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Role and Duties
The flight controller (also referred to as conn) is the bridge officer assigned the duty of piloting the vessel. This position combines the roles of the navigator and helmsman used in the past. The flight controller has to be extremely knowledgeable in atmospheric craft, subspace field geometry, complex mathematics, space sciences, astrogation, system operation of the flight console, and systems repairs at the level of a technician. It is a phenomenally important role.
One of the most important positions on the bridge of any vessel is the helm, a term borrowed from early Earth naval tradition for the operational station and series of controls directly responsible for actually piloting a vessel. In common with many bridge duty stations, the helm position has been constantly improved and increasingly integrated onto other systems as starship design has evolved. In current times, the separate positions of helm and navigation no longer exist, but the role of helmsman can still be clearly identified, as can the change in the skills required to become a helmsman discussed in relation to the change in Starfleet bridge designs. The integration of the navigator’s function into the helm position came with the introduction of the Galaxy-class design in the 2360’s, and while it was renamed to flight controller, the relative position in front of the main viewscreen remains the same.
Controls available to the helmsman have increased in sophistication and sensitivity over the years, and while the skills of the navigator were integrated into a pilot’s training from the 2360’s, the basic helm controls have remained the same since the introduction of warp drive. Controlling the ship’s course, attitude, and speed are three of the primary function of the helmsman, and the interfaces made available at the helm reflect the technological sophistication of the time. The helm of the Enterprise NCC-1701 was operated by Hikaru Sulu and he proved his mastery of the basic push-button controls and toggle switches to control warp and impulse power on a number of occasions.
Starfleet’s introduction of the nautical term ‘conn’ on the first Galaxy-class vessels led to an expanded role for the helmsman, but the original piloting controls remained on the newly designed touch-sensitive interfaces. The flight control panel integrates the navigational controls of the once separate station, allowing the helmsman to prepare courses and execute them at the same station. Warp drive and impulse controls are within easy reach to the right of the navigational controls, requiring a greater flexibility of manipulation by the crew member operating the conn. The conn panel on modern starships includes a pressure sensitive four-way pad that allows coordinated control of the RCS thrusters systems, giving the helmsman finger tip control of the ship’s position.
Further integration of skills is exhibited in the design of the Defiant-class vessel, where the helm also doubles for weapons and defensive controls, along with navigation. Only highly experienced officers conversant with all of these systems are assigned to such vessels, and while the position is reflective of the traditional helm station at the front of the small bridge it is not a true helmsman’s role.
The introduction of the Intrepid-class design in 2370 made a return to naming the pilot’s position the helm instead of the conn, placing the helm officer in charge of the ship’s highly advanced pilot console at the very front of the bridge. Flight critical displays from the engineering console are duplicated on one of the viewscreens, allowing the helm officer to shut down the warp or impulse engines if an emergency arises. Control over the navigation of the ship can be handled from this position, or coordinated with the Ops position, and in addition to operating the thrusters, warp, and impulse engines, the helm officer aboard Intrepid-class vessels must also be conversant with the automated landing procedure, as the sequence can be initiated and controlled from the helm control panel.
Navigational duties form an important role aboard Federation starships, whether they are carried out by humanoid officers, or automated computer systems. During the course of starship missions over the years, space navigation improved to such an extent that vessels could travel for extended distances at relatively high warp speeds yet, thanks to the increasing amount of astrometric data fed back to Starfleet, and distributed via the subspace network, it became possible for vessels to accurately map their position and calculate new courses and headings. Navigating the vast reaches of space is a skilled and complex undertaking, requiring extensive knowledge of sensor systems, astronomical phenomena, and conditions leading to the ability to calculate the best course for a ship when required.
One of the most significant developments that led to the demise of the navigator’s separate role came in the far higher dependence on automated systems for the plotting, execution, and monitoring of a vessel’s progress through space. Modern ships have dispensed entirely with the navigator’s position, although vestiges of their original duties are incorporated into the flight control console. The majority of the navigational duties are heavily automated, but the critical nature of the position still demands an actual person oversees the accuracy of a vessel’s course. Receiving and acting directly on commands issued by the commanding officer on the bridge, the helmsman generally leaves the execution of flight instructions to the computerised systems, but they may still be required to calculate the best course manually, lay the course into the navigational computer, and then engage the ship on a predetermined heading and speed.
Officers undertaking this role are trained how to interpret relevant data from navigational and tactical sensors, with selected information constantly relayed to the conn position during a mission. Information derived from these systems can be overlaid onto the ship’s current location, and compared against course projections, with the helmsman reporting any change in the ship’s velocity or heading. Experienced helmsmen will have a deeper understanding of what can adversely affect a ship’s progress, and with the ability to execute course changes from the helm they can increase reaction time to a potentially dangerous situation considerably. In their joint role of pilot and navigator, the helmsman is also expected to access secondary navigation and science sensors for verification of primary sensor data, with such cross-checks a matter of routine at each shift change, or during alert status. Access to the planetary catalogue is yet another useful aid to navigation, allowing extensive research to be carried out, or new entries to be made as required.
The role of the navigator may no longer be concentrated into a single individual, but the operational duties traditionally associated with this position are still very much required despite increased reliance on automated systems. Increasing the number of personnel capable of carrying out these duties adds a crucial flexibility to the bridge of a starship, particularly in hazardous situations where the primary navigational position may be damaged, or the helmsman incapacitated.
Further reading and information on Navigation can be found in the Galactic Directions article.