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PREFACE: As there appears to be some confusion about this, note that "conn" in Star Trek is not necessarily defined the same way as in present-day nautical terms. In particular, Memory Alpha says:

The flight control officer, also known as conn officer, or simply conn/helm, was the crewmember on a Federation starship assigned the duty of piloting the vessel. This position combined the roles of the navigator and helmsman used previously. The term "conn" was also used to refer to the flight control station itself.

Thus, "conn" on Star Trek is not the person in charge of the bridge, not the person who gives commands or who determines the course, it's the person who enters the coordinates to travel to or who rotates the vessel and activates thrusters.


In some of the Star Trek series, most notably in TNG, the conn officer (the person steering the ship) was often a rather low-ranking crewmember. In particular, the list included total newbies (Wesley Crusher), crewmembers who would occasionally also do other things (Ro Laren), and an overall large number of ensigns, some Lieutenants Junior Grade, and a few full Lieutenants. While watching TNG, this gave me the impression that plenty of officers with basic training are fit to be assigned to the conn station without any specific piloting skills.

The same sometimes happened on DS9's Defiant, when it was not the main cast filling in as a conn.

Now, this seems to be somewhat in conflict with how the position of the conn was presented in the other series, sometimes also on TNG:

  • First, in the TNG episode "Booby Trap", a delicate maneuver has to be executed… and Picard replaces the conn officer to do that. Not only does this show Picard is another officer who can casually use the conn console, presumably without any special preparation, but it is an example where the conn officer (who should presumably be the specialist for flight control on the bridge) is not deemed capable enough for the tricky part of the task.
  • Likewise, in Star Trek: Insurrection, Riker uses the "manual control column" himself once a complex maneuver has to be performed.
  • In series where the permanent conn officer(s) belong to the main cast (TOS, VOY, ENT), they are not just "some crewmembers who usually man the conn" (as it was sometimes the case with LaForge and Worf in TNG's 1st season). Instead, actually quite a big deal is made about at least Sulu and Paris specifically being excellent navigators/pilots.
  • And lastly, it also seems somewhat logical that "taking the conn" of a large starship might require some additional training. Entering target coordinates for a travel at warp speed may be unproblematic, and we do not know exactly to what extent the computer helps the pilot pilot the ship. Yet, at least when we look at the degree of manual control during the aforementioned special maneuvers, it becomes evident that the conn officer would have to have extensive experience with piloting the particular ship class. While it is conceivable these maneuvers are not normally needed and thus most crewmembers do not need that training, it is also doubtful whether the captain or first officer of all people would be the ones to have that training.

Therefore:

Is there any information on why especially TNG conveyed an "everyone can do conn" impression?

Is this maybe based on some real precedent from military ships that was (mindlessly or not) taken over for TNG?

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    The job of "flight control officer" is a pretty low-ranking one. You don't really make any decisions about the direction or speed of travel and your role can largely be replaced by the computer. – Valorum Aug 11 at 20:39
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    Note, the conning officer is not the pilot/helmsman/navigator. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conn_(nautical), which describes the actual nautical basis for this. Essentially, the conning officer is responsible for managing the ship while boring things are happening, and the captain (though they may not be a captain in rank) or another responsible higher ranking officer takes over when the situation warrants someone with a higher degree of responsibility or experience. See for example the couple of episodes of Voyager where Harry Kim is in command of the bridge on the night shift. – Austin Hemmelgarn Aug 13 at 1:57
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    @AustinHemmelgarn: In the context of Star Trek, you're wrong. cf. e.g. Memory Alpha: "The flight control officer, also known as conn officer, or simply conn/helm, was the crewmember on a Federation starship assigned the duty of piloting the vessel. This position combined the roles of the navigator and helmsman used previously. The term 'conn' was also used to refer to the flight control station itself." – O. R. Mapper Aug 13 at 8:02
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Rand al'Thor Aug 14 at 9:30
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The conn officer is essentially the Star Trek version of the helmsman/navigator positions on a modern ship. While the navigation officer tends to be Second or a Third Mate (or military equivalent), the actual helm is often manned by enlisted personnel during normal open water sailing. So if you're combining the positions, it makes sense for it to be a senior noncom or junior officer, especially as the computer handles most of the duties anyway.

