Posted by: Korry | January 10, 2012

Techie Tuesday: What’s the Difference Between a Pilot and a Co-Pilot?

Shortly after someone learns that I’m a pilot, I almost inevitably get the following question: “So are you a pilot or a co-pilot?” You can imagine my answer of “Yes and yes” doesn’t really help to clear anything up! So today, for Techie Tuesday, I’m going to make an honest effort to explain what really is the difference between a pilot and a co-pilot.

Lets start with the basics. A pilot is any person who flies a plane. That said, on any airplane requiring two pilots, you will find a Captain (a.k.a the “pilot”) and a First Officer (a.k.a. the “co-pilot”). I know it may seem like I’m mincing words, but the distinction matters because the Captain and the First Officer must work as a strong team, and as I wrote about yesterday, only when each team member clearly understands their role can the team perform at the highest levels. 

Here’s some background on the main difference between a pilot and a co-pilot. You see, most aviation terms have nautical origins, and just as there is only one captain on a ship, there is also only captain on a plane (the pilot in command, or PIC). He or she is the final authority for the safe operation of the vessel and is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on board. The First Officer, on the other hand, is like the first mate on a boat (the second in command, or SIC). He or she is there to advise, assist and inform the Captain as needed.

So what’s the big advantage to being a Captain? In the airlines, I’d say the two biggest advantages are 1) running the show, and 2) a significant salary bump.Lets face it, we all know what a big difference it makes to work for a great boss. As a First Officer, you constantly fly with different Captains, (Remember when we talked about bidding for monthly schedules?) so you’re forced to become a chameleon, meshing your personality with each Captain’s personality and unique way of running the cockpit. Sure, our procedures are highly standardized, but the Captain still sets the tone, and that tone can vary a LOT! Once you are the captain, you get to set the tone, not adjust to it. You get to make the big decisions, not just advise, assist and inform about them. Additionally, who wouldn’t want to earn more money? I’d say that as a rough average, First Officers only earn about 60% of what a Captain earns.

So what’s the downside to being a Captain? Well, the biggest disadvantage is giving up accumulated seniority as a First Officer. As we’ve talked about before, seniority is everything. From monthly bidding to vacation, seniority determines everything. Would you rather make less money but be a very senior First Officer? Or would you rather be a junior Captain, on call, flying less desirable trips but making quite a bit more money?

So how do you become a Captain? While each airline is different, most airlines offer several position bids each year. This outlines how many captains and first officers are needed in each base and on each different type of plane. Then, the computer (in essence) goes down the seniority list one-by-one, asking each pilot what position he wants. Eventually, there comes a time when all the captain slots have been filled thus leaving only first officer slots left. The time it takes to upgrade varies greatly depending on how many senior pilots retire (thus freeing up captain slots) and how much the company is either growing or shrinking. For me, I’d guess it will take about 7 years with my airline to make Captain for the first time.

Day-to-day, the Captain is focused on big picture things like managing the crew, ensuring the flight plan is correct, the fuel is adequate and being the ultimate decider for any inflight situations that may arise. The First Officer focuses on the smaller picture such as making sure the cockpit switches are set correctly, the flight plan is loaded in the computer correctly, etc. That said, both pilots fly the plane, they generally just alternate who is actually piloting the plane by switching every other flight.

So as you can see, there are lots of differences between pilots and co-pilots, or Captains and First Officers.

Do you have a technical question about airplanes or the airlines? Email me at lifesflightplan@gmail.com and ask away!

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Responses

  1. […] my world of aviation, my team doesn’t just include the Captain and First Officer, it includes the flight attendants, the gate agents, the company dispatchers, mechanics, air […]

  2. […] occurred during the flight rendered the plane nearly impossible to fly. Despite the challenges, the pilots determined creative ways of maneuvering the plane allowing them to bring the severely wounded bird […]

  3. […] promotion dilemma is alive and well at the airlines. Every pilot starts his or her career as a First Officer, not a Captain but almost everyone desires to one day be the Captain. Over time, people retire, the airline […]

  4. […] you can’t be serious, Korry!” Oh yes I am. The First Officer was able to isolate himself inside the flight deck after making the determination that the […]


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