Pilots and copilots Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Pilots are the men and women in command of flying aircraft. Helping pilots are their assistants, copilots, also known as first officers.

The majority of pilots are hard-working men and women who work in an office in the sky. It is a mobile, dynamic working environment. Although the skills necessary to pilot a plane are many and the responsibilities great, with proper training almost anyone can learn to fly.


For those aspiring to the professional track, there are many different jobs in the aviation industry, such as military pilots, charter pilots, and flight instructors. There are also jobs flying the bush in Alaska and Canada; fish spotting off the coast all around North America; towing gliders and aerial signs; or flying sightseers and photographers.

Pilots do not have to be perfect specimens of health. Some pilots fly challenged by shortcomings such as impaired hearing, paralysis, and even the loss of a limb. However, those who fly must meet certain minimum health standards. For example, they must be able to see and they must have normal cardiovascular function. Although some medical situations will prevent people from working as professional pilots, many can still fly their own aircraft.

As a private pilot, there is some relief from the pressure of medical examinations. A working airline transport pilot, for instance, must undergo a complete flight physical every six months. Professional pilots under a Commercial Pilot Certificate have a physical examination by an authorized medical examiner once each year. Private pilots are required to undergo a physical once every three years before their fortieth birthday and once every two years after they turn forty.

Pilots are not required to have college degrees. However, professional piloting positions on the high end of the scale require individuals to have completed their baccalaureate degree or, in some cases, a graduate degree. For a Private Pilot Certificate, the only educational requirement is that one be able to read, speak, and understand the English language. An applicant for the private pilot license must be seventeen years of age for certification by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The equivalent of a high school education will provide the required background to develop the skills and knowledge required in becoming a private pilot. After private pilot certification, if a pilot decides to pursue advanced ratings and a commercial pilot’s license, formal study in the fields of aviation, math, and physics will be helpful, but not required. The military services require a college degree of pilot candidates. In the airline industry, baccalaureate degrees are preferred but may not be required, depending on the pilot situation. Fluctuations in the pool of available pilots may also affect the minimum education requirements for professional pilots; in times of pilot shortage, college degree requirements may be waived, while in times of pilot abundance, requirements become more stringent.

Becoming a Private Pilot

The first step in becoming a pilot is taking flying lessons. These rather simple lessons culminate in a written test, an oral test, and a flight check that allows the student to fly as a private pilot. The Private Pilot Certificate allows one to fly throughout U.S. airspace, with a few exceptions.

The first step in the process is to find a good flight instructor at a smaller airport. It is far preferable to fly at a smaller airport than at one used by the airlines and other larger aircraft. With less traffic, the student pilot and the flight instructor can devote more time to teaching and learning than waiting for a takeoff clearance.

After meeting a flight instructor for the first time, the new student will be able to go flying on an introductory ride. This is an important flight, in that it allows the potential student to taste the flavor of flight without becoming too financially committed. Upon completion of the first flight, the student can then start thinking about consigning more time and funds to the process of obtaining a pilot certificate.

The investment of time and money required for a pilot certificate will vary. The requirement in terms of flight experience is only forty hours, according to the FAA. Typically, an average student is going to spend about fifty hours flying for a private license. Of this, approximately half will be with a flight instructor while the other half will be alone, or solo.

Regarding the costs, as of 2001 in the United States, typical two-seat training aircraft rented in the range of $50 to $65 an hour. Therefore, fifty hours of private pilot training curriculum would entail rental costs ranging from $2,500 to $3,250. Flight instructor fees also vary. A young flight instructor, just starting out in the industry, may charge a fee of $15 per hour. A more established flight instructor may charge a fee approaching $50 per hour. The combined rental and instructional fees, therefore, can run from approximately $2,900 to $4,500. To this must be added flight check fees, incidentals, and supplies.

During the course of training, the student will fly the first ten to twenty hours with the flight instructor. During this time, the student learns the rudiments of flying and the flight instructor makes certain the neophyte has learned enough to stay out of trouble while flying alone.

Solo is the pivotal point in a new pilot’s life. The first solo occurs at some time in the first twenty hours of flight training. After soloing, the student will fly in the local area for practice, becoming more comfortable with the airplane and flying.

After this solo practice, the instructor will again join the student for cross-country (X-C) training. In other words, the student will learn how to fly from one airport to another. The instructor will teach the student how to read charts, use navigational tools, and find the way from one place on the earth to the next. After proving proficient in these tasks, the student will fly ten hours of solo cross-country flights.

After completing the solo X-C requirements, the student is back with the flight instructor for the final preparations for the private pilot check ride. During this final phase of training, the student will learn rudimentary instrument flying skills, advanced stalls, and other maneuvers.

The test has written, oral, and flight elements. The written test is taken first. When this portion is passed, the student meets the designated examiner for a two-hour talk about flying. After passing the oral portion of the flight check, the student and examiner will climb into the airplane and fly. At the completion of the flight, the paperwork is completed and a license issued. Now comes the next monumental flight in the career of a pilot: flying with passengers.

After obtaining a Private Pilot Certificate, the new pilot may stop there or continue training. One step would be to work on obtaining Instrument Rating, certification that allows the pilot to fly without reference to the outside world. This is the most practical rating in that when the weather is not perfect, the instrument-rated pilot can take off and fly through the clouds. Another rating is the Commercial Pilot Certificate, which allows the pilot to work as a professional pilot. A Multiengine Rating allows operation of an airplane with more than one engine.

