A deadhead pilot is a pilot who’s traveling as a passenger on a flight to reach a location where they’re scheduled to pilot another flight.

Essentially, deadheading is an easy way to transport a pilot from one location to another, where they’re scheduled to fly.

Deadhead pilots are uniformed during deadhead flights, and they’re considered on-duty during deadhead flights, too.

Deadheading isn’t all that common for pilots (you can easily spot them in their uniform).

There have been some notable incidents where deadhead pilots saved aircraft from potential disaster. 

What Does a Deadhead Pilot Do? 

Deadhead pilots are pilots that fly as passengers on a plane to reach the location of their next assigned flight.

For example, a deadhead pilot whose base is in Atlanta may take a deadhead flight to go to Chicago, where they have their next assigned flight. 

Deadhead pilots sit in the cabin with other passengers, even eating and drinking the same food as them.

They also follow all other protocols and rules for passengers.

Deadhead pilots aren’t required to do anything else, but there have been instances where they’ve helped save aircraft during emergencies. 

Related: What Is An Airline Pilot’s Work Schedule Like?

Deadhead Pilots Are Always on Duty

Deadhead pilots are on duty during flights and are even compensated for the time flown on deadhead flights.

So, they’re required to remain fully professional and properly represent the airline.

They’re fully uniformed during deadhead flights for that reason. 

Deadhead pilots are not required to inform flight captains that they’re on board, although most do as a courtesy.

It’s also not necessary for deadhead pilots to fly on aircraft they’re themselves qualified to operate either. 

Pilots Get Paid to Deadhead

Deadhead pilots used to be paid less than what they’re paid when piloting flights, but that’s changing nowadays.

Airlines are increasingly paying deadhead pilots the same rates as pilots who fly the plane during flights.

So, all deadhead pilots are paid during deadhead flights, and they behave fully professionally during deadhead flights for that reason, too.

Why it’s Called a Deadhead Pilot

The term’s origin is unclear, but it’s most likely related to an earlier meaning, which referred to a person who used a free ticket for admission to a theatrical performance.

This person likely would have performed some useful service, such as putting up a poster advertising the event

It’s also possible the term refers to vehicles (likely, originally, a train) that travelled without cargo or passengers from the early nineteenth century.

While it’s not clear where the term deadhead comes from, it has become a convention, so it continues being used across the globe to this day.

Not All Flights Have a Deadhead Pilot? 

It’s actually rare for flights to have deadhead pilots.

It’s also not necessary that a deadhead pilot uses the same route consecutively, either.

So, it’s rare to see a deadhead pilot on your flight, especially as you can easily identify a deadhead pilot if they’re present on your flight because they’ll be in uniform. 

It’s Easy to Spot a Deadhead Pilot

Deadhead pilots are uniformed during deadhead flights, so passengers can easily identify them during flights.

Pilots wear uniforms during deadhead flights since they’re on-duty

Notable Deadheaders and Situations

There have been numerous situations where deadhead pilots prevented potential crashes or otherwise contributed to saving a plane in emergency situations. 

For example, a deadhead pilot saved a Lion Air Boeing 737 flight from crashing due to a malfunctioning flight control system in 2018.

The deadhead pilot supposedly identified the cause of the malfunction and advised the flight crew on how to correct it.

Tragically, the same plane crashed the following day due to the same flight control system malfunction. 

In another instance, in 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 lost its hydraulic systems and flight controls.

A deadhead flight instructor who had investigated a similar previous incident helped the aircraft perform a semi-controlled emergency landing. 

If you’ve ever seen the movie Catch Me If You Can, which is based off a true story, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abignale, who passed himself off as a deadhead pilot

There Are Also Deadhead Flight Attendants

Flight attendants can also fly on deadhead flights when they’re scheduled for another flight in a distant location.

Flight attendants can also dead head if they’re injured, sick, or need to be swapped with another aircraft that needs more or fewer crew members.

But, deadheading for flight attendants is much rarer than it is for pilots. 

So, you’re very unlikely to encounter a deadheading flight attendant on a flight. 

To summarize:

  • A deadhead pilot is basically a pilot who flies on a flight to reach another location, where they’re scheduled for another flight.
  • Deadheading is an efficient way to relocate a pilot from one location to a far away one.
  • Deadhead pilots are considered on duty, and they’re even uniformed during the flight.
  • Deadhead pilots are even increasingly being paid the same during deadhead flights as the ones they pilot.
  • Deadhead pilots have been decisive in saving places from emergencies in some notable instances.
  • Even flight attendants can deadhead, though it is rare.

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).