As for one of the senior officers taking over the helm in certain circumstances, this isn't entirely unprecedented either. For instance, on large modern ships, the helm controls are usually duplicated on the bridge wings and when docking or departing the commanding officer often has hands-on control themself to execute the fine manoeuvres.

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    Right. It seems that "everyone can do conn" is true under normal circumstances, but when special maneuvers are required then someone with more experience may step in. It's sort of like the real military where nearly anyone in uniform can load and fire a rifle, but only a few are qualified snipers. If you just need the thing across the room dead you don't need to call in a sniper. – Robert Columbia Aug 12 at 1:02
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    I would've thought the CO would have a million administrative tasks to do as they entered port. Unless piloting the ship in is what they do to avoid those tasks... – Cadence Aug 12 at 5:19
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    @Cadence, entering port, like landing an aircraft, is one of the more hazardous things ships do on a routine basis. A captain who wasn't on the bridge during that time, even if they aren't at the helm directly, would almost certainly find themselves as an ex-captain after not very long. – Keith Morrison Aug 12 at 6:34
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    @RobertColumbia "when special maneuvers are required then someone with more experience may step in." or someone whose job is to take responsibility if the ship crashes. Totalling a starship isn't something that it is fair to put on an ensign's service record. – Pete Kirkham Aug 12 at 7:52
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    The "Steering the ship during docking" bit seems like one of those hangovers from old maritime tradition. It's not just that the Captain is higher ranked, they're also absolutely responsible for the lives of everyone on board, and the safety of the vessel. See "The captain goes down with his ship", or, more pragmatically, "is the last person off when it's sinking". They are rules and traditions more designed to highlight that responsibility, and ensure there are personal consequences if you screw up, rather than be practical. – lupe Aug 12 at 9:08
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In the merchant marine and in the navy, the person who steers the ship and holds the steering wheel is usually low ranking.

In European nautical tradition, in the age of sail, ships were steered by someone holding the tiller, a long lever connected to the rudder, in a room in the stern castle of the ship, which had a very poor view. An officer on deck who could see the position of the ship would give them orders when changing course was necessary.

Otherwise, it was necessary for the person holding the tiller to hold it steady as winds and waves changed, and to make certain the masts didn't shake violently and drop crewmen off.

About the year AD 1700, steering wheels were invented. Then the person holding the steering wheel was up on the deck of the ship and had a view. But masts and sails often blocked the view, and the person holding the helm had to keep on holding it. The officer in change could move around on the deck and even climb partway up a mast, to get a better view, and there were usually lookouts high in the masts to shout down to the deck what they saw.

Thus the officers continued to tell the man holding the steering wheel when to change course and how to change course.

Owen Chase, first mate of the whaling ship Essex wrote how a sperm whale charged at the ship and he told the boy at the wheel to turn the ship in a vain attempt to avoid being rammed. The boy at the wheel was named Thomas Nickerson, the youngest member of the crew, and he had turned 15 during the voyage.

The lookouts in the crow's nest of RMS Titanic spotted an iceberg ahead, and telephoned down to the bridge. The officer in command ordered quartermaster Robert Hitchens to turn the wheel to try to avoid the iceberg.

I once saw a recruiting ad for the US Navy depicting a teenage sailor at the steering wheel of an atomic submarine. Nobody can see where an atomic submarine is going while it is underwater for weeks and months at a time, so they need sonar and good navigation to know when to change course.

In the nautical tradition of our civilization, low ranking persons do the actual steering, obeying the instructions of the officers in charge. See my answer on the history SE site here.

