So you want to be a pilot (and of course we all want to be a Captain), but your first stop at the airlines after you’ve completed training will almost certainly be at a regional airline as a First Officer. Let’s take a few minutes to explore the role of a First Officer and how it differs from the role of a Captain but how it also overlaps.
To begin with, First Officers and Captains have almost identical training. While Captain “upgrade” school will involve a few days of classes designed to teach a pilot how to think like a Captain, the rest of the training is identical. The two pilots simply sit on different sides of the cockpit. Captains sit on the left side of the cockpit and First Officers sit on the right, a tradition dating back to the early days of aviation. Many times during training a Captain and First Officer will be paired together and remain partners throughout their training.
Once on the flight line, both pilots take an active role in physically flying the airplane. In an airliner, one pilot handles the radios while the other pilot manipulates either the flight controls or the autopilot. Typically, the pilots swap roles every other flight, so each pilot spends an equal amount of time flying and handling communications. Through a process that we call “Crew Resource Management” the pilots work together to make sure that the airplane is operated in a safe and efficient manner.
The important distinction between the two roles is that the Captain is the final authority as to the safe operation of the aircraft and therefore is the final decision maker. Captains also tend to have more experience than their First Officers and are expected to mentor them. I personally have learned a great deal from the many Captains I have flown with over the last eleven years. Most of the time I learn great tips, techniques and etiquette for how a Captain should act. Sometimes I learn things that I do not like, but it is still learning.
On international flights it is very common to have crews consisting of more than two pilots. This is necessary to meet FAA rest requirements and is known as an “augmented” crew. When the Captain is taking his rest break, there will be two First Officers in the cockpit, but the Captain is still in charge of the flight and all major decisions are run past him or her.
As a new First Officer your job will be to learn as much as possible from the Captains that you fly with. You should pay attention to the way in which they conduct themselves and the thought processes they use to arrive at certain decisions. However, don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel something is unsafe. Pilots very much work as a team and the input of a First Officer is just as important as the Captain’s.