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Pilots and Copilots. Who are These Mysterious People?

Posted by Patrick Smith  February 11, 2014 06:37 PM

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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.

Most recently we have Monday's story about the hijacked -- if that's the right word -- Ethiopian Airlines 767. The article by reporter John Heilprin was headlined COPILOT HIJACKS ETHIOPIAN PLANE, and begins like this:

"Locking the pilot out of the cockpit, an Ethiopian Airlines copilot hijacked a plane bound for Italy on Monday and diverted it to Geneva, where he asked for asylum."

A week or so earlier we had the tale of the hapless and apparently quite inebriated Ukrainian fellow who attempted to hijack a Turkish jetliner to Sochi, Russia. The crew of the 737 fooled the man into thinking they were landing in Sochi, when it fact they'd diverted to Istanbul, where he was taken into custody.

I say "the crew," but the news stories kept making reference to "the pilot," which is where I have the problem.

Associated Press: "The pilot tricked him and landed in Istanbul instead." New York Times: "The pilot then alerted the authorities in Turkey." My next door neighbor: "That was one smart pilot."

Except, of course, there were two pilots. There were two pilots in the Turkish plane, and two pilots in the Ethiopian plane. There is always a minimum of 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.

With respect to reporter Heilprin's story about the Ethiopian plane, use of the term "pilot" to describe the captain suggests the first officer was, by definition, something other than -- and presumably less than -- an actual pilot, and this is simply false. The stories from Turkey don't mention a second pilot at all.

Journalists take note. I'm not sure if the AP has 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."

Or, 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, meanwhile, carry augmented crews that work in shifts.

And lastly, getting back to the hijacking in Turkey for a minute...

Clever as it might seem, that Istanbul-as-Sochi trick isn't new. Such a ruse dates at least to the 1970s, when hijackings were very common. More than one Eastern or Pan Am crew hoodwinked a skyjacker into thinking Miami was Havana.


Epaulets photo by the author. A free book goes to the first person who can identify the carrier those wings once belonged to. Send your guesses to


Patrick Smith is the host of He was voted one of the 25 Best Bloggers of 2013 by TIME magazine. His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AIR TRAVEL


This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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