Difference Between Pilot, Copilot and Captain

Q: What is the difference between a pilot, a copilot, and a captain?

All modern aircraft are flown by a two-person crew consisting of a captain and a first officer. The first officer is often referred to in a kind of shorthand slang as the ‘copilot.’ The captain normally wears four uniform stripes, and the first officer three. Both are fully qualified to fly the plane in all regimes of flight, and usually do so in alternating turns. If a crew is going from New York to Chicago to Seattle, the captain will fly the first leg and the first officer will fly the second. The pilot not flying is still plenty busy, trust me, working the communications radios, programming navigational computers, and so forth. Regardless of who is driving, the captain has ultimate authority and command over the flight and a larger paycheck to go with it. First officers upgrade to captain as their seniority allows.

A few older model aircraft still in service, such as the Boeing 727, require a third pilot called the second officer or ‘flight engineer.’ Uniform-wise, this pilot is indistinguishable from a first officer as he or she typically wears the same three-stripe epaulets. On many long-haul flights, one or more relief crewmember may also be aboard to temporarily take the place of a captain or first officer during designated rest periods.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004″ by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.