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.
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. 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 are capable of flying the aircraft. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do — and both are part of the decision-making process.
Use of the term “pilot” to describe the captain suggests the first officer is, by definition, something other than — and presumably less than — an actual pilot. This is simply false. I’m not sure if reporters have a style guide for these things, but normally this is nothing a simple “s” can’t fix: “the pilots.” Alternately you could say “the cockpit crew.” If a differentiation is needed, I’d recommend use the terms “captain” and “first officer.” Just beware that either pilot may be at the controls during a particular incident. In fact, while protocols are 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, incidentally, but rather when his or her seniority standing allows it. And not every copilot wants become a captain right away. Airline seniority bidding is a complicated thing, but suffice it to say 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 it’s not terribly uncommon for the copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain sitting next to him.
It varies country to country, airline to airline, but in the U.S., captains wear four stripes on their sleeves and epaulets; copilots wear three.
There used to a third 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. The last known navigator in these parts was the old Howard Borden character from the “Bob Newhart Show.”
Long-haul flights carry augmented crews that work in shifts. There might be two first officers and a captain; two captains and a first officer; or two captains and two first officers. It varies airline to airline and with the length of flight.
Epaulets photo by the author.