A First Officer on a plane is otherwise known as the Co-Pilot.

A First Officer is the second in command of the plane after the Captain, though control of the aircraft is normally shared equally between the first officer and the captain

A First Officer is highly experienced and has undergone many, many hours of flight training in order to hold the position.

Does a First Officer Fly the Plane?

Both the Captain and First Officer fly the plane equally, with whichever pilot who is currently flying the plane called the “pilot flying” and the pilot not flying called the “pilot not flying”, or “pilot monitoring”.

It’s common for pilots to swap flying duties every other leg during the day, though some airports only allow Captains to land the plane.

What Does a First Officer Do?

A First Officer essentially performs the same tasks as the Captain, though the Captain is still ultimately responsible for the aircraft, its passengers, and the crew.

A First Officer’s duties include:

  • Preparing flight plans and filing them
  • Communicating with Air Traffic Control
  • Observing flight conditions and making adjustments as necessary
  • Preparing required reports on flight activity, including reviewing airplane performance and recording data
  • Operating aircraft systems, including radio communications, navigation equipment
  • Completing any tasks assigned by the captain
  • Flying the plane

How to Recognize a First Officer

There’s a subtle difference between the uniform of a First Officer and a Captain.

A Captain will have four stripes on their uniform, whereas a First Officer will have three stripes.

All Commercial Flights Have First Officers

On commercial airlines, regardless if the flight is domestic or international, there are always at least two pilots, including a Captain and First Officer.

On many flights, there are three pilots or even more, though these tend to be long-haul, international flights.

First Officers Are Paid Very Well

First Officers, even in their first year of flying for a major airline, typically make six figures or close to six figures.

After 6 years, a First Officer can make close to $200k a year, and after 12 years, a First Officer will make a little over $200k a year.

Captains make close to $300,000 a year, though to become a Captain, a First Officer must first work for the same airline for at least four years before being promoted to the rank of Captain.

Requirements to Become a First Officer

To be qualified as a First Officer can take a long time.

The process involves:

  • Obtaining a commercial pilot license with instrument and multi-engine ratings
  • Obtaining a first-class medical certificate
  • Completing a minimum of 1,500 flight hours
  • Passing a written knowledge and practical test

You Can Become a First Officer in 2 Years

If training is done full-time, it can take 2-3 years to become a First Officer, with most of the time spent recording 1,500 flight hours.

A very common way to build up flight hours is to become a certified flight instructor, though taking on other pilot roles like banner towing, crop dusting, and aerial photography are all common.

Other Pilot Ranks

Commercial pilot ranks include:

  • Captain
  • First Officer
  • Second Officer

A Second Officer is the third in line of command of an aircraft.

In some airlines, the second officer acts as a first officer, but still undergoes training and supervision from a training captain.

This is more common in Europe.

Why a Plane Needs At Least Two Pilots

At least two pilots are required on commercial airlines for flight safety purposes, as there is a potential for things to go wrong on a flight, such as an unexpected health issue occurring, fatigue, as well as to split the workload.

The Relationship Between Seniority & Pilot Ranks

Seniority is everything to an airline pilot, as it determines a pilot’s:

  • Schedule
  • The routes they fly
  • Which days they can take off
  • When they can take a vacation
  • How much they earn
  • Who gets furloughed
  • How quickly they can progress to Captain
  • Where they are based
  • What aircraft they can fly
  • How many flights they fly a day

The important thing to know about pilot seniority is that it starts from the very first day a pilot is hired by an airline and doesn’t transfer.

So a pilot will almost always fly with the same airline for their entire career.

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).