If you’ve ever taken a commercial flight before, you probably know that there are at least two pilots on the plane – the pilot and co-pilot.

But have you ever wondered what a co-pilot does?

Co-pilots mostly help fly aircraft when the captain is unavailable or during emergencies, with commercial aircraft having co-pilots to ensure there’s a backup option in case the captain isn’t available.

Co-pilots are fully licensed and trained to fly aircraft when needed, and they are similarly certified as pilots themselves.

But, co-pilots lack the authority of captains, who have full control over an aircraft and its passengers.

Co-pilots also have a lower salary than pilots because of their less-important role.

It’s mostly commercial airliners and some commercial helicopters that need co-pilots, while military planes don’t need any. 

5 Major Duties a Co-Pilot Performs

Generally, co-pilots fly an aircraft when either the main pilot is on a break or there is an emergency.

A co-pilot is essentially a backup pilot who’s onboard to take command when the Pilot in Charge (PIC) can’t.

Co-pilots ensure a safe flight by assisting the PIC through the following 5 major duties.

1. Flight Planning

Co-pilots map the route before the flight departs.

With the pilot, they also use aeronautical charts to ensure the flight maintains altitude.

The co-pilot’s help could be invaluable for the PIC for charting a route to the destination. 

2. Monitor Flight Instruments

Co-pilots regularly monitor flight instruments for the pilot to make sure the flight operates as expected.

For example, co-pilots will use the altimeter to ensure the plane is at an appropriate altitude.

If needed, co-pilots also operate the flight instruments. 

3. Radio Communications

A flight is responsible for transmitting accurate information about their position to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and Air Traffic Control (ATC).

Co-pilots often help pilots share these reports with the FAA and ATC, especially when the pilot takes a break or is unavailable. 

4. Take Off to Arrival Tasks

The pilot and co-pilot will decide the flight crew’s responsibilities before takeoff.

For example, the co-pilot could be in charge of flying, in which case they’d be responsible for knowing the flight take off and arrival procedures.

Co-pilots also learn other flight-related information, like the aircraft’s weight and balance. 

5. Briefings

Often, co-pilots obtain weather briefings and other important information for the pilot. 

5 Minor Duties a Co-Pilot Performs

Co-pilots ensure a safe flight by assisting the captain through the following 5 minor duties.

  1. Setting up equipment 
  2. Ensuring navigation manuals and charts are updated. 
  3. Report to Airline managers or heads of departments
  4.  Prepare the cabin and passengers for landing
  5.  Remain updated with federal and local flight regulations

Duties Only Captains Perform

An aircraft’s captain has ultimate authority over the aircraft and its passengers.

Only they can start a plane’s engine and taxi the aircraft.

Captains are responsible for making all critical flight decisions, such as whether or not to make an emergency landing.

Captains also instruct their subordinates: first officers, who are second in command, and second officers, who are third in command. 

Requirements to Become a Co Pilot

Qualifications and Training

To become a co-pilot, a restricted ATP certificate is required.

The requirements to obtain a restricted ATP certificate are as follows:

  • Be at least 23 years old
  • Hold a commercial pilot license with instrument and multi-engine ratings
  • Hold a first-class medical certificate
  • Complete a minimum of 1,500 flight hours
  • Pass a written knowledge and practical test

Captain vs. Co Pilot Salary

A captain or co-pilot’s salary is mostly dependent on the type of aircraft they fly, their experience, qualifications, and the airline’s policies.

Generally, the bigger the airline (major vs regional air carriers), the better the salary they pay.

For example, most major airlines in the US would pay a co-pilot $60,000- 100,000 in their first year and over $250,000 to a pilot who started as a co-pilot and then progressed to the role of captain after six years.

Generally, co-pilots receive half to less-than-half the salary of a PIC, with the difference in salary being greatest among larger airlines. 

Fighter Jet Co-Pilot Responsibilities

You might be wondering what a co-pilot’s role in a fighter jet is.

But, in fact, fighter jets don’t have co-pilots the same way as commercial aircraft do.

Instead, they have either Radar Intercept Officers (RIO) or, more commonly, Weapons Systems Officers (WSO).

RIOs and WSOs may or may not have dual controls over the aircraft and may or may not be qualified to fly.

WSOs and RIOs are primarily responsible for an aircraft’s weapon system instead of flying.

Additionally, only some fighter jets have two-aviator crews, so most fighter jets don’t have more than a single person in the aircraft.

Helicopter Co-Pilot Responsibilities

Only some commercial helicopters need co-pilots.

Most small helicopters have a single pilot, but larger commercial choppers may need two.

The exact roles of a helicopter’s co-pilots vary, but they typically include some or all of the following: 

  • Flying the aircraft 
  • Helping the helicopter’s captain on request
  • Communicating with ATC or other aircraft
  • Planning routes and accounting for the weather
  • Completing takeoff checklists 
  • Inspecting the aircraft 
  • Helping with passenger and crew loading 
  • Assessing the aircraft’s cargo 

In conclusion, co-pilots help fly an aircraft when the captain is unable to for whatever reason.

Co-pilots are fully trained and certified to fly, but they don’t have the same responsibilities or authority as captains have.

For that reason, they also receive lower salaries and require slightly fewer qualifications and certifications.

Apart from commercial aircraft, some commercial helicopters also have co-pilots, but military aircraft generally don’t – at least in the traditional sense of the word.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).