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  • Writer's pictureFlying Smarter

What Is the Difference Between a Captain, First Officer, Pilot, and Copilot?

Two pilots in a flight deck

Airliners are generally flown by two people these days, with two pilot seats in the flight deck. These two individuals are known as the captain and the first officer. Contrary to popular belief, the first officer is not merely a “backup pilot” or assistant for the captain.

What Is the Role of a Captain?

The captain has overall responsibility for the aircraft and the flight and is considered the pilot in command or PIC. Since they are ultimately responsible for the aircraft and its safe operation, they have certain legal obligations and authority. The captain typically sits in the left seat of the flight deck and can be identified by four stripes on their uniform.

What Does the First Officer Do?

The first officer is just as qualified to fly the plane as the captain. They share flying responsibilities with the captain, and the two will take turns being the pilot flying and the pilot monitoring. When pilots are on multi-segment trips, the captain and first officer will typically alternate roles between flights. Even when the first officer is the pilot flying though, the captain ultimately retains responsibility for the aircraft as the pilot in command. First officers generally sit in the right seat of the flight deck and have three stripes on their uniforms.

Are Captains More Experienced Than First Officers?

It makes sense for a captain to be older and more experienced than the first officer. While this is often the case, it is not necessarily the case. In some parts of the world, such as in the United States, pilots bid for captain and first officer roles based on their seniority. A first officer may have a lot of experience but not choose to become a captain, meaning that they will sometimes fly with captains who have fewer flying hours but were able to bid for a captain position. Other situations in which a first officer could be older or more experienced the captain would include cases where the first officer has previous flying experience from another airline or the military, or those who have become pilots at an older age.

Two pilots in a flight deck

Other Pilot Roles

On longer flights like those crossing the Pacific Ocean, there will also generally be one or two additional pilots, so that pilots can take turns getting some rest. These pilots may be captains or first officers. Some airlines will have what are called second officers, who are newer pilots that help with certain duties on longer flights. This is the only real time where the idea of an “assistant pilot” may actually exist, but these second officers are also usually fully trained to fly the plane.

The final position that is worth mentioning is the navigator. This was a third flight deck position that was commonplace on board airliners throughout much of the 20th century. As the job title suggests, the navigator was responsible for aircraft navigation, but the role has become largely obsolete due to modern day technology. Navigators are therefore not found on modern aircraft, but there are still some older aircraft flying out there that require a navigator.

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