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What Airline and Commercial Pilots Do

Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes or helicopters. Airline pilots fly for airlines that transport people and cargo on a fixed schedule. Commercial pilots fly aircraft for other reasons, such as charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, and crop dusting.


Pilots typically do the following:

For all but small aircraft, two pilots usually make up the cockpit crew. Generally, the most experienced pilot, the captain, is in command and supervises all other crew members. The copilot, often called the first officer, shares flight duties with the captain.

These duties include communicating with air traffic controllers, monitoring instruments, and steering the plane.

Some older planes require a third pilot known as a flight engineer. This person helps the other pilots by monitoring instruments and operating controls. New technology has automated many of these tasks, and most new planes do not require a flight engineer.

Before departure, pilots plan their flights carefully, checking various systems on the aircraft and making sure that baggage and cargo have been loaded correctly. They also confer with air traffic controllers to learn about weather conditions and to confirm the flight route.

Takeoffs and landings are the most difficult parts of the flight and require close coordination between the pilot and copilot. Once in the air, the captain and first officer usually alternate flying each leg of the flight. After landing, pilots must fill out records that document their flight and the maintenance status of the plane.

Some airline pilots may have to help handle customer complaints.

With proper training, airline pilots may also be deputized as federal law enforcement officers and be issued firearms to protect the cockpit.

Commercial pilots employed by charter companies usually have many more nonflight duties. For example, they may schedule flights, arrange for maintenance of the plane, and load luggage to ensure a balanced weight.

Pilots who fly helicopters must constantly look out for trees, bridges, power lines, transmission towers, and other dangerous obstacles.

Regardless of the type of aircraft, all pilots must monitor warning devices that detect sudden shifts in wind patterns.

The following are occupational specialties:

Airline pilots work for airline companies that transport passengers and cargo according to fixed schedules.

Commercial pilots are involved in other flight activities, such as crop dusting, charter flights, and aerial photography.

Flight instructors use simulators and dual-controlled aircraft to teach students how to fly.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition