February 18, 2014
DEAR ASSOCIATED PRESS (and most other media outlets):
I wish you would pay closer attention to use of the phrase “the pilot” in your stories. This is one of those commonly repeated tics that always gets my goat, resulting in pedantic, vaguely neurotic rants like this one.
“The pilot” did this, “the pilot” said that. Well, which pilot exactly, because there are always at least two pilots in a jetliner cockpit — a captain and first officer — and both of these individuals are fully qualified to operate the aircraft.
Use of the singular implies that the other person in the cockpit is something other than, and presumably less than, an actual pilot. I’m not sure if reporters have a style guide for these things, but this is nothing a simple “s” can’t fix: “the pilots.” Alternately you could say “the cockpit crew.” If a differentiation in rank is needed, I’d recommend using “captain” and “first officer.” Just be aware that either pilot may be at the controls during a particular incident.
The first officer is known colloquially as the copilot. But a copilot is not an apprentice. He or she shares flying duties with the captain more or less equally. The captain is officially in charge, and earns a larger paycheck to accompany that responsibility, but both individuals fly the aircraft. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, and both are part of the decision-making process.
In fact, while protocols might be slightly different carrier to carrier, it’s not unusual during emergencies or other abnormal situations for the captain to delegate hands-on flying duties to the copilot, so that the captain can concentrate on communications, troubleshooting, coordinating the checklists, etc.
Do I seem sensitive about this? That’s because I’m a copilot.
A copilot becomes a captain not by virtue of skill or experience, but rather when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants to become a captain right away. Airline seniority bidding is a complicated thing, and a pilot can often have a more comfortable quality of life — salary, aircraft assignment, schedule and choice of destinations — as a senior copilot than as a junior captain. Thus, at a given airline, there are plenty of copilots who are older and more experienced than many captains.
In some parts of the world, including parts of Asia, the experience disparity between captains and copilots tends to be more pronounced. The typical major airline new-hire in the United States tends to be a lot more experienced than the typical new-hire in Europe or Asia. But not always, and the raw totals in a pilot’s logbook are only part of the story and not necessarily representative of skill or talent. Airline training is never easy, and any pilot, no matter how young or comparatively inexperienced, needs to be good to succeed at that level. And once you’re there, cockpit duties are always shared equally and even the least experienced copilot is by any measure a pilot, trained and certified to fly the airplane.
It can vary country to country, but captains usually wear four stripes on their sleeves and epaulets; copilots wear three.
On older planes there was a third cockpit station occupied by the second officer, also known as the flight engineer. (I spent four years as a flight engineer on a cargo jet in the mid-1990s.) Once upon a time planes also carried navigators, but the last known navigator in these parts was the old Howard Borden character from the original “Bob Newhart Show.”
Long-haul flights carry augmented crews that work in shifts. There might be two copilots and a captain; two captains and a copilot; or maybe two captains and two copilots. It varies airline to airline and with the length of flight. For example, at my airline, a ten-hour flight will carry three pilots: two copilots and a captain. Each crew member will have roughly one-third of the flight free. He or she retires to a bunk room or designated crew rest seat, while the other two remain up front.
Epaulets photo by the author.