A pilot's career - career of a pilot

A pilot’s career

Tim Takeoff
3 pictures
6 minutes

Of course everyone wants a career. But what do the individual milestones in a pilot’s career look like? What do the corresponding insignia on the crews’ uniforms mean, and what rights do they confer?

A short note: In this article the masculine form has been chosen for reasons of simplicity and readability. Nevertheless, naturally, all specifications apply equally in accordance with the German gender legislation for “m / w / d” (male, female, diverse – ruling of the German Federal Constitutional Court (BVVerfG) of 22.12.2018)

Off to flying school

All beginnings are hard but that makes it all the more fun. Everyone, those with previous flying experience and pedestrians alike, must of course go to flying school. This is where prospective pilots learn the fundamentals of aviation and about everyday life as an airline pilot. As a trainee pilot you are in for a challenging time.

There are many ways to get the license for professional flying (we will describe these possibilities in more detail in another article). At the end of the training, practical and theoretical examinations count towards the acquisition of a CPL (Commercial Pilot License) or MPL (Multi Pilot License). Only after you have completed 1,500 flying hours are you entitled to apply for an ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence).

Type Rating & Line Training

The basic license (CPL, MPL or ATPL) is not worth much on its own without a corresponding type rating. Only with this rating, the so-called aircraft type training course, is the license complete. This type rating is valid for the aircraft type on which you will finally be assigned.

Once you have completed the demanding task in theory and practice in the simulator, training in the real aircraft can begin: the so-called “line training”. At this stage, real flights are carried out under the supervision of experienced captains (trainers). Once you have successfully completed this stage, you are ready for your daily work as an airline pilot.

Second Officer

Depending on the area of operation, the newly qualified pilot begins his career as a fully trained first or second officer. This depends a lot on the company and the aircraft model flown. If young colleagues are deployed directly on a large and heavy long-haul aircraft, it is officially required to first build up some experience as second officer. The second officer’s shirt has two stripes as insignia.

A second officer may operate on the ground and above flight level 200. This means that he may neither take off nor land. He learns about the worldwide procedures in cruising flight and takes over from the first officer in the right-hand seat when he takes his rest period. He is also integrated into all procedures on the ground and is usually the first to be confronted with decisions. This is a safety measure to ensure that an experienced pilot does not influence the inexperienced in advance.

First Officer

No matter whether you are initially deployed as second officer on a large aircraft or the flying school assigns you to a smaller airplane model, at some point the first take-offs and landings of your own will take place in the right-hand seat. As first officer you are trained in all areas and can be part of a two-person crew. The first officer already wears three stripes on his jacket. In this position, you report directly to the captain or, if on board, to the Senior First Officer, even though the hierarchies in today’s cockpits are usually very flat.

Senior First Officer

We find a special form of first officer in the function of Senior First Officer. This is a very experienced first officer who has received an additional qualification. He is only needed for very long flights and corresponding rest periods of the individual crew members.

The Senior First Officer can basically take over all the tasks of a First Officer. In addition, he may take over the position in the left-hand seat when the captain is taking a break. At that moment, the command of the aircraft passes into his hands. He may make decisions on his own authority within firmly defined limits. If these limits are threatened to be exceeded, he is obliged to wake up the captain and order him back into the cockpit.

His distinctive insignia features the same three stripes of the first officer, but the first strip is twice as wide. Now an exciting time in a pilot’s career begins: gathering the experience needed to one day become a captain.

Captain and Commander

The captain, with his four stripes on his sleeve, is the chief on board the plane. He has the ultimate decision-making power and can delegate tasks or take these upon himself. As a captain, you have to undergo extensive continuing education, which requires a great deal of personal initiative. For the most part it corresponds to a renewed type rating, whereby the systems and procedures on board are gone through and examined again (in much more detail).

The captain is also the key interpersonal coordinator on board. He should always keep track of things, and in case of doubt prioritize tasks and problems. He remains at the top of the hierarchy until two captains are on board. Then it is usually the so-called “seniority”, i.e. the date of joining the airline, that decides who is above whom and has the final decision. The senior officer becomes the “Commander” alongside the second captain.


We already mentioned the “trainers” at the beginning in reference to the type rating. An experienced captain may, and should, pass on his knowledge to inexperienced/less experienced colleagues. For this to have a legal basis, a captain can officially train as a trainer. There are various hierarchical levels, from the simple “Line Trainer”, who is allowed to train “on the line”, i.e. during normal procedures, to the “Type Rating Instructor”. He is allowed to take over the basic training of the Type Rating in the simulator.

The Checkers

An examiner or “checker”, as he is called in pilot jargon, may, as the name already suggests, conduct examinations. Pilots have to undergo continuous examination. Both in the simulator and “on the line”, they are continuously tested for their skills. One examiner is called a “Type Rating Examiner “or “TRE”. Each of the aforementioned pilot training units is concluded with a TRE test. He decides whether the candidate is able to fulfil his duties. Examiners have no special insignia; they are employed by the airline and receive special remuneration.

A pilot’s career – end upon retirement?

Up to the age of 65 years, a pilot may currently perform active service in the cockpit of a commercial aircraft. However, many of the more senior captains who have been trained as trainers or checkers may continue their training after this date, in the simulator as well as in theoretical areas. So a pilot’s career can be almost endless. The love of flying just doesn’t let you go that easily…

You want to know more about being a pilot? How about this article about the responsibility of pilots? Or about the importance of checklists in a pilots’ everyday life?

All images © SFS

by Tim Takeoff

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