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From Co-Pilot to Captain: Pilot Ranks and Seniority (2023)

Nikki Dale
Nikki Dale May 18, 2023
pilot rank

What Do Pilot Ranks Represent?

Pilots in both the military and on commercial planes have a ranking system, and this denotes their level of experience and seniority.

Anybody with a pilot's license can be a pilot, but to become a captain you will need to have achieved a certain number of flying hours - and it can take up to 20 years to get there, depending on the airline you are flying with.

Almost all pilots start out as a cadet or training pilot, and there are several ranks that can be achieved on the way to becoming a captain.

What does the number of stripes on a pilot's uniform mean?

The stripes on a pilot's uniform are used to show what seniority level or rank the pilot is at. The meaning of the stripes is mostly the same across airlines, with some differences at the first officer level.

  • One Stripe: Cadet/Training Pilot
  • Two Stripes: Second Officer
  • Three Stripes First Officer/Co-Pilot/Senior First Officer
  • Four Stripes: Captain

The more stripes on the pilot's uniform, the more seniority they have - and the more responsibility they have to take for the safety of the aircraft and everyone aboard.

What's the highest pilot rank you can achieve?

The highest pilot rank that can be achieved is that of a captain.

In almost all cases, captains are required to have achieved more than 3,000 hours of flight time before they can be considered to become a captain, and even then they need to 'make the grade' in other ways too - demonstrating things like leadership skills and communication to be put forward.

Training captains are an adjacent rank; they are fully qualified captains who also take on the extra responsibility of training other pilots.

Is there a difference between a pilot and a captain?

The ranking system is all about experience and seniority, so the difference between being a pilot and being a captain is more than just time spent in the air.

To be considered a pilot, you need to have completed 35 hours of flight time (on average) and gained a pilot's license. Anyone with a pilot's license can be considered a pilot.

A captain, on the other hand, will have completed almost a thousand times more hours in the sky - and they will have the experience to be able to manage all aspects of the flight, including the passengers and the crew.

They will be the leaders of the flight, with all the additional responsibility that brings.

Pilot ranks

Rank 1: Cadet or Training Pilot

A cadet or training pilot wears one stripe. They are usually in a training program with an airline, and they complete the required number of flight hours to pass their training with a specially trained pilot to help.

During flights, they are learning continuously and getting the opportunity to put their theoretical knowledge to the test. They will also be performing basic aircrew duties.

During their training period, cadets will complete all theoretical testing required, as well as a minimum of 150 hours of flight time.

Once qualified, they will move to the next level of seniority.

Rank 2: Second Officer

The Second Officer on a flight is usually the third in command, after the Captain and the First Officer or Co-Pilot.

If three crew members are required, the Second Officer will usually hold the flight engineer position, with responsibility for pre- and post-flight inspections and monitoring flight systems while in the air.

On a long-haul flight, the Second Officer might be a third pilot, to allow for adequate rest breaks amongst the crew.

It usually takes 1-2 years of experience as a Second Officer to be eligible to become a First Officer.

Rank 3: First Officer

Also known as the Co-Pilot, the First Officer is second in command on flights. They work alongside the Captain in preparing the aircraft for flight, and they also complete inspections and safety checks, as well as monitoring controls.

On longer flights, they will operate the aircraft to allow for adequate rest breaks.

Although typically less experienced than the Captain, a pilot may be a First Officer for many years before they reach the level of experience needed to get that extra stripe - mostly this is due to the limited Captain roles available, and whether they have the other necessary skills like leadership to be suitable for a Captain's role.

Rank 4: Senior First Officer

In some airlines, there is an extra rank between First Officer and Captain. Although they have the same number of stripes as a First Officer, the Senior First Officer will have much more experience and therefore will have more responsibility both pre- and post-flight as well as in the air.

First Officers and Senior First Officers can remain in that rank for anything from 4-20 years before they can move to Captain; much of this is to allow enough time to complete the required 3,000 flight hours.

Rank 5: Captain

The Captain (or the Training Captain) is the most senior pilot. They have overall responsibility for all aspects of the flight, including the aircraft itself, the passengers, and the crew.

The Captain needs to ensure that all necessary safety checks are completed before the flight, and systems are monitored during the flight. They also need to ensure that all post-flight checks are also completed.

Before the flight, the Captain is responsible for planning the flight, performing weather checks, and ensuring that the instruments are all calibrated properly.

Captains sit in the left-hand seat, and they can fly on both long-haul and short-haul flights, where they may be assisted by one or two other pilots in one of the lower ranks.

Becoming a Captain might be a long process, but the benefits of this more senior rank can include much better pay - but also first choice when it comes to things like scheduling and destinations (and they often get first pick when it comes to time-off and working over public holidays).

To become a Captain, you often have to wait for a more senior pilot to retire, or for the airline to expand and have more aircraft.

Nikki Dale May 18, 2023

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