Columnists

August 20, 2014

Cockpit Jumpseating: The Best Seat in the House

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By: Phil Derner Jr.
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(Photo by Mark Eisner, http://mark.theeisners.co.uk/)
(Photo by Mark Eisner, http://mark.theeisners.co.uk/)
My years working in aviation have brought me some of the greatest experiences of my life. Few of them come close to my fortune in being a dispatcher and being able to ride up front in airliners in the cockpit jumpseat. When people hear about what I do for work, they say “Yeah, that’s cool.” When I share that I can also fly for free on any airline, sitting in the cockpit no less, their enthusiasm changes to “Wait. WHAT? THAT’S AWESOME!” And yes, yes it is.

The privilege

Dispatchers are treated as any other airman, and in doing so are afforded the benefit of sitting in jumpseat in the cockpit on their own airline, and often on other airlines with which they have mutual agreements. This allows Dispatchers to commute to work the same as many pilots may jumpseat to work when living in a city that is different than their base. This is especially important because most dispatchers have to work at an airline’s headquarters, and not every city has one of those. So if you’re a career dispatcher, the ability to commute by jumpseat may be what makes your job a practical lifestyle.

First, it needs to be said that cockpit jumpseating, like any jumpseating or non-revving, is a BENEFIT and PRIVILEGE, not a right. One must maintain a level of professionalism and respect; upon entering the aircraft, always ceremoniously asking permission to ride on the aircraft from the flight crew while presenting the necessary paperwork and required documentation. It is also worth mentioning that this is a very protected process, with security being very strict and well-enforced. There are several layers of protection, none of which I will address in this article.

You never know who you'll meet in the cockpit! NYCAviation founder Phil Derner (right).

You never know who you’ll meet in the cockpit! NYCAviation founder Phil Derner (right).

Part of the crew

Sitting in the jumpseat, though a “free” ride, does not spare me from responsibility. Even on other airlines, I am expected to be an active participant in the safe operation of the aircraft. I wear a headset and listen to the radio along with the pilots, monitor what goes on and assist in doing things such as looking for other aircraft when air traffic control says there is traffic in the area. The professional extension from pilots, especially from other airlines, is a great demonstration of safety culture. “Phil, if you see something, don’t be shy to speak up.” Gladly, captain!

In fact, I’ve had to speak up on a handful of occasions. There was the time on one airline during descent that, due to several things going on in a fast-paced environment, the pilots did not hear the new altimeter setting provided by air traffic control. The setting is a measurement of air pressure, allowing the aircraft to know its true altitude. As a result of this wrong setting, the aircraft descended below the assigned altitude of 5,000ft, even though the number on the altimeter said 5,000, this was inaccurate. I noticed the misstep and let the crew know it was the altimeter setting that was the culprit as the Air Traffic Controller barked “climb and maintain five thousand!” Once they adjusted that setting, we saw that we had actually descended to 4,100ft. (PRIZE to the first person that emails me what the altimeter setting was supposed to be, transitioning from 29.92!). Another time while taxiing out to depart, I noticed a departing aircraft blow a tire, and we relayed through ATC to let their crew know that they may need to keep an eye at their destination on landing. The tower also closed our runway for a few minutes while airport officials checked it for pieces of rubber on the pavement. Other than those instances, helping report traffic in sight is a much more common form of participation.

FACT: Most airlines require that jumpseating Dispatchers be freshly shaven. This is because the oxygen masks for the flight crew are large, wrap around the head and require suction/seal to the face to deliver the necessary oxygen.

Good times

Can we talk about the fun stuff now? Sure. Sorry for keeping you hanging.

I have sat up front over 100 times through the years, as both a dispatcher and loadmaster. Every single time is just as exciting as the first time. Oh, that first time.

I was on an empty ferry flight from JFK to Forbes Field in Topeka, Kansas to pick up 200 soldiers and bring them to Iraq on contract by the Department of Defense (Kuwait would be our last stop where the troops would continue on a C-130 or C-17 transport into Iraq). On landing, the Captain decided to take advantage of the 12,803ft runway by seeing how long he could keep the nose of the 757 off the ground on the rollout. I noted the nose wheel finally touch down at 60 knots. Some may say he was toying around unnecessarily, but this skill has a practical application in the event of a nose gear failure.

The view

Some of the most beautiful sights in my life have been from that seat up front. By far the best for me was something I have seen several times — descending into New York Harbor, my favorite being late one evening on a flight into LGA. Upon closing the cockpit door at the departure airport, the captain donned a baseball cap and his heavy New York accent suddenly appeared (but the accent went away with all of his communication on the radio and flight-related matters with his first officer). It was an incredibly clear night, and as we descended into New York through 8,000 ft, he said “Let’s go flying,” and switched off the auto-pilot (most pilots will switch this off around 1,000-1,500ft), and he hand-flew it down the rest of the way.

