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From another answer:

Because there are first officers who legally can't be PIC of an airliner above FL200...

Why more experience is required to fly the airliner above I assume 6096 meters? I would expect, taking off and flying close to terrain should need more experience.

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    $\begingroup$ Link to the answer? $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer May 23 '17 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Only thing I can think of is 14 CFR 61.31(g): "no person may act as pilot in command of a pressurized aircraft (an aircraft that has a service ceiling or maximum operating altitude, whichever is lower, above 25,000 feet MSL), unless that person has received and logged ground training from an authorized instructor and obtained an endorsement in the person's logbook..." $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer May 23 '17 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ Note there is often a difference between PIC and the guy flying the thing. $\endgroup$ – Ben May 23 '17 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Ben the other guy (flying the thing) is often called Pilot Operating or Pilot Assisting. $\endgroup$ – Burhan Khalid May 24 '17 at 6:43
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Why more experience is required to fly the airliner above I assume 6096 meters? I would expect, taking off and flying close to terrain should need more experience.

I'm unaware of any regulation that requires a minimum number of hours to be a captain or first officer above FL200. That doesn't mean there aren't such, just that I don't know of them.

It's not that that taking off and flying close to terrain requires more or less experience, but that safely operating at high altitude typically involves a different set of knowledge and experience than operating at low altitude. A seasoned bush pilot who does only that would be ill equipped to suddenly become the captain of a 747 at 35,000 feet, just as the 747 captain who had never been a bush pilot would be ill equipped to scud run through a valley to land on a remote airstrip.

Part of the difference between two such pilots is, of course, a matter of a propeller airplane versus a jet, a slow airplane versus a fast, and the differing complexities of their aircraft. In addition to those differences, though, the environment that they typically operate in and indeed the altitude itself makes things different. The nature of the emergencies they can possibly face are also different.

Offhand I can think of three things the typical low altitude pilot doesn't have to contend with that the high altitude pilot does. There are certainly more.

  1. Oxygen considerations, in other words what you need to do if you suddenly don't have it at a breathable pressure. Probably never going to happen, but the high altitude pilot trains for it.

  2. Regular operation in or close to the coffin corner. If you're unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia has a reasonable explanation as well as this question.

  3. A whole different situational awareness environment than the low altitude pilot. For example, I used to do a flight from Sao Paulo to Miami. Two other carriers had flights scheduled that went out immediately before us, also 747s. Everybody was always heavy, which meant the first guy out got the highest cruise altitude available for the weight we were all at approximately, the second guy 2,000 feet below that, and then us sucking fuel 4,000 feet lower than the first. However, I knew that if I could open up the distance between myself and the second guy, I could get a clearance through the second guy's altitude to the first guy's altitude since there was enough time/distance between us. So what I would do was to climb at best angle rather than best rate. Then, if the weather was good (i.e. no turbulence) and I had the engines for it, it took very little fuel burn before I would able to get 2,000 feet higher if I was willing to accept slightly lesser protection from the top of the coffin corner. Sometimes that would work out, sometimes not, but it always got us at least up to the first guy's altitude. And on rare occasions, it meant we reached Miami before either of the other two.

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  • $\begingroup$ What does "sometimes that would work out, sometimes not" mean? I assume you didn't crash... :) $\endgroup$ – yshavit May 24 '17 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ @yshavit I was referring to the fact that it was not unusual for things not to work out as expected. Sometimes using best angle rather than best rate wouldn't open up enough space between me and the 2nd guy, or maybe after reaching the 1st guy's flight level, he would be able to climb before I was, or weather made lessening the margin to the top of the coffin corner inadvisable, or controllers that were uncooperative. I perhaps shouldn't have used such a complicated example, but I felt it did illustrate that high altitude flying is markedly different from operating at low altitude. $\endgroup$ – Terry May 24 '17 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ Oh okay, so it's a matter of doing the calculations and then deciding not to attempt it? I thought you meant you attempted the climb, and then found yourself on the wrong side of the coffin corner in a fully loaded 747. Which sounds like bad news bears to me, though I don't really know. (For all I know, it might just feel like a bit of mild turbulence to a passenger, and then you recover and we don't even know what happened.) $\endgroup$ – yshavit May 24 '17 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @yshavit You are correct. One would never try to get above the top of the coffin corner. You can't do it. You will stall with possibly catastrophic results. It would be a very hair ride at the very least. 1.3g protection was the normal. In still air expected to remain the same and with no expectations of having to do significant turning, I was willing to accept less than 1.3g, but never less than 1.2g and that only for a short time. If you're unfamiliar with that terminology, Google "1.3g protection at high altitude" and you'll see links to good info. $\endgroup$ – Terry May 24 '17 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ I'll look that up, thanks! $\endgroup$ – yshavit May 24 '17 at 19:10

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