What Is the Difference Between an Airline Pilot, Co-Pilot & Flight Engineer?

This article compares the salaries and career trajectories of airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers. While all three jobs involve working with planes, each position comes with its own unique responsibilities and requirements.

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Comparing Pilot, Co-Pilot, and Flight Engineer Careers

Pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers are all responsible for the successful and safe operation of an aircraft. However, there are important differences in their training, rank, and daily responsibilities. Pilots fly planes, co-pilots assist the pilot in-flight, and flight engineers monitor the aircraft's systems before, during, and after a flight.

Job Title Education Requirements Average Salary (2019) Projected Job Growth (2018-28)***
Airline Pilot Bachelor's degree
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified flight school training
$135,101* 8% (commercial pilots)
Co-Pilot FAA certification $96,309* 5% (airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers)
Flight Engineer Bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering, electrical engineering or a related field $71,461** 5% (airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers)

Sources: *Salary.com; **PayScale.com ;***Bureau of Labor Statistics

Responsibilities of Pilots, Co-Pilots, and Flight Engineers

These three positions form an aircraft's essential flight crew. They work together to monitor an aircraft's performance, complete flights on schedule, and ensure the safety of everyone and everything on board their aircraft. Pilots have the most training and experience and lead the rest of the team. Co-pilots might hold the same flight certification as pilots, but they likely do not have as much in-flight experience. Finally, flight engineers focus on the technical side of flight. They monitor their plane's function but do not have the qualifications to navigate the plane.

Airline Pilot

Pilots can work in a huge variety of contexts, transporting people and cargo, dusting crops with pesticides, assisting in rescue operations, or conducting military operations. Pilots must have technical expertise and strong leadership skills, since they are ultimately responsible for the safety of their airplane's staff, passengers, and cargo. They can work in a wide variety of industries including commercial flight, private transportation, and tour companies. The one thing every pilot position has in common is the opportunity to travel. Pilots often start with entry-level positions as private pilots. Once they log enough hours in the sky, they can apply for a commercial jet or multi-engine pilot certificate and advance their career.

Job responsibilities of an airline pilot include:

  • Assessing aircraft prior to flights to ensure safe travel
  • Briefing their in-flight staff
  • Monitoring engine operation, fuel, and aircraft function during fights
  • Reporting aircraft position and flight progress to air traffic control
  • Considering complex factors like weather, altitude, plane weight, and wind speed to execute safe take-offs and landings
  • Filing a flight report at their final destination

Co-pilot

Most pilots begin their careers as co-pilots. All planes that weigh over 12,500 pounds are required to have a co-pilot on board who assists the pilot in every aspect of navigation. The co-pilot can help make informed decisions about flight routes, calculate speed and wind conditions, and assist in take-offs and landings. Co-pilots are fully certified to manage the plane in case the pilot loses his or her ability to perform effectively. By gaining experience in the air, they can advance to become fully-fledged jet and commercial pilots.

Job responsibilities of a co-pilot include:

  • Assisting the pilot in take-offs, landings, difficult weather, and emergency procedures
  • Communicating with air traffic controllers during flight
  • Flying the plane during long flights to help prevent pilot fatigue
  • Connecting flight team with flight attendants
  • Taking command of aircraft if the pilot is incapacitated

Flight Engineers

Large jet planes sometimes have a flight engineer that coordinates with the pilot and co-pilot. They inspect aircraft before flights and fuel the plane. Flight engineers do not make the same high paychecks of co-pilots and pilots, but they still have opportunities to travel and obtain free airfare from their employers. They respond to the pilot's concerns in-flight and provide technical advice and support in emergency situations. Flight engineering is a great way to gain experience and kick-start your career as a pilot.

Job responsibilities of a flight engineer include:

  • Conducting a thorough evaluation of the plane's technical systems before take-off
  • Monitoring fuel levels, engine operation, cabin pressure, propellers, air conditioning and all other aircraft systems during flight
  • Cleaning and testing aircraft equipment between flights
  • Inspecting aircraft to ensure that it meets company standards and regulations

Related Careers

If you enjoy the responsibility and thrill of flying airplanes, you might want to consider a career as a helicopter pilot. If you are more interested in co-piloting, consider a career as an air traffic controller where you utilize similar skills in assisting pilots and ensuring the safety of all aircraft occupants. Finally, if you are most interested in becoming a flight engineer, you might enjoy a career in aerospace engineering where you can fully explore the mechanical aspects of aircraft function and design.

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