The highest pilot certificate, which comes after attaining a total of 1,500 hours of experience, is the Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, or ATP. Pilots who hold the ATP are usually working pilots who will eventually go on to become professional airline pilots.

Airline Pilots

Aviators include everyone on the aircraft who has a job to do. Members of the crew perform their duties in one of two areas, the cockpit or the cabin. Personnel in the cabin include the flight or cabin attendants. Members of the cockpit crew include the pilot, the first officer or copilot, and if the aircraft requires a flight engineer, the second officer.

Flight engineers and copilots usually are younger aviators building time and experience on the way to the captain’s seat. The usual career path for an airline pilot begins with flying smaller aircraft in the charter business or as a flight instructor. After gaining experience and logging flight time to increase competitiveness, the next step is application to a commuter airline. Commuter airlines fly smaller aircraft that carry between twenty and fifty passengers. The young pilot begins as a first officer under the eye of an experienced captain. The new pilot will serve in this capacity for two or three years.

Advancement to captain requires additional training and examinations, and certification to act as the pilot-in-command. Service as a commuter captain continues for another period of time in which skills and knowledge are further developed. This makes the pilot more marketable to the large air carriers.

Airline pilots often say that they have the best job in the world. Those who achieve a position with a major airline work approximately twelve to fifteen days a month. For the few days they work, they enjoy good pay and benefits. In 2001, salaries for jumbojet captains were in the $150,000 to $300,000 range. Of course, pilots do not begin at that pay scale. The beginning flight instructor, working toward the goal of becoming an airline captain, may realize an annual salary of $12,000 to $25,000. Charter and corporate pilots fare better than flight instructors. A few charter jobs command higher pay than does flight instructing, whereas some corporate pilot salaries rival that of the airline captain.

Corporate Pilots

Pilots wanting greater security than that provided by flying charter flights, but who desire to avoid the rigidity of an airline position, often opt for employment with a corporate flight department. In this industry, pilots can find a company of the proper size to fit their requirements, such as a specific location or type of aircraft. The company may own only one aircraft, or it could operate a fleet of executive jets.

Like other positions in aviation, corporate aviation has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, pilots may fly into more varied destinations, avoiding the boredom of flying the same route over and over, as in airline flying. Corporate pilots tend to fly one or two aircraft of the same make, enabling them to become intimately familiar with their aircraft. An advantage or disadvantage, depending on the individual, is the ability to return home at night, or stay out on the road. Single pilots tend to request overnight trips while older, more established pilots may seek the short, out-and-in hops.

Military Pilots

Flying tactical jets is probably one of the most exciting jobs in the world for an aviation enthusiast. Military pilots may eventually become airline pilots, but for the time being, these young men and women are flying the most advanced fighters in the inventory.

All military pilots are college graduates, although they need not have studied aeronautical engineering or acquired degrees in aviation. After graduation, the prospective military pilot attends Officer Candidate School, a course of study lasting approximately twelve weeks. Upon graduation and commissioning in their respective branch of service, they receive orders to flight training.

Flight training takes one to two years, depending on the branch of service. New flight students go through primary flight training, where they gain their first introduction to airplanes. Unlike their civilian counterparts in the airlines, military pilots can start out in training knowing absolutely nothing about aviation. After primary training, students step up to more complex aircraft in intermediate training. Finally, in advanced training, they fly highly sophisticated jet trainers. When the training is complete, newly winged aviators go on to train in the tactical aircraft to which they have orders. At completion of training in a particular aircraft and weapons systems, they are posted to stations in defense of the country.

Flight Instructors

Flight instruction, or teaching others to fly, is the most important job in aviation. As with the teaching profession in general, the financial rewards may be less than deserved, yet many instructors realize rewards that go far beyond the financial. A flight instructor has some of the greatest responsibilities in the aviation industry.

Flight instructors are often young fliers just starting their aviation careers. They use flight instructing positions to develop themselves as aviators while building experience and logging flight time. This group of pilots is an enthusiastic lot, eager to learn, eager to teach, impatient to get on with their flying careers. That creates the possible drawback of younger flight instructors. Sometimes they are too eager to begin careers with airlines and will leave students in the middle of their training to take a more prestigious flying job elsewhere. Older flight instructors, on the other hand, may be content to stay where they are, enjoying the experience of passing their knowledge on by training new pilots.

  • Anderson, David F., and Scott Eberhardt. Understanding Flight. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Written by authors who are both scientists and pilots, this book explains the theories behind flight that are relevant to flying a plane.
  • Bergman, Jules. Anyone Can Fly. 3d ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986. This text is an outstanding explanation of aviation and learning how to fly. Written for the beginner, it is very easy to understand and explains flight in simple terms.
  • Langewiesche, Wolfgang. Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying. 7th ed. New York: Tab Books, 1990. Hailed as the most important book on aviation, this text explains basic principles of flight in a simple manner.
  • Maher, Gay D. The Joy of Learning to Fly. New York: Delacorte Press/Eleanor Friede, 1978. Well-written text regarding what one has to do in learning how to fly. Examines everything from flight instructor personalities to airwork to ground reference maneuvers.

Airline industry, U.S.


Commercial flight

Federal Aviation Administration

Marine pilots, U.S.

Military flight

Navy pilots, U.S.

Test pilots

Training and education

Source: Federal Aviation Administration, Statistical Handbook of Aviation, 1996.

Categories: History