Though the pilot is the ultimate authority on an aircraft, the copilot, otherwise known as the first officer, is trained and qualified to fly the plane in the event of an emergency or to provide the pilot a break. Being the copilot is an opportunity to prepare for the eventual step up to the pilot’s seat, though not every copilot becomes a pilot. The copilot assists the pilot during flight, including handling the radio communications, navigation, and working with the pilot to complete the many checklists involved with flying an aircraft. The pilot may turn control over to the copilot even if the pilot doesn’t leave the cockpit. The flight crew must maintain a highly professional image in both conduct and personal appearance, and communicate with the passengers and crew during flights. Copilots typically report to work an hour before departure in order to meet with the pilot and review weather and airport conditions.
As with pilots, copilots must have a high degree of knowledge when it comes to weather patterns, navigation, and the operation of the many instruments in any aircraft’s cockpit. In the event of an emergency, it may be their job to land the plane safely and they must be ready to take over the aircraft controls at any time. Another challenging aspect of working as a copilot is the schedule. As with the rest of the flight crew, copilots must spend extended periods away from home.
The most critical qualification for airline copilots is FAA or Transport Canada licensing and certification. An Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate is required to be the pilot-in-command of a commercial aircraft making scheduled flights. That license is in addition to a commercial license required for anyone flying for hire. In Canada, a night rating is also required to obtain a commercial license. Depending on the aircraft that you’ll fly, additional ratings may be necessary such as multi-engine, floatplane, and instrument. All required licenses, permits, ratings, endorsements, and medical certifications must be valid and current. Larger airlines may require candidates to have a minimum of 5,000 total hours of logged flight time. Smaller airlines may not require that many hours of total time but will have a minimum for multi-engine time or some other rating, depending on their fleet.
The route to an airline copilot position can be long and difficult, and is no less strict than that for pilots. It requires countless hours of flying time, training, and testing. Training for copilots generally takes two distinct paths. The first is the civilian route, starting with flight instruction at FAA or Transport Canada-certified flight schools, then progressing through a series of certifications to finally earn an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate which is required for airline pilots, including copilots. Many commercial pilots accrue flight hours toward an ATP by working as a flight instructor, charter pilot, or crop duster. In addition, most major airlines now require a college degree, so many civilian pilots now attend colleges that offer flight training along with a degree program.
The second route to certification is through military service. This training is free, but it entails years of military service in exchange.
Even after you’re hired as a copilot, there’s a lot of work involved to keep your currency and license validity. First officers go through extensive retraining at least once a year to hone all the skills required to fly safely. They also have a check ride every year. If you don’t do well, there’s more training before you can fly again. Every six months, Airline Transport Pilots must pass a thorough physical. Depending on the pilot’s age, holders of a Commercial Pilot’s license must pass a physical every six or twelve months. The health standards are high. So if your health or proficiency deteriorates, your license will be revoked.
The FAA and Transport Canada restrict the total number of hours an airline pilot can fly to 100 hours per month or 1,000 hours per year. Regulations also require that a pilot rests for at least eight hours in the 24 hours before finishing their flight duty. This applies to copilots as well as to pilots. On average, airline copilots fly 75 hours per month and spend an additional 75 hours per month performing non-flying work. Work schedules can change from month to month, but typically, a copilot will work for several days in a row and then have several consecutive days off. Flight crews spend many nights away from home because most flights require an overnight layover. Airlines compensate crew for the cost of meals, hotel, and transportation when working away from home. As with other crewmembers, copilots with the most seniority get the choice flight assignments. The more years one has in any given job, the more seniority they achieve. This is why some first officers do not choose to move up to a captain’s job. After years of accruing seniority as a first officer, they have to start all over again when they take a captain’s position. Because they may have families or other obligations by then, they may be reluctant to take the less than choice assignments.
Salary and Benefits
Co-Pilot (Large Jet): $72,516- $101,597
Co-Pilot (Small Non-Jet): $32,167- $69,838
Benefits usually include paid vacation, dental and life insurance, sick leave, retirement plan, free or reduced airfare for employees and immediate family members.