What’s the difference between a pilot and a co-pilot?

Whenever you read articles involving aircraft, the men or women at the controls of the plane are invariably referred to as pilot and co-pilot. But what does this mean?

Well for starters, the terms pilot and co-pilot are, these days, a bit of a misnomer. They stem from the early days of flying when there would have been up to 5 crew members on the flight deck (Pilot, Co-Pilot, Flight Engineer, Navigator, and Radio Operator). In those days the pilot, who would have also been the captain, would have done almost all the flying and the co-pilot would have assisted with the operation of secondary systems.

In more recent times however, the pilots are now referred to as Captain (4 stripes) and First Officer (3 or 2 stripes, depending on experience within the company) as opposed to pilot and co-pilot. The main reason for this is that nowadays, flying duties are usually shared between the two with First Officers doing just as much flying as Captains. So, say on a trip from London to Madrid and back, the Captain might fly it there and the First Officer will fly it back (essentially reversing roles) while the other pilot will assist with ATC calls, paperwork and secondary duties.

The essential difference between a Captain and First Officer is that ultimate responsibility lies with the Captain and they are the commander of the aircraft. A First Officer carries out most if not all of the same duties as a Captain and is basically a Captain in waiting.

So the next time you hear a news story mentioning the pilot or co-pilot, what they are actually referring to is the Captain or First Officer respectively.

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