I am currently doing a project(in college) on the history and future of the role of a co-pilot and to start it off I wanted to just summarize what the roles of the co-pilot are.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Welcome! It may be more complex than pilot vs copilot. A crew may be made of two captains (pilots). In a crew of two crew members, one is flying (PF) and one not flying (PNF) but monitoring. Both the captain and the first officer ("copilot") can execute each role (not at the same time). See here. In addition the captain (or one of the captains) will have the role of PIC (pilot in command), in responsibility of the aircraft and the safety of everybody. PIC may be PF or PNF. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 21:19
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I'm an airline pilot. I am a First Officer which means I fly that "copilot" role. The Captain makes the final decision and has the final responsibility for what happens, but I have an open forum to speak up and I stay on top of everything that's happening. We apply CRM and TEM, threat and error management together. As far as operational duties go, they are shared for the most part. Actions are usually divided into PF (pilot flying) and PM (pilot monitoring). Research the concept of CRM. Also look at Tenerife crash and how it changed cockpit culture. $\endgroup$
    – ryan1618
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ Eastern 401 had a big impact on CRM too. $\endgroup$
    – ryan1618
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 23:15

2 Answers 2


Firstly, "co-pilot" is not a term that is really used anymore. When people say that they usually mean the First Officer. It's a bugbear of mine because "co-pilot" implies that there is one real pilot and a half pilot, when the reality is an airliner needs at least two fully qualified pilots to fly it safely!

When it comes to actually flying the plane, the two pilots have designated roles - Pilot Flying (PF) and Pilot Monitoring (PM - sometimes this is called Pilot Not Flying). Both the Captain and the First Officer share these roles - usually one of them is PF on the outbound leg and the other one is PM on the inbound leg. The PF manipulates the controls to actually fly the plane, whereas the PM handles communications and other required tasks that don't involve actually flying the plane.

The biggest difference between a Captain and a First officer is responsibility. The Captain is the Pilot In Command (PIC), who has ultimate responsibility for everything that happens throughout the flight. There are some practical things that only Captains can do, like flying into some tricky airports, landing in strong crosswinds, and on many aircraft only the Captain can use the steering wheel (or Tiller) for taxiing.

Historically there was a strong heirarchy - the Captain was the boss and the co-pilot was, you could say, a servant. This posed big problems, because the Captain is not always right. The advent of Crew Resource Management (CRM) has brought this down to a much more desirable level - where there is still a heirarchy to ensure decisions are made, but not so much that they are unquestionable. The future of the First Officer role will be one of continuing to recognise that they play an important role in a functioning cockpit, rather than just there to serve the Captain. And hopefully people will stop calling them co-pilots!

  • $\begingroup$ " The Captain is the Pilot In Command (PIC)", not really, the pilot in command is whoever decides to take on that role and should also be shared between the captain and first officer. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 1:18
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer No I think you are confusing 'Pilot In Command' with 'Pilot Flying'. I've never heard of a First Officer being PIC. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 2:09
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer Captain is PIC (and signs the release) and FO is SIC. This is regardless of who is actively flying the airplane, which is alternated (at my carrier CA had 1st leg, then FO flew the next two, CA the following two, etc) $\endgroup$
    – casey
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Co-pilot does not imply half pilot...as the prefix co means "together, mutually, in common". Maybe the public thinks of it that way, but I don't think the word itself implies that at all. $\endgroup$
    – Prodnegel
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 20:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Prodnegel I see your point. But why have a pilot and a co-pilot instead of two co-pilots? $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 23:48

Your question's title says "commercial aviation", and in the question you indicate you're interested in the history. With that in mind, I'll add to Ben's excellent answer.

Commercial aviation includes not just airline but also non-airline flying, including corporate flying. In corporate flying, the duties of the co-pilot varied greatly depending on what the equipment was, who the pilot was, and what company was operating the aircraft. I've deliberately used the pilot and copilot terms because prior to 1985 when I did my last corporate flying, I heard those terms more often than captain and first officer when it came to corporate work. The latter terms were "airline talk" to us, and using them for what we were doing seemed pretentious, although that was starting to change.

The typical corporate usage by small companies of small aircraft, including small business jets usually did not include carrying a flight attendant. That meant the co-pilot often did things a flight attendant would otherwise do, including mixing drinks before engine start and cleaning up vomit after the flight. I did both numerous times.

On the airline side and before proper usage of CRM, the first officer might be used as a scapegoat, especially in third world countries and in Asia. An apparent example of this was the China Airlines 605 accident at Hong Kong's Kai Tak in November 1993. Look at the transcript of that accident. The captain is P1 and is flying the aircraft, the first officer is P2 and is performing PNF duties up until 46 seconds before they hit the water. After that, P2 seems to be manipulating the controls. At the time of the accident, the assumption was the captain had handed control of the aircraft to the first officer when it was obvious they were going to crash. To the best of my knowledge that assumption was never challenged.

  • $\begingroup$ It seems like it's a bit of an overgeralization to say that the first officer used to be used as a scapegoat in third world countries and Asia. There's a reason a cockpit voice recorder is installed in airliners! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 9:31

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .