February 5, 2015

Pilot and Co-pilot: What’s the Difference?

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Written by: Jeff Choi
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This question is one of the greatest causes of frustration for a pilot speaking to non-pilots about what it is that they do. They can already see that if they answer with the latter, the person posing the question imagines them as a trainee sitting in the cockpit crunching numbers, only granted the responsibility of taking control of the autopilot when the captain leaves to use the lavatory. The media seems to further endorse this perception with its approach to coverage of aviation accidents and incidents. Most recently, the recovery of the black boxes from the Air Asia crash and the information it contained perpetuated the myth: “We now know that when this happened, the co-pilot was at the controls.” This was said as if to imply that this piece of information should provide valuable insight as to why a dangerous situation occurred, as if to ask, “Why wasn’t the real pilot flying the plane in a deteriorating situation?”

Today, on behalf of my colleagues, I’d like to make some clarifications about the roles of the pilot and the co-pilot. However, first, we need to talk about the differences between a commercial pilot and an airline pilot.

A commercial pilot is a pilot who holds a commercial pilot’s license. A commercial pilot license allows a pilot to fly for compensation. That is all it means. It’s like the difference between amateur and pro. A private pilot is an amateur, and a commercial pilot is a pro. The primary distinction is whether or not the person gets paid to do what they do. I currently fly commercially for a charter company – you can liken it to an air taxi/limousine service. When discussing my job to friends or family members, it would not be uncommon for me to be asked “Would you ever want to be a commercial pilot?” I would often reply that I am a commercial pilot; perhaps what they meant was to ask whether or not I wanted to fly for the airlines.

In order to become an airline pilot, in addition to having a commercial pilot license, one also needs an airline transport pilot license (or ATP). The flight experience required in order to obtain an ATP starts at 1500 hours of total flight time. In addition, any aircraft weighing more than 12,500 lbs — even the small “puddle jumper” airliners — require a separate aircraft specific license called a type rating. The differences between flying an Airbus and a Boeing are not comparable to driving a Ford versus a Toyota. Even different models by the same manufacturer more often than not require separate type ratings (a Boeing 737 is quite different from a 747). Obtaining a type rating typically takes two weeks of vigorous ground and simulator training that culminates in a final type ride requiring the pilot to demonstrate a working knowledge of the aircraft’s systems and proficiency in flying the aircraft with various malfunctions and in inclement weather conditions. After a pilot has acquired the type rating, it must be kept current. In order for the pilot to keep exercising the privileges of a type rating, he or she must pass a proficiency check every six months. Can you imagine having to take a road test every six months in order to keep your driver’s license?

Now on to pilot vs co-pilot. I’m not sure why or how this perception came to be, but it seems that much of the general public doesn’t think the co-pilot is a real pilot or is somehow grossly inferior to the actual “pilot pilot.” To better describe their roles, let’s get away from pilot and co-pilot, because they’re both pilots, and start with the actual industry nomenclature. We have a captain and a first officer. Both pilots have ATPs and type ratings to fly their assigned aircraft. In fact, when a captain and a first officer are paired together to fly, they typically split the flying 50/50. If the pairing has them working 4 flights together, the captain will act as flying pilot for two flights, and non-flying pilot for two flights. The primary distinction between the roles of the captain and the first officer, is that the captain carries the weight of responsibility and authority. The captain, or pilot-in-command, in addition to being proficient at flying the aircraft, also assumes the role of in-flight manager. This role of authority is often more effectively accomplished when the captain is not piloting the aircraft, especially in an abnormal or emergency situation. With the first officer at the controls, the captain is allowed to widen his or her scope of attention, to be able to gather input from all available resources – from the first officer, the flight attendants, dispatchers and air traffic controllers to determine the course of action that would result in the most positive outcome.

At the airlines, first officers are upgraded to become captains based on date of hire within the company, also known as seniority. This means that a captain at one airline who switches jobs to work for another airline will have to start as a first officer until he or she has the seniority to upgrade to captain again. Because of this system, and a multitude of other scenarios and variables that could be an essay of its own, it is not at all uncommon for a first officer to actually have more experience than the captain that he or she flying with.

Jeff Choi had his first flight lesson about ten years ago. He’s been working as a commercial pilot for almost eight years with experience as a flight instructor, a first officer at a regional airline, and now a Captain at a charter company.


About the Author

Jeff Choi



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  • vonskippy

    The sooner pilots and their head-in-the-ground union step aside and allow technology to replace them, the better off all the flying public will be.

    In cockpit politics causes more “close calls” (just because of that whole seniority ego battle) then all technology glitches combined.

    If we can fight a war with drones in Iraq flown semi-autonomously from pilots in Nevada, we can fly commercial aircraft along their simple routes.

    Move aside human, it’s time for the robots.

    • Dakdriver

      This is the most rediculous reply I have read in a very long time! Well done.

    • KBARR631

      I agree, let Google drive my car and my plane. Google doesn’t get tired nor distracted The pilot can push the food cart and yell at the flight attendants. That seems a more human worthy job!

    • jetpilot

      Time for the robots? Really? Like the joke I heard about the robotic fully automated passenger flight. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been on a fully automatic piloting system for years that doesn’t need overpaid, under achieved flight crews and are proud to announce that it has been perfected. You are the first passengers to fly our airline controlled by software with nobody in the cockpit. We are proud that during all of our testing there has never been a mistake, mistake, mistake, mistake, mistake!”

    • skysurfing4life

      Really think that is a ridiculous comment ,
      And also I bet that when an engine fails and the plane is taking off in a strong cross wind the plane would crash because when the plane looses an engine there is immediate actions that need to be taken place and what a lot of uneducated people think is that at 100 feet AGL the pilots set the auto pilot and watch a movie which is so not nearly true I was PIC of an aircraft today and the busy environment that we where in and the workload is a lot so unless you have your commercial pilots licence then you probably need to let some one that is a lot more educated in aviation deside the changes and regulations that need to be made

      • vonskippy

        Perhaps someone that understands technology and automation is better qualified then a dinosaur like you. In the 1940’s, there were entire departments (100’s of people) that did nothing but “crunch” numbers on manual calculators – today, your smartphone can accomplish the same thing, in less time, and with zero errors. Automating flight is already possible with today’s technology. Autonomous drones, remote piloting, full flight automation, all happen today (hell, they’re close to making night carrier landings automated). The only thing preventing your replacement in the cockpit with Bender is public perception (which as time goes on will change) and the pilots union. It will happen (independent whether you like it or not) first with cargo planes (fedex/ups/etc) and then as the public gets used to it, with people movers. Human pilots, and their ground based component, human air traffic controllers are the weak link in expanding air traffic.You are the buggy whip maker in the time where buggies are on their way out – best get used to it. Computers will act quicker, suffer from no distractions or emotions or external clutter or ego, and have more experience then 1000 pilots in every conceivable scenario. Most recent air accidents were human error, I’m thinking the argument to replace those error prone humans with automated computer systems is getting easier and easier. But don’t feel bad, it’s a toss up who will be replaced first, pilots or doctors (another group prone to stupid human errors and outlandish ego trips).

        • cactusjuba

          I know we see unmanned drones, and think why not just get rid of the pilots? When you see military transports and Air Force One flown by a guy in trailer then you will know we are ready to open up that to the general public.

          Here’s why its not ready now nor in the next 30-40 year’s. Its NOT safer, or very safe at all. What’s the accident rate in the military with drones per cycle? Its about a factor of 10 times manned military. And military accident rates are pretty high compared to US air carrier safety. Even when it’s “ready”, there will undoubtedly be faults and errors that crash and kill in the process of making safe the new system. It WILL be a natural teething process like with all technology. A computer is only as smart as its programming, which isn’t immune to human error. But public perception and obsession with aviation master disasters will push automated cockpits further back when that happens. You hear about crew mistakes, but rarely when they make a good decision or override a glytchy computer. A computer wouldn’t have landed in the Hudson, and there have been many other fire and catastrophic events that confuse automated systems. I could give a hundred scenerios where flaws with automated aircraft would lead to a crash, and not easily be designed out. But immediately be remedied with a skilled human brain monitoring and managing.

  • ILikeCookies

    Strong trolling indeed, skipster.

  • Pete

    What would have happened without Sullenberger?

    • jeff

      Can you say “fatalities”.

  • “based on date of hire within the company, also known as seniority”

    This aspect is common to other unionized professions. But perhaps here, with drilled mandated SOPs, pilots are more interchangeable with their peers than those in other professions, leaving airlines with little merit-based input for promotion purposes. Odd.