On commercial airlines, regardless if the flight is domestic or international, there are always at least two pilots. On many flights, there are three pilots or even more, though these tend to be long-haul, international flights.
But do these pilots all have the same rank and experience, what are the reasons for there being at least two pilots on a flight, and will there ever be a future where just one pilot can fly a plane from takeoff to landing?
Pilots Are On a Plane – By Rank
A plane can have two to four pilots, though the experience and rank of these pilots will differ by airline according to their operations.
Generally, though, a plane with two pilots consists of a Captain and Senior First Officer; a plane with four pilots will have one Captain, one First Officer and two Second Officers.
Note that in the US, aircraft over 12,500 lbs require two pilots for operation.
Every flight will have a Captain, which is the highest-ranking member of a flight crew and the commander of the aircraft, who is responsible for the aircraft, its crew, and all other occupants.
A Captain will have at least 3,000 hours of flying experience, and sits in the left-hand seat.
Senior First Officer
The Senior First Officer is otherwise known as the co-pilot. They are second in command of the aircraft, and can be less experienced with a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience.
Related: What Does a Co-Pilot Do?
A First Officer also plays the role of co-pilot. While they will generally have less experience than an SFO, this won’t always be the case depending on the airline.
A Second Officer is unlikely to be found on domestic or short-haul flights. While being third in line of command, they still have a very important role to play, though.
On long-haul and international flights they ensure that the captain, senior first officer, and first officer can get adequate rest.
Related: Commercial Pilot Ranks (Captain to Second Officer)
Why There Are At Least Two Pilots on Your Flight
The reason for every flight having at least two pilots is due to flight safety. A number of things can go wrong during a flight, including to the pilot and the plane itself.
Let’s take a closer look at what can go wrong and how two pilots can help mitigate disaster.
Unexpected Health Issues
An unexpected health issue can strike anyone at anytime, including pilots in the midst of flying a plane. In fact, while rare, there have even been instances of pilots dying during flight.
As you can imagine, if a pilot was incapacitated for any reason, and there wasn’t another pilot to take control of the plane, the plane would crash, and the most likely result would be hundreds of fatalities.
While planes have autopilot – and some even have the ability to land the plane itself (autoland) – this technology isn’t found on every commercial airliner, and its effectiveness as a means of a replacement for a pilot is debated.
Pilot fatigue is dangerous because it leads to slower reaction times, reduced decision-making ability, lapses in concentration, the inability to anticipate events, and a higher tolerance for risk.
Unfortunately, study after study has shown that pilots are fatigued, especially if they are flying long-haul.
In fact, one study, conducted in 2019 and published by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, found that on their most recent flight, 60% of long-haul pilots had experienced moderate to severe fatigue.
Understandably, this is quite worrying, especially when you consider the fact that 4-7% of civil aviation incidents and accidents can be attributed to fatigued pilots.
While pilots have rest periods during long flights, this doesn’t appear to be enough, which is largely down to the ongoing changes in a pilot’s circadian rhythm.
Related: What Do Pilots Do On Long Flights?
Better Workload Management
When one pilot is focused on flying the plane and the other is focused on monitoring the aircraft, making sure that the aircraft and navigation are configured correctly, and communicating with air traffic control, the flight goes much more smoothly.
Sharing the workload results in a much smoother and safer flight, especially as the pre-flight, mid-flight, and post-flight checklists can be complex and time-consuming.
Planes Will Have Just One Pilot in the Future
The consensus is that eventually planes will just have one pilot. How long this is going to take is anyone’s guess, especially as the transition to single-pilot transition is a complex one.
The only way the transition from a two-pilot cockpit to a single-pilot cockpit will happen is if automation in the cockpit is greatly increased by technology or if tasks in the cockpit are offloaded to the ground crew.
There’s still the issue of pilot incapacitation, though, but this can be solved by having a trained pilot on the ground being able to fully control the plane remotely if necessary.