Airline Pilot Ranks: Stripes with Responsibility

Pilots · 4 min read · Oct 24, 2022
airline pilot ranks

Being a pilot means accumulating countless hours of experience in the air, soaring to higher and higher altitudes, and earning epaulets and stripes for qualifications.

But have you ever sat in an airport terminal, noticed an airline pilot passing by, and wondered what responsibilities the stripes on their uniform actually carry?

The pilot stripes are not just mere embellishments, they signify the flying experience of the pilots on board and let other cabin crew members know who they are dealing with. Let us guide you throughout the pilot ranks and find out the ins and outs of the pilot’s uniform.

Brief history of a pilot’s uniform

Before the 1930s, airline pilots wore the same military pilot uniforms consisting of a leather bomber jacket, a silk scarf to protect the neck, loose khaki trousers, and a soft leather helmet.

The uniform changed when Pan Am (Pan American World Airways) decided to dress their pilots in naval-officer-inspired formal apparel, in 1930.

One of the main influences was the introduction of the Boeing 314 Clipper, a large flying boat landing on and taking off from water surfaces. Pan Am then established a uniform of black trousers, a blazer with stripes indicating rank, an officer-style cap, and a silver or golden badge with a name.

Such uniforms immediately proved to be a real success. Passengers felt a greater sense of security, and the prestige of pilots in society was considerably enhanced. Over time, uniforms have been standardized and widely used in modern aviation.

Aircraft Captain and First officer, with epaulets indicating their airline pilot ranks, during take off.

What is the Highest Rank of a Pilot?

The captain has the highest rank among pilots. He is the aircraft commander and the pilot in command, who is responsible for all decisions made on the flight deck . Whenever the commander’s seat becomes vacant, the senior first officer or first officer takes their place.

What do the pilot stripes on their uniforms actually mean?

Sometimes, different airlines issue different numbers of stripes for their flight officers as there is no worldwide standardization of the system. However, the stripes usually range from two to four.

Not only the stripes are not regulated, but also the color and design of the uniform depend on the flight school or airlines. The stripes might be light gold or dark silver, and the color does not indicate any rank.

Let’s look at the stripes on their uniform a little closer!

An aircraft captain with epaulets indicating airline pilot ranks.

Four Stripes

Captain

Only the captain, aircraft commander, or pilot-in-command is the main responsible person on the aircraft if there is no training captain on board (in this case, the training captain would take the role of a PIC). As the main pilot in the cockpit, the captain wears four stripes on their uniform and sits on the left-hand seat.

The captain usually has at least 3,000 flying hours as well as appropriate type ratings and is responsible not only for the plane itself but for the smooth journey from take-off to landing.

The captain together with ATC will decide on the best routes, alternate destinations, aircraft weight, emergency procedures, a sequence of the flight attendants’ services, and how much fuel to take. They allocate tasks to the crew and other pilots and maintains general aircraft safety.

Training captain

The training captains have the same responsibilities as the captain but are also liable to train and test new pilots as well as experienced senior pilots aiming to take their pilot’s career to another level or those who have just joined the airlines.

Despite a training captain being more senior than a captain, most airlines still provide four stripes on their uniform for training captains, who take the right seat in a cockpit.

Two pilots with high airline pilot ranks landing an airplane.

Three stripes

Senior first officer (co-pilot)

The senior first officer is the second officer after the captain and is often referred to as a “co-pilot.”

They are the first to sit on the right-hand seat of the cockpit and are ready to become a commander at any time, as soon as they accumulate enough hours and there is a vacancy in the company.

Senior first officer rank holders often stay within their airline for a while as moving companies also means that regardless which rank they had with their previous airline, in their new seat they become a junior pilot.

The vast majority of airlines require a senior first officer to have at least 1500 hours of flight experience, and of course appropriate type ratings for the aircraft they are flying.

Two Stripes

First officer or co-pilot

The first officer is also known as a “co-pilot” and usually wears two stripes. However, this is not always the case; in some airlines, first officers may wear the three stripes despite having less experience than senior first officers.

Although the co-pilot carries fewer stripes, their role on an aircraft requires no less professionalism and responsibility. This person is often the one piloting the plane under the captain’s supervision and carries the duty of being the second most important person on the plane and performing tasks delegated by the captain.

Second officer

The second officers are low-hour pilots (who can only fly at certain altitudes and cannot control the aircraft during take-off and landing) and are also called “cruise pilots.”

However, it is important to note that not every airline has second officers, and if they do, they usually carry out the responsibilities of a first officer. They carry out pre-flight checks to make sure all systems are functioning properly and all data is accurate; second officers also help the captain navigate the aircraft while airborne.

One Stripe

Cadet/Trainee

One stripe is worn by flight school students when they obtain their Commercial Pilot License (CPL). Flight schools often issue a second stripe after the Instrument Rating (IR) is completed.

An aircraft cockpit during dawn.

Final thoughts on airline pilot ranks

While there are many ranks denoting an aircraft pilot’s seniority, all of them know how to safely handle the aircraft during take off, cruise and landing. So, you should feel safe in an aircraft despite how many stripes your pilots have on their uniforms – they have been hired to fly after a rigorous selection process.

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Eglė Bartaševičiūtė
A passionate traveler and an avid aviation enthusiast bringing you the most well-founded, accurate and up-to-date industry content.

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