Ever been through an airport and wondered what the different pilot stipes mean and how to move between the ranks? – this post shares everything you need to know.
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What do the pilot stripes actually mean?
Pilot strips signify the rank and experience of the pilot that is flying. Pilot stripes are designed to quickly recognise who is in charge and allow other crew members to quickly identify the approximate experience level of the pilot they are dealing with.
A second officer mostly wears 1 stripe, although some companies have their second officers wearing two stripes from the start.
A second officer is the most junior rank of a pilot. They are usually the least senior and typically just out of training. The second officer may have completed a commercial pilot licence (CPL) and Multi-Engine instrument rating and will probably have recently completed their type rating.
Second officer (cruise pilot)
Second officers can be either fully qualified operating crew or, in some cases like Cathay Pacific; second officers act as cruise pilots where they operate the aircraft above 20000 feet in the cruise.
Second officers may be involved in the aircraft setup, including programming the flight management computer and completing the walk around.
In some companies, second officers have the same operating duties as a regular first officer, i.e., complete the takeoff and the landings. The only differentiator is that they are considered second officers until they reach a certain experience level.
How do you get promoted to first officer (and earn two stripes)?
Depending on the company, promotion may be through a seniority-based system (i.e. when a first officer position becomes available).
When a first officer position needs to be filled, the company will check who has been there the longest in the second officer rank and then promote the most senior from that pool – assuming that their performance has been satisfactory.
In other companies, pilots are promoted to first officer when a certain amount of flying experience has been reached, e.g. 500hours on the type of aircraft flow or 1000 hours on type.
Having one stripe in an airline may also mean certain operational limits placed on the one stripe pilot to go with their level of experience. The limits may be that the pilot has a lower crosswind limit during takeoff and landing or cannot fly specific approaches into certain airfields.
A second officer (1 pilot stripe) would typically be operating under increased supervision.
1 stripe during pilot training
If pilots are at flying school, some schools will allow them to wear one stripe when they have either gone solo or completed their commercial pilot licence (CPL).
Students are typically awarded their second strip when they complete their Multi-Engine Instrument Rating (MEIR) and their 3rd stripe during the multi-crew course.
Two stripes would generally signify that the pilot is a first officer. Depending on the company, first officers may be issued with two stripes from the day of joining, or the second stripe may be earnt after a given level of experience or seniority is gained.
First officers in an airliner with two stripes typically have less than 1500 hours of flying time.
With most companies, it is generally accepted that first officers are considered senior first officers once the pilot has over 1500 hours (and are provided with three stripes).
If the pilot had been a second officer as a cruise pilot, they would typically undergo additional training to upgrade to the first officer rank.
This training may include simulator sessions & base training (when the pilot does actual takeoffs and landing in the given aircraft for the first time). Second officers upgrading to first officers usually need between 6-12 takeoffs and landings to satisfy the base training requirement.
Senior first officer
Three stripes signify that the pilot is a senior first officer and typically has more than 1500hours. Occasionally some airlines would start first officers with three stirpes straightway – this tends to be long haul airlines.
Senior first officers are typically working towards their command upgrade and preparing to become captains once they reach the necessary experience level (typically a minimum of 3000 hours).
A senior first officer would typically have a full Air Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). Anyone who is not a captain is usually referred to as a first officer or co-pilot. Operationally, three-striped pilots or senior first officers have few operational restrictions, e.g. crosswind limits, and are developing and preparing to become a captain.
Senior first officers (3 stripes) may sometimes take on additional duties, such as operating as a Synthetic Flight Instructor (SFI), teaching in the simulator or participating in the safety office or even recruitment depending on the airline.
Three stripes at flight school would generally signify that the student has completed most of their training.
A captain wears four stripes and is in overall charge of the aircraft. A captain typically has more than 3000 hours (short-haul), although this can be over 6000 hours for long haul operations.
Being promoted to Captain and gaining the 4th stripe typically requires completing a command course.
The command course covers ground school, challenging simulator sessions aimed to assess and coach command responsibilities and finally, a phase of line training. Line training is when an experienced examiner/ trainer flies with a captain undergoing training and coaches them in what would be expected to operate daily as a captain.
Command upgrade line training culminates in a command check (typically over several flights) by an experienced training captain.
Line Training Captain
Line training captains wear four stripes and are part of the training organisation within the company. Line training captains typically carry outline training (supervising and training new co-pilots and captains) once they have completed their simulator work on operating regular scheduled flights.
When the new pilots are at the required standard, they are released onto the line and are considered regular crew.
Other duties for line training captains include line checks – annual checks on crews to ensure compliance with standard operating procedures and coaching crew resource management.
Line training captains may also be involved in returning crews to currency after being away from the flight deck and any remedial training needed for the company’s pilots.
Type Rating Examiner
Type rating examiners also wear four stripes. Their duties may include those of line trainers. Still, mostly, examiners spend a lot of their time training in flight simulators and carrying out recurrency simulator checks on each pilot every six months.
Examiners are generally authorised by a given civil aviation authority to carry out flight tests on pilots.
How many stripes can a pilot have?
A pilot can have either one, two, three or four stripes.
What are the ranks of pilot?
- Cadet or trainee
- Second officer/ junior first officer
- First officer
- Senior first officer
- Line training captain
- Type rating examiner
What are the stripes on pilots called?
Pilot stripes are called epaulettes.
What is the highest rank of pilot?
The highest rank of a pilot is generally the chief pilot.
The highest rank of a pilot with no managerial responsibilities outside of the flight deck is the rank of Captain.
The highest rank of a pilot within the training department of an air operation is typically examiner or base /type rating examiner.
Is pilot called Captain?
A pilot is not always called Captain. A pilot can be referred to as any of the following:
- Trainee/ Student pilot
- Second officer
- Junior first officer
- First officer
- Senior first officer
If you have any questions about pilot stripes or pilot uniforms, please leave a comment in the section below!
Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 captain with over 3,000 hours of flying in Europe. He holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, is a chartered engineer, and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self-funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.