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How to turn a copilot into pilot

Written by: Vedran Sovic.

Vedran Sović


I remember it as if it were thirty years ago, while mere fifteen have passed, when I'd have been asked; "So, what's your job?" and I would reply: "I'm a copilot". Those inclined to further investigate my career prospects would continue: "Copilot, eh? So, when are you planning on becoming a pilot?" I'd usually start explaining that's not the way it works, the other guy (at the time, there were no gals commanding the aeroplanes in my airline) in cockpit is a pilot indeed but the rest of the crew calls him "captain". Soon I realized that quite a lot of people really had no idea that airliners need two pilots up front and soon their 314-yard stare would show they really have no clue what I'm ranting about. The change of approach was due.


"So, when will you become a pilot?"


"In nineteen-ninety-six.". The year was around 2005.


Variable length puzzlement would ensue, before the idea I'm joking got traction (just for the record: I was dead serious) and the topic would switch to weather, politics or fishing.


Well, there really was (limited) time and (limited) place where the official title of main multi-crew aircraft pilot was simply "pilot", while his assistant was called "copilot" but the times of this potentially misleading labelling are gone; even in those not-so-good old days, to become a copilot, one had to be quite well trained pilot. "Aircraft" has been used advisedly here; the majority of multi-pilot aircraft are aeroplanes, airliners have been the most visible example, but there are some multi-pilot helicopters, too.


Main factor determining whether the aircraft will be certified as single- or multi-pilot (the official term that practically denotes two-pilot) is its size. Larger aircraft need two pilots, smaller can do with one. There are some types, usually small bizjets or turboprops, that are allowed to be flown single-pilot in some types of operations, while in some other two-pilot crew is required. I'd like to make a small digression regarding the military aircraft here; tactical combat aircraft have one pilot even if their minimum crew is two. The other flyer might be e.g.: gunner, navigator, weapons system operator, radar intercept officer (actually, they got extinct with Phantoms and Tomcats) or if there is operational conversion training of the fresh pilot underway – instructor. Despite occasional claims of mass media to the contrary, there are no copilots on F-16s, MiGs, Sukhois, T-6 Texans, Eurofighters, Gripens and similar or light aircraft like Cessnas, Pipers, Cirruses, Diamonds, etc. If two pilots find themselves in  the cockpit of the aircraft approved for single pilot use, most often their roles are of the student and instructor. Occasionally the second pilot might be checker, inspector, safety pilot or merely passenger but (s)he can never be a copilot.


Why would anyone make multi-pilot aircraft when two pilots cost more than one and the second pilot's mass & volume reduce payload potential? There are three major reasons: safety, safety and safety. Sharing workload, mutual support and redundancy (meaning even if the aircraft is multi-pilot, it is designed to be safely landed by a single pilot, if the other pilot gets incapacitated) of the multi-pilot crew have huge beneficial effect on all three, thence in all the sophisticated (meaning: expensive) civil aviation operations, multipiloting is obligatory.


Some of the terms might differ a bit, depending on the country and the company, yet main principles are the same everywhere. Rank of the pilots operating multicrew aircraft can be "captain" or "first officer". It's easy to tell them apart when they are in uniforms; captains wear four stripes on jacket sleeves or shoulderboards, first officers three. There are some fringe companies who make their junior first officers wear only two stripes and make a lot of fuss out of promotion from junior to senior F/O. Basically, the captain is the pilot who is allowed by the operator to act as a commander of multicrew aircraft, while the first officer is not there yet. In the usual operations, the captain sits on the left side (or in the western helicopters, on the right), and the first officer in the right pilot seat. Things can get a bit complicated e.g. during the conversion of experienced captains to new type; when there are two captains in the cockpit; student captain on the left (usually in the role of the copilot) and instructor captain on the right, or when acute lack of first officers is temporarily patched by sending instructor captains (who, unlike ordinary pilots are allowed to fly from either pilot's seat) to act as a mere copilots.


Today, the term "copilot" most commonly denotes the function in flight. The opposite of  copilot is "pilot in command" (PiC). PiC has to be a captain and he carries the ultimate responsibility for the safe conduct of flight. Of course, this does not imply that (s)he is allowed to lead his crew in dictatorial manner. After the flight, after the aeroplane has been parked, engines have been shut down and doors are open, PiC is quite held accountable for everything  he has performed (or failed to perform) during the flight. Commander's responsibility does not imply that the copilot can fly carefree; mere fact of being in the same aeroplane with his PiC gives him huge vested interest in the safe conduct of the flight. Basically, copilot is a deputy to the aircraft commander. Things are bound to get complicated on the long range flights where more pilots are required then pilot seats are available. There might be more than one captain and one first officer, swapping seats and crew bunks during flight, with some F/Os being allowed to occupy the left seat during cruise... but lets just stay at the usual short and mid-range scenario; two pilots occupying their respective seats throughout the flight.


The third important distinction is by duty on each flight sector; one can be pilot flying (PF) or pilot monitoring (PM). Pilot flying is the one that controls the aeroplane by manipulating control wheel, throttles and rudder pedals or by playing with autopilot buttons when he gets tired of hand-flying. Pilot monitoring is talking on the radio, rises and lowers landing gear, extends and retracts flaps and takes care of navigation while PF is busy merely flying. Each captain and first officer are considered to be capable of performing either PF or PM duty since their very first line flight. Under normal circumstances, decision who will be PF and who PM rests on the pilot-in-command's shoulders, yet there are some circumstances that make it obligatory for the captain to fly (e.g. low visibility operations, special aerodromes, low F/O experience combined with not-so-good weather).  Nowadays it's usually recommended to have even split of the PF/PM duties, days when it was (not even half-jokingly) considered that the copilot duties are confined to: "gear up, shut up" are, fortunately, long gone.


Seemingly I have managed to really overcomplicate the answer to quite a simple question: "How to make a pilot out of a copilot?". Simple answer: there is no way. Copilot is already a pilot and even to ponder copilot training, one has to pass theoretical training for the highest civil licence level, Airline transport pilot licence – ATPL, and have either commercial pilot licence with multi-engine instrument rating or Multi-pilot licence.


Real question (although there is some terms mix-up involved) is how to turn copilot into captain.


It will be answered in some future article, hopefully.


See ya!