A pilot and a co-pilot in a cockpit


Co-pilots assist captains by monitoring the flight instruments, handling radio communications, watching for air traffic, and taking over for the pilot as needed. They adhere to the pilot’s commands, flight plans, and regulations and procedures of aviation national authorities, companies, and airports.

Co-pilots typically do the following duties

  • Assist the pilot with taking off and landing the plane.
  • Assume command of the aircraft if the captain is incapacitated.
  • Fly for airlines that transport people and cargo on a fixed schedule.
  • Fly aircraft for other reasons, such as charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, and crop dusting.
  • Perform pre-flight checklists on engines, hydraulics, and other systems.
  • Take information from air traffic controllers.
  • Ensure all cargo has been loaded and the aircraft weight is appropriately balanced.
  • Communicate with flight attendants and perform crosschecks.
  • Receive takeoff and landing instructions.
  • Handle flight emergencies.
  • Operate controls and steer aircraft if the pilot is incapacitated.
  • Greet people leaving or coming aboard the plane.
  • Check fuel and weather conditions.
  • Maintain flight schedules and alert ground and crew to possible delays.
  • Take turns flying the plane to avoid fatigue.
  • Create a flight plan which details the altitude for the flight, the route to be taken, and the amount of fuel required
  • Regularly check the aircraft’s performance and position.
  • React to environmental changes and altitudes.
  • Update aircraft logbook.
  • Note any incidents that occurred during the flight.
  • Ensure noise regulations are followed during take-off and landing.

Other titles

The following job titles also refer to co-pilot:

aircraft first officer
multi-crew pilot
aircraft co-pilot

Working conditions

Co-pilots have approximately the same working conditions as airline captains. Those assigned to long-distance routes may experience fatigue and jetlag. Weather conditions may result in turbulence, requiring pilots to change the flying altitude. Flights can be long, and flight decks are often sealed, so pilots and co-pilots work in small teams for long periods near one another.

The high level of concentration required to fly an aircraft and the mental stress of being responsible for the safety of passengers can be fatiguing. Co-pilots must be alert and quick to react if something goes wrong.

Most pilots and co-pilots are based near large airports.

Minimum qualifications

To be a co-pilot, one must first obtain a commercial pilot’s license from an aviation school. The requirements to attend an aviation school vary, but most schools require that applicants have at least a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree is often recommended.

In addition to completing ground school, where students learn aviation theory, co-pilots must also log a certain number of flight hours. The number of required flight hours varies by country but is typically around 250 hours. After completing these requirements, co-pilots must pass a written exam and a flight test administered by their country’s aviation authority.

ISCO skill level

ISCO skill level is defined as a function of the complexity and range of tasks and duties to be performed in an occupation. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 the lowest level and 4 the highest, by considering:

  • the nature of the work performed in an occupation in relation to the characteristic tasks and duties
  • the level of formal education required for competent performance of the tasks and duties involved and
  • the amount of informal on-the-job training and/or previous experience in a related occupation required for competent performance of these tasks and duties.

Co-pilot is a Skill level 3 occupation.

Co-pilot career path

Similar occupations

These occupations, although different, require a lot of knowledge and skills similar to co-pilot.

helicopter pilot
airline transport pilot
private pilot
second officer
aircraft pilot

Long term prospects

These occupations require some skills and knowledge of co-pilot. They also require other skills and knowledge, but at a higher ISCO skill level, meaning these occupations are accessible from a position of co-pilot with a significant experience and/or extensive training.

airspace manager
flight test engineer
air traffic instructor
air force officer
aviation surveillance and code coordination manager

Essential knowledge and skills

Essential knowledge

This knowledge should be acquired through learning to fulfill the role of co-pilot.

