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What is a First Officer?

By Harriette Halepis
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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The term "first officer" is often used to denote the second in command on a commercial flight. When solely considering the title of the first officer, it may seem as though this person is the most important person aboard a commercial flight, though this is not the case. In fact, the first officer is actually the co-pilot.

There is a form of hierarchy aboard any kind of airplane. The pilot, or captain, is the first person in command, while the first officer is the second in command. Both the pilot and co-pilot share responsibilities while aboard an aircraft, though the pilot is ultimately responsible for passengers, aircraft safety, and all crew members.

Often, a first officer has extensive flight experience due to military, or other, training. In some instances, a co-pilot may even have more experience than a pilot, though many commercial airlines often pick pilots according to seniority instead of experience. In any case, should something happen to a pilot, the first officer is then in charge of the aircraft.

In order to become a pilot, all interested applicants must first gain experience as a co-pilot. Thus, many co-pilots work for different kinds of airlines prior to applying for a job with a commercial airline. Some of these professionals begin by working as pilots for freight companies, since these companies are often willing to train new pilots. Others gain experience by enlisting in the military, or by working as flight instructors. No matter how experienced is gained, it is essential that all first officers work within the airline industry prior to applying for a job within a commercial airline.

Traditionally, a first officer will sit to the right of a captain while aboard a commercial airplane. Likewise, a senior first officer will also sit on the right side of an aircraft. Senior first officers are officers who have gone through all the necessary steps to become a commercial airline captain. When a company does not have an opening for the position of a captain, senior first officers often act as co-pilots.

Anyone interested in becoming a co-pilot should begin by gaining experience within the flight field. Once this type of necessary training has been obtained, individuals can then apply for jobs with commercial airline companies. While the position of a co-pilot is a tough one, this job is also highly rewarding.

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Discussion Comments

By strawCake — On Aug 23, 2011

@Azuza - I have a friend who is in school to be a pilot right now. He wants to be a captain-first officer simply will not do!

I personally think it's kind of cool to fly a plane in any capacity. Piloting an airplane is not a skill that many people have! However, I understand some people are more competitive than I am and would probably prefer to be the person in charge.

By Azuza — On Aug 22, 2011

I think I would feel extra comfortable on a flight with a senior first officer. I'm a little bit scared to fly though, so I doubt your average person would care!

However, it would be kind of unfortunate for the senior first officer. Imagine having all the training and qualifications to be a pilot, but no openings to actually have the job!

By rugbygirl — On Aug 21, 2011

@EdRick - My understanding is that the term "first officer" is usually used for either a copilot, like in the article, or sometimes for the second-in-command of a merchant ship.

The term "first officer" can be used for second-in-command of a naval ship, but that person is usually called the executive officer or XO (not sure if that's how they spell it, but that's how I've heard it pronounced in movies).

By EdRick — On Aug 21, 2011

I grew up as a big Star Trek fan. They always call their second-in-command the "first officer." (Any other Picard fans remember "number one"?)

But those are military rather than commercial ships. If first officer jobs today are generally a commercial airliner thing, what do they call second-in-command of a military vessel?

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