With the speeds of Star Trek starships, interstellar voyages should often take days of heading in the same direction. So all that a helmsman might do during a single watch might be to periodically check to make sure they are on course and wait around for something to happen to give them a reason to change course. So that doesn't seem like a job for senior officers to me.

So Star Trek shows which depict helmsman as a job for low ranking crew members seem to be in line with Earth's nautical history and with the logic of interstellar travel. Star Trek shows like TOS which depict the job of helmsman as an important position filled by officers seem to be the odd ones.

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    Also military ships, e.g. in both world wars, often had the actual wheel below the deck where it was well armoured and the officer of the watch shouted commands from the bridge through a pipe. That way if the bridge, which is always much more likely to get hit, was damaged, that or another officer could continue giving orders from a backup location. If the wheel was on the bridge, it could easily get jammed in a hit and then backup location wouldn't help. – Jan Hudec Aug 12 at 18:26
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    "About 1700 steering wheels were invented." Presumably you mean "About 1700, steering wheels were invented." Without the comma, it means that the number of steering wheels that were invented was 1700. – Acccumulation Aug 13 at 1:58
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    Weren’t Sulu and Chekhov (and unnamed red jumpsuits) the most usual helmsmen in TOS? They were a lieutenant and an ensign, the lowest officer ranks, even if they were also in the main cast. – The Photon Aug 13 at 4:40
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    @Acccumulation Ah, the comma... the difference between inviting your elder to dinner ("Let's eat, grandma!") and having your elder as dinner ("Let's eat grandma!"). – T.J.L. Aug 13 at 13:54
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    @ThePhoton yes – OrangeDog Aug 14 at 15:46
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Helmsman != pilot != navigator != conn.

There's a navigator (often Pavel Chekov in TOS,) there's a helmsman (often Hikaru Sulu in TOS,) and then there's "the conn."

Whoever has "the conn" is in temporary command of the ship, and can give orders as needed to the helmsman, the navigator, or whoever else needs told what to do to maintain the course and task given by the captain.

Conn has to decide when things are normal and make decisions to keep things running, or to request the Captain or other command officer to take over when the situation is no longer normal (that is, not what it was when the commanding officer turned over the conn to a lower officer.)


In the shows, the Captain often "takes the conn" and sits in the Captain's seat on the bridge to oversee routine operation.

When the Captain or another line officer on bridge duty at the conn has to leave the bridge, then that officer can appoint someone to "hold the fort" until the officer returns. The appointed person "has the conn" and monitors the normal operations and gives commands as allowed by the position and the authority it confers. The person holding "conn" sits in the Captain's seat and gives orders.

The person at the conn could give orders to set course for the Andromeda galaxy and expect to be obeyed - though someone is certain to check with a higher officer or the Captain if the mission at hand has nothing to do with Andromeda.

In the episodes mentioned in the question, the Captain or other officer wasn't just acting as conn, but rather as pilot or helmsman.

Those are rare exceptions. Cases where the responsibility is more important than the ability - or even more rare, where the commanding officer is actually better able to do the pilot's job than the pilot is.

Lower rank officers can hold "conn" because it is a temporary authority granted by a higher ranking officer with the expectation that the lower ranking officer will recall the higher ranking officer (or appropriate higher authority) if conditions change.