  • Visual flight rules: Types of flight rules which are a compilation of regulations that allow pilots to fly aircrafts in clear as well as unclear weather conditions whereby it is declared that outside visual reference to the ground and other obstructions are not safe.
  • Geographic areas: Know the geographic area in detail; know where different organisations carry out operations.
  • Airport planning: Know airport planning for different types of aircrafts; use that information to mobilise resources and people in order to handle the aircrafts while they are in the airport.
  • Aircraft flight control systems: Know the setting, features and operation of aircraft flight control systems. Manage flight control surfaces, cockpit controls, connections, and operating mechanisms required to control the flight direction of an aircraft. Operate aircraft engine controls in order to change aircraft speed.
  • Air transport law: Know air transport laws and regulations. Due to the nature of aviation, knowledge of air transport laws partially overlaps with knowledge of international law.
  • Air traffic control operations: Understand the tasks performed by air traffic controllers, including Interaction and effective communication between aircraft and air traffic controllers; execution of follow-up activities, and ensuring smooth operations during flights.
  • Aviation meteorology: Understand aviation meteorology to deal with the impact of weather on air traffic management (ATM). Understand how thorough changes in pressure and temperature values at airports can create variations in head and tail-wind components, and may impose low visibility operating conditions. Knowledge of aviation meteorology can help to reduce negative impact on the ATM system by diminishing disruption and the consequent problems of disturbed flow rates, lost capacity and induced additional costs.
  • Civil aviation regulations: Know civil aviation regulations, rules and signals, including marshalling signals.
  • Common aviation safety regulations: The body of legislation and regulations that apply to the field of civil aviation at regional, national, European and International levels. Understand that regulations aimed at protecting citizens at all times in civil aviation; ensure that operators, citizens, and organisations comply with these rules.

Essential skills and competences

These skills are necessary for the role of co-pilot.

  • Operate radio equipment: Set up and operate radio devices and accessories, such as broadcast consoles, amplifiers, and microphones. Understand the basics of radio operator language and, when necessary, provide instruction in handling radio equipment correctly.
  • Use meteorological information: Use and interpret meteorological information for operations dependent on climatic conditions. Use this information to provide advise on safe operations in relation to weather conditions.
  • Ensure ongoing compliance with regulations: Conduct tasks and procedures to ensure that aviation certificates maintain their validity; undertake safeguarding measures as appropriate.
  • Possess visual literacy: Interpret charts, maps, graphics, and other pictorial presentations used in place of the written word. The graphics used vary from process to process; therefore, the professional must have sufficient knowledge of the field in order to follow and use the information presented.
  • Operate radio navigation instruments: Operate radio navigation instruments to determine the position of aircraft in the airspace.
  • Deal with challenging work conditions: Deal with challenging circumstances in which to perform work, such as night work, shift work, and atypical working conditions.
  • Operate two-way radio systems: Use radios that can receive and transmit sound signals in order to communicate with similar radios on the same frequency such as mobile phones and walkie talkies.
  • Read maps: Read maps effectively.
  • Use different communication channels: Make use of various types of communication channels such as verbal, handwritten, digital and telephonic communication with the purpose of constructing and sharing ideas or information.
  • Ensure public safety and security: Implement the relevant procedures, strategies and use the proper equipment to promote local or national security activities for the protection of data, people, institutions, and property.
  • Implement airside safety procedures: Apply a series of airfield safety rules and procedures to ensure a safe working environment for airport crew.
  • Have spatial awareness: Be aware of your position and the space around you. Understand the relationship of objects around you when there is a change of position.
  • Ensure smooth on board operations: Ensure the trip goes smoothly and without incidents. Before departure review if all security, catering, navigation and communication elements are in place.
  • Undertake procedures to meet requirements for flying aircraft heavier than 5,700 kg: Ensure that operation certificates are valid, validate that take-off mass is a minimum of 5,700 kg, verify that the minimum crew is adequate according to flight needs and regulations, ensure that the configuration settings are correct, and check if the engines are suitable for the flight.
  • Operate cockpit control panels: Operates control panels in the cockpit or flight deck according to the needs of the flight. Manage on-board electronic systems to ensure a smooth flight.
  • Perform flight manoeuvres: Perform flight manoeuvres in critical situations, and associated ‘upset’ manoeuvres, in order to avoid collision.
  • Read 3D displays: Read 3D-displays and understand the information they provide on positions, distances, and other parameters.
  • Apply signalling control procedures: Control train movements; operate railway signals and block systems to ensure that trains operate safely, on correct routes, and on time.
  • Apply transportation management concepts: Apply transport industry management concepts in order to improve transportation processes, reduce waste, increase efficiency, and improve schedule preparation.
  • Comply with air traffic control operations: Act in compliance with instruction provided by air traffic controllers.
  • Maintain counterweight inside modes of transport: Maintain balance and mass distribution inside the means of transport (vessel, aircraft, train, road vehicles, etc). Ensure that passengers and cargo distribution do not hinder the mobility of the mode of transport.
  • Perform take off and landing: Perform normal and cross-wind take-off and landing operations.
  • Handle stressful situations: Deal with and manage highly stressful situations in the workplace by following adequate procedures, communicating in a quiet and effective manner, and remaining level-headed when taking decisions.
  • Ensure compliance with civil aviation regulations: Ensure best practice standards are adopted and all regulatory requirements met
  • Run preventive simulations: Run preventive audits or simulations with new signalling systems; assess operability and detect flaws for improvement.
  • Ensure aircraft compliance with regulation: Ensure that every aircraft complies with applicable regulation and all components and equipment have officially valid components.
  • Operate radar equipment: Operate radar screens and other radar equipment; ensure that aircraft fly at a safe distance from one another.
  • Comprehensively inspect aircraft: Conduct inspections of aircraft and aircraft components, namely their parts, appliances, and equipment, to identify malfunctions such as fuel leaks or flaws in electrical and pressurisation systems.
  • Prepare transportation routes: Prepare routes by chosing the best possible way and foresee adjustments in case of need, by providing additional running time or adapting capacity and timing in response to changes in circumstances, thereby ensuring an efficient use of resources and achievement of customer relations goals.
  • Undertake procedures to meet aircraft flight requirements: Ensure that operation certificates are valid, guarantee that take-off mass is a maximum of 3,175 kg, verify that the minimum crew is adequate according to regulations and needs, ensure that the configuration settings are correct, and check if engines are suitable for the flight.
  • Create a flight plan: Develop a flight plan which details the flight altitude, route to be followed and the amount of fuel required using different sources of information (weather reports and other data from air traffic control).
  • Perform routine flight operations checks: Perform checks before and during flight: conduct pre-flight and in-flight inspections of aircraft performance, route and fuel usage, runway availability, airspace restrictions, etc.
  • Follow verbal instructions: Have the ability to follow spoken instructions received from colleagues. Strive to understand and clarify what is being requested.
  • Analyse work-related written reports: Read and comprehend job-related reports, analyse the content of reports and apply findings to daily work operations.

