and forth over your head. Moreover, being the only door, it was also the cockpit exit. That meant you had to take off the headset, unbuckle, get up and fold the little seat every time a crewmember needed a personal break.
The best jump seat by far was the L1011. There was a great big window next to a full size seat. I had the great fortune to ride one of these from LAX to Honolulu.
I have also traveled throughout the Caribbean and if you were lucky could even get a trip to Europe. The military participated in a slightly different program but similar. I was able to ride in the cockpit of a C5A Galaxy through a night aerial refueling with two KC135s in formation.
Of course, for some Controllers it just turned into free transportation; although not without hassles. Being bumped was always a threat and priority for jumpseats was assigned differently by different airlines. But it always seemed that Controllers were the lowest priority.
If you were brave, you could try to schedule a FAM trip around a family vacation. I remember one trip to California. The Captain knew I was traveling with my family in the back. As we were coming up on the Grand Canyon, he asked me if I wanted to bring anyone up front. This was, of course, pre 9/11. My 9 year old daughter came up, took one look at the view of the canyon through the cockpit windows from FL350 and said “Wow Dad, you have a cool job”.