Airline Captain and First Officer Explained

Airline Captain and First Officer ExplainedWhat are their roles, salary, and training requirements?

On your journey to becoming a commercial airline pilot, your first stop after training and flight instructing will probably be flying as a First Officer. After gaining experience as a First Officer, you will then upgrade to Captain. While the roles of a First Officer and a Captain are different, they also overlap.

What Is an Airline First Officer?

A First Officer in aviation is a commercial airline pilot who helps navigate and operate flights. They work in the cockpit with the Captain to assist them with the flight. They sit in the right seat and are the second in command (SIC), while the Captain sits in the left seat and is the pilot in command (PIC).

What Is an Airline Captain?

Being that the Captain is the pilot in command, they are the final authority to the safe operation of the aircraft and therefore, the final decision maker. The Captain will delegate tasks to the First Officer to help fly the aircraft.

What Are the Training Requirements for a First Officer and Captain?

Both pilots have nearly identical training and are required to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. However, a Captain will have additional “upgrade” training which will involve a few days of classes that are designed to teach the pilot how to think like a Captain.

Many times a Captain and First Officer will be paired together and remain partners throughout their training. The Captain generally has more experience than the First Officer and is expected to mentor them. As a new First Officer, it is important to learn as much as possible from the Captain that you fly with, including the way that they conduct themselves and how they arrive at certain decisions.

What Are the Pilots’ Responsibilities During the Flight?

Once on the flight line, both pilots take an active role in physically flying the aircraft. One pilot handles the radios; communicating with air traffic control during takeoff, flight, and landings. While the other pilot operates the flight controls or autopilot controls. Typically, the pilots will swap roles every other flight so that each spends an equal amount of time doing each duty. In aviation, this is a process that is called “Crew Resource Management”. The pilots work together to make sure that the airplane is operated in a safe and efficient manner.

International Flights

On international flights, it’s common to have crews of more than two pilots. To meet FAA rest requirements, an additional First Officer will be onboard to take the Captain’s place in the cockpit during his/her rest time. This is known as an “augmented crew”. However, even when the Captain is on their rest break, they are still the pilot in command and all major decisions must be run past him/her.

How Much Do Airline Pilots Make? Regional Airlines versus Major Airlines

Airline pilot salaries vary and depend on several factors, such as which airline they fly for, how much experience they have (Pilot Seniority), what aircraft they fly and whether they work for a regional or a major airline. Airline pilots are hourly employees and are paid by flight hour with salaries ranging from $50,000 to over $400,000 per year.

Commercial Pilot Salary Range at Regional Airlines: $50,000 to $131,500
Commercial Pilot Salary Range at Major Airlines: $90,000 to $400,000

Important Skills for First Officers and Captains

  • Teamwork: Strong teamwork skills ensure safe travel for all passengers.
  • Communication: Effective communication between the First Officer, Captain, crew, air traffic control, and passengers is essential.
  • Coordination: Flying requires both physical and spatial coordination.
  • Organization: Detailed flight records and logs are required to make accurate readings and reports.
  • Adaptability: Flight plans can change due to weather and air traffic reports, pilots need to be able to adjust quickly to any and all changes.

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