Optional knowledge and skills

Optional knowledge

This knowledge is sometimes, but not always, required for the role of co-pilot. However, mastering this knowledge allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

  • Geostationary satellites: Know about geostationary satellites and how they function; moving in the same direction as rotation of the Earth. Understand how they are used for telecommunication and commercial purposes.

Optional skills and competences

These skills and competences are sometimes, but not always, required for the role of co-pilot. However, mastering these skills and competences allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

  • Communicate with customers: Respond to and communicate with customers in the most efficient and appropriate manner to enable them to access the desired products or services, or any other help they may require.
  • Carry out navigational calculations: Solve mathematical problems to achieve safe navigation.
  • Write work-related reports: Compose work-related reports that support effective relationship management and a high standard of documentation and record keeping. Write and present results and conclusions in a clear and intelligible way so they are comprehensible to a non-expert audience.
  • Respond to changing navigation circumstances: Respond decisively and in sufficient time to unexpected and rapidly changing situations while navigating.
  • Apply airport standards and regulations: Know and apply the accepted standards and regulations for European airports. Apply knowledge to enforce airport rules, regulations, and the Airport Safety Plan.
  • Tolerate stress: Maintain a temperate mental state and effective performance under pressure or adverse circumstances.
  • Be friendly to passengers: Engage with passengers according to the expectations of contemporary social behaviour, the specific situation, and the code of conduct of the organisation. Communicate in a polite and clear way.

ISCO group and title

3153 – Aircraft pilots and related associate professionals

  1. Co-pilot – ESCO
  2. Airline and Commercial Pilots : Occupational Outlook Handbook – U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. Differences Between a Captain and Co-Pilot |
  4. Airline Copilot Job Description – Diversity Jobs
  5. How To Become A Co-Pilot? –
  6. Featured image: Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash
Last updated on March 20, 2023