The typical view from an airliner jumpseat, seen here in a descending MD-80.

The typical view from an airliner jumpseat, seen here in a descending MD-80.

Pilots are often too busy working the aircraft to take in the view, but I was able to sit back, look around and take it all in. There were over a hundred people seated behind me looking out their smaller side windows, but I had a large, panoramic view of the greatest city in the world as we descended past the still-under-construction 1 World Trade Center. It was so calming and beautiful, and I know that out of the millions of people within eyeshot of the massive skyline at that moment, that I was the one that had THE best view in the entire tri-state area. Both the beauty of it, and the appreciation of my fortune, literally brought tears to my eyes. Most of the skyline disappeared from view as we turned right and flew visually above the Long Island Expressway, and we made a big left turn just after CitiField to line up with La Guardia’s runway 31. As we leveled off, I was able to look out to the right and see the town of College Point and see the house that I grew up in that ignited my passion for aviation. Now, however, I’m watching from the opposite angle in the cockpit! Hi Mom!

Having grown up near LGA, flying in and out of there has special meaning for me. Having had my day interrupted every couple of minutes by MD-80 departures while growing up, my first experience jumpseating in one of them at the airport was memorable, to say the least. I had been spoiled by riding in the fairly spacious cockpits of 757s, 767s and A320s, and the MD-80 is much more cozy. Wedging my narrow ass in the tiny seat in front of the cockpit door, I was surprised to see that there was still an ashtray on the wall to my left, a reminder how this aircraft had been in service before the days of the smoking ban.

During the takeoff roll on runway 13, I thought about the times I sat on the College Point shoreline watching these Mad Dogs take to the air, and though it was so loud from across Flushing Bay, it was the exact opposite from in the cockpit. I remember a moment of panic when we lifted off and, once the wheels were no longer making noise on the grooves of the runway, it was as quiet as could be. I literally thought we had dual engine failure for a second until I looked at the gauges and saw that both were still at takeoff thrust. The engines were far enough aft that we could hardly hear them inside the cockpit!

Not exactly first class

The seats are often not incredibly comfortable, usually forcing you to sit very upright for the duration of the flight. I’ve sat up front on coast-to-coast flying, and even 8-9 hour trans-Atlantic flights from Germany to the US with the sun in my face the whole time. It’s admittedly somewhat of a downside, but considering that I am flying for free in this lucky privilege, you’ll nary hear a complaint from me.

Jumpseating as an actual flight benefit is incredible, because it gives me an additional chance to make it aboard a packed flight, since Flight Attendants and other non-rev’ers are not permitted to ride in the cockpit. That means my only competition for that seat is other pilots and Dispatchers. There was a time in Atlanta where I showed up to the gate to a standby list of 70 people vying for 10 open seats. While most would not even wait around, I stayed, and I made it on the flight, because none of those 70 people were cockpit certified. It was the difference between me making it home that day or not.

What it’s all about

For all of the individual experiences I’ve had, my favorite part of sitting up front is something I see every single time, and it’s something I never get tired of. At large major airlines, it’s common for the two pilots to have never met each other before that flight. Yet, they sit down and these two people move and operate the aircraft in a way that is flawless, looking as though it were a well-choreographed dance — all of which is the result of training, training and more training. It’s incredible to me, and regardless of all these views out the windows, seeing the calm, collected, professional behavior of airline pilots across the industry is the most important lesson, and the part of the experience that will stay with me the longest. If there’s one thing I could share with everyone from the jumpseat experience, it would be for others to witness the true professionalism and teamwork that takes place within the small space of an airliner cockpit.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. You can reach him by email or follow him onTwitter @PhilDernerJr.


  • Jim Anuth

    The altimeter should have been set to 30.01.

  • Jimmy

    The altimeter setting was 29.02. “High to low, lookout below”. The aircraft was lower than indicated, which meant that the altimeter setting was lower than what was set. Pressure changes 1″ per thousand feet, so a 900 ft difference equates to a .90 change in the altimeter setting. Since their setting was high, subtract the .90 from the 29.92. 29.92 – .90 = 29.02.

    A setting of 30.01 would have meant they were at 5,090 ft.

  • http://www.AeroSavvy.com Ken is AeroSavvy

    Nice piece, Phil! Yep, jumpseating really IS that cool.

  • Filburt Shellbach

    I think you meant 5,100 feet in your altimeter error story. An error of nine hundred feet would mean an altimeter setting way below anything we see outside of hurricane hunting.