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    In Star Trek, the "conn officer" is the helmsman, pilot, and navigator. See my edit to the question. – O. R. Mapper Aug 13 at 8:31
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    @O.R.Mapper: The conn officer may also be a pilot, navigstor, or helmsman. The conn officer usually sits in the command seat, but may stay at the normally assigned station. – JRE Aug 13 at 8:34
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    The memory alpha quote conflicts with what is seen on screen in nearly every episode. – JRE Aug 13 at 8:35
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    Watch damn near any episode. Captain gets up from the command seat, says "So and so, you have the conn." In TOS, "So and so" gets up and goes to sit in the captains chair. TNG, "So and so" may move to the command seat or not. In both cases, the officer with the conn is now temporarily in command. Often "So and so" was the navigator or the helmsman, which makes hash of your "conn is helmsman" argument. – JRE Aug 13 at 9:02
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    Helm is already helm, no need to pass it on. Conn is passing command authority. "You have the conn" changes the on duty helmsman or navigator from "follow orders and carry out your normally asdigned duties" to "give orders and carry out your normally assigned duties." – JRE Aug 13 at 9:03
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Star Trek is largely based on naval traditions - ranks onboard ship match, the voyage of discovery trope is pretty much the series premise.

Maritime traditions are set out to emphasize personal responsibility for the captain of the vessel. It's not sufficient to blame the idiot ensign for messing up the navigation, it's your job as Captain to ensure they did it right, and were trained correctly. You have both complete power, and complete responsibility over the vessel, and everyone on board.

Therefore, it's your job, as Captain, to know how to steer the ship, and how the ship handles. You don't get away with being untrained in this, because it informs all the rest of the decisions you make. What size space you can fit through. Can you cut off an opponent, bring your weapons round before they can turn?

It also means you take the conn at times that it's likely to kill everyone on board. Your ship, your responsibility for their lives, your job to steer them through it.

Random, but somewhat senior people taking the helm fits with this. It's also your job to protect the vessel even if you're killed or incapacitated. Cross training your crew is very common, even on small boats. This means letting people who are being trained try steering, navigation etc under calm, sensible circumstances.

It's also essential for those in your crew to progress up the ranks. It would be very reasonable for them to have a requirement to "Have spent x hours flying x ship" in order to be promoted, and, again, as Captain, it's your responsibility to push them, and train them to command vessels of their own.

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    "Therefore, it's your job, as Captain, to know how to steer the ship, and how the ship handles. You don't get away with being untrained in this, because it informs all the rest of the decisions you make." - this seems to be a crucial point that I wasn't quite aware of. It does make me wonder, though, why the captain would ask e.g. the chief engineer for advice on engineering matters rather than taking over control over engineering themselves, as well. The same arguments seem to apply there; knowing the technology and its status in and out informs all the rest of the decisions. – O. R. Mapper Aug 12 at 9:31
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    I think you'd expect the captain to know, say, the power of the engines, how to control the ship when they break, and a bunch about their theoretical workings and possible risks (i.e, what happens when the ship is on fire and you go to warp). It's a different discipline. The age of sail analogy is that ships had carpenters on board. If you get a big hole in the side, the captain should have an idea of when it is too big, how to sail to slow the water coming in, and when the ship needs to be abandoned, but the carpenter should be able to fix it – lupe Aug 12 at 9:37
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    @O.R.Mapper, the captain would almost certainly be expected to know enough to understand what the engineer is telling him, maybe to be able to do those duties in an emergency, but the engineers live and breath that stuff. They have way more experience than the captain. You could as well ask why a general practitioner will still ask a cardiologist for advice about a heart problem. (con't...) – Matthew Aug 14 at 14:02
  • (...con't) Picard taking over in Booby Trap may even be more Rule of Drama than realistic, though in that case the stakes were much higher than usual. OTOH, the difference in experience levels in that instance may not be nearly as pronounced as e.g. Picard vs. LaForge when it comes to engineering matters. (Also, that is an instance where sheer nerve may be as important as technical experience. Crusher may be a genius, but he's still just a kid.) – Matthew Aug 14 at 14:05
  • @Matthew: Fully agree concerning "engineers live and breath that stuff". And I'd expect the very same thing to be true for flight control. The captain will very well know how to generally steer the ship, what thrusters are available, etc. But I wouldn't expect the Captain to have the same "feeling" for the precise effect each thruster at each setting will have that a long-time helmsman would. Good point about sheer nerve, though. – O. R. Mapper Aug 14 at 14:07

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