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Understanding the Difference Between a Pilot-in-Command and a Co-Pilot

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It takes teamwork to ensure that commercial flights can take off, fly, and land safely. In fact, coordination between aircrew and groundcrew is central to the continued operation of aircraft and aviation facilities. By working together, the personnel in and out of the aircraft can provide a comfortable experience for their passengers or ascertain the cargo that they are transporting will arrive in its best possible condition.

Pilots play an important role in completing this objective. A typical commercial passenger aircraft will have at least 2 pilots in it, with many flights having as many as 3 pilots in the flight crew. There are plenty of practical reasons for having these many people who have gone through pilot school on the same aircraft, but it’s primarily for safety. Having another person who knows how to command an aircraft within reach is of great importance in case the pilot faces a sudden health problem or if they are beset by fatigue, poor attention, or anything that might make them prone to human error. This is especially applicable to large airlines that offer hours-long flights.

Pilot, Co-pilot, and Other Officers on the Flight Deck: What Do They Do?

There are three positions that are considered essential for operating a plane: pilot, first officer or co-pilot, and flight engineer. Aside from these people, an aircraft may also have a second officer and a relief team that can take over during long-haul flights. Here is a general explanation of their roles and how their responsibilities differ from the other members of the flight crew. 

Airline Pilot

The airline pilot, also known as the pilot in command (PIC) of the aircraft, is the highest-ranking member of the crew and the one who's ultimately responsible for the safety of the flight and the overall comfort of the crew and passengers. Being a PIC of a commercial passenger flight is considered to be the highest point of a person’s piloting career. To be considered for the position, a pilot must have an airline transport pilot (ATP) license as well as years of experience in the aviation industry. Among the responsibilities of an airline pilot are:

  • Assessing the aircraft prior to flights to ensure the safety of the operation

  • Monitoring aircraft function, engine performance, and fuel consumption during the flight

  • Considering factors such as weather and altitude that may affect the safety of the flight

  • Communicating with and reporting to air traffic control

  • Filling out flight reports upon arriving at the intended destination

  • Briefing the inflight staff 

There are industries where pilots can operate planes all on their own. This is the case for pilots who lend their skills and credentials to agricultural companies, for example, by using planes to spray plants with fertilizers or pesticides. 

Airline Co-pilot

The first officer or co-pilot is the second in command of the aircraft, next to the pilot. It’s a position usually taken up by pilots who aspire to become a PIC one day. In case the PIC is incapacitated in any way, the co-pilot takes over the control of the aircraft and makes decisions to ensure the safety of everyone on board. Aside from such moments, the plane’s first officer is also in charge of the following: 

  • Assisting in taking off, landing, and navigating through difficult weather

  • Aiding in carrying out emergency procedures

  • During long flights, flying the plane to prevent the pilot from getting fatigued

  • Communicating with the air traffic controllers

  • Coordinating with the flight attendants

Normally, the pilot and co-pilot share responsibilities during the flight, with one being assigned as the pilot flying and the pilot monitoring for each flight. Even when the co-pilot is flying the aircraft, the pilot remains ultimately in charge of the safety of the plane and its passengers. 

In addition to these two roles, there are other traditional positions that are open on the flight deck. Some large planes often employ flight engineers that coordinate with the pilot and co-pilot. The role of a flight engineer is to inspect the aircraft before flights and to fuel the plane. In the old days, flight engineers were called engine mechanics and they oversaw the performance of the engines, systems, and fuel management of the aircraft. In the digital age, however, pilots and co-pilots have taken over these roles with the help of automated tools. In long-haul flights, the deck might also have a second officer who may act as a relief pilot. 

There are different kinds of pilots, even in a single aircraft, and each can have different roles and responsibilities. Regardless of their differences in ranks and functions, these officers work seamlessly together to ensure that everyone will be able to travel comfortably and arrive at their destinations safely.


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