Most people are well aware that it takes two pilots to operate a commercial airliner, but rarely do passengers think about the role in which each of these pilots play. People tend to put all their trust in the Captain and don’t usually think about whom the “Other Guy” or “Other Girl” is sitting up front. Contrary to belief, both pilots are equally valuable to the operation of your flight and both have important duties to fulfill.

So what do we call that other guy??

It is very common for passengers and media outlets to use the expression “the pilot” and “the co-pilot” when distinguishing between the Captain and the First Officer. Unfortunately this reference is not necessarily correct and usually isn’t preferred by flight crews. Both people are considered to be pilots and both are fully qualified to operate the airplane. Using the expression “co-pilot” somehow alludes to the idea that the person to the right is less qualified, is never in control of the aircraft or perhaps isn’t even a “real” pilot. Both pilots fly the airplane and both have ATP’s (Airline Transport Pilot licenses) and type ratings to fly their assigned aircraft. In fact, pilots usually split the flying 50/50, alternating their flying duties during each leg of their trip. So at any given time, your flight may be under the operation of your First Officer, meaning he/she is performing the landing and takeoff, while the Captain controls the radios, makes PA’s, etc. This role would then reverse during their next flight together. So rather then using the term “co-pilot”, we recommend using the term “First Officer” as both pilots are equally qualified to operate your aircraft.

Is the First Officer less experienced?

Typically the Captain is the pilot with the most seniority in the company and usually has more flying time then the First Officer. So yes, the Captain typically has more flying time, which equals more experience. It is important to note however, that in some instances, your First Officer may actually have more experience on a certain aircraft then the Captain, so don’t assume he or she is less qualified. There are numerous variables to consider such as military leave, sick leave, time working for a different airline, time of upgrade, etc. Sometimes the First Officer is the more senior pilot by straight longevity with the airline. They may forego the chance to upgrade because their schedule is better as a senior First Officer, which means more days off and better trips. Or perhaps they could just be waiting for the right time to upgrade. It’s also important to note that the First Officer on your flight may have worked as a Captain for years with another airline, however has recently switched airlines in which he/she must become a First Officer again due their lower level of seniority with their new company.

Captain duties versus First Officer Duties?

The Captain is in overall command of the flight and is the designated Pilot-In-Command (PIC). They are responsible for the correct and safe working of the aircraft, as well as the safety of all passengers and Cabin Crew onboard. This includes briefing his/her crewmembers, ensuring the aircraft is safe to fly, working out passenger and payload weight, checking the navigational flight plan, taxiing on and off the runway, etc. The First Officer or Second-in-Command (SIC) is the right-hand man of the Captain (literally since he/she sits to the Captain’s right) and serves an equally valuable role. It’s the job of the First Officer to set the airplane up at the gate prior to departure. This means checking the appropriate aircraft systems, loading the Flight Plan, doing the aircraft walk-around, coordinating with aircraft operations or dealing with maintenance should problems arise. The First Officer is a respected resource for the Captain. It’s the First Officers job to immediately bring any problem or concern to the attention of the Captain. In fact, the FO is expected to not leave an issue unresolved until an acceptable solution is found or the problem is rectified.

Pilots are a team and it’s not uncommon for this to carry over outside of the aircraft. When walking through an airport, take notice of the pilots passing by you. Chances are you will likely see them traveling in twos; eating together, walking to the gate together, or hanging out on their layovers together. Both are important members to any Flight Crew and both are considered part of a team. The operation of any good flight is based on the success of two pilots working together, helping each other cover checklists, flight data, and providing two sets of eyes so that nothing gets missed.

We All Need the Other Guy!

In the airline world we say that it’s the job of the First Officer to get things done and to keep the Captain looking good! Captains usually joke that it is the FO’s responsibility to keep them out of trouble, out of the Chief Pilots Office and away from the F.A.A. In other words, help them look good and that’s exactly what a good First Officer does. Although they may not get the accolades they deserve, every flight and every airline Captain truly needs the other guy!!