Being a pilot is an honor that carries many perks and accolades with it. The title of a pilot captain means accumulating countless hours behind the controls of some of the biggest vehicles in the world. As pilots gain hours and experience and demonstrate their skills, they will earn flying stripes that correlate to their gained experiences and demonstrated qualifications.
If you have flown frequently you likely have seen pilots making their way to their flights. Have you noticed the stripes on the shoulders of their uniforms? Have you ever wondered what those strips are all about? The simple fact is that pilot stripes are not just mere embellishments. They are key indications that let airport staff, cabin crew, and other pilots know the ranks and responsibilities of those wearing the stripes. And there are many different types of stipes you may see, so let’s dig a little deeper into those nifty-looking stripes on most pilot’s uniforms.
What is the Highest Rank of a Pilot?
The captain has the highest rank among pilots. Whoever is considered captain flying is the pilot in command of any given aircraft ultimately. It is the captain who is responsible for all decisions made during the flight from the flight deck. If their seat becomes vacant, due to incapacitation or any other reason, the first officer will step in and assume the role of the captain flying. The industry minimum for a pilot to reach the rank of captain is at least 3,000 flying hours. Additionally, they must log a certain number of flight simulators and training hours and pass regular inspections and tests. These are required to ensure they are still capable of commanding a flight.
First Officers are essentially second in command to the captain on any flight. They are free to remain in that rank for any length of time before moving up to captain once they accumulate enough flight hours. Some First Officers simply stay at that rank and never advance to the role of captain. Under the First Officer is the Second Officer. It usually takes 1-2 years of experience as a Second Officer to be allowed to advance. The lowest rank of flight crews on most planes are referred to as cadets or student trainees. During their training period, cadets will complete all tests and book learning requirements as well as accumulate at least 150 hours of flight time. Once all qualifications are met, they will then be free to work toward the next level of seniority.
What do the pilot stripes on their uniforms actually mean?
Sometimes, you will see some variation in the pip stripes on a pilot’s uniform. Different airlines can at times issue different numbers of stripes for their flight officers since no national or international standard exists yet for this. However, the stripes almost always range from two to four and the more stripes there are the more senior the pilot is in the chain of command.
Not only are the stripe numbers themselves not regulated but also the color and design of the uniform and stripe patches and emblems can vary between flight schools and individual airlines. The color of the stripes can range from lighter to darker colors depending on the colors of the uniforms and the colors alone carry no significance as far as the rank of the pilot goes.
Now that we have the basics down, let’s look a little more closely at what pilot stripes mean for airline pilot ranks!
The highest pilot rank for stripes on a pilot’s uniform is reserved for those with the title of Captain or Training Captain.
The captain on any aircraft is the man or woman in charge of the flight. As the main pilot in the cockpit, they wear four stripes on their uniform. The captain works with Air Traffic Control to plan the fight, chooses routes, selects alternate airports, and is the one who makes all decisions regarding flight operations. They also are responsible for safety checks and operations, flight crew management, control tower communications, and other vital decisions about when to divert due to bad weather and even how much fuel to take. They allocate tasks to other crew members but are the ones ultimately responsible for the safe operation of the flight.
The training captains are also the higher-ranking crew on any flight. These individuals have the same responsibilities as the captain but are also able to train new captains and provide training and inspections on current captains. In many ways, they are more senior as far as their hours of flying time or time with the company go but are seen as the same rank as a regular captain in terms of the division of responsibility on the flight deck. Training captains have completed many flight hours, passed their own tests and inspections, and are in good standing with the airline and other captains in the industry.
Three stripes on a pilot’s uniform denote their second-in-command ranking and are often referred to as senior officers or first officers.
Senior first officer
The Senior First Officer is the second in command and is commonly referred to as a co-pilot. They assist the Captain with the duties related to flying the aircraft. They are also ready to advance to the ranking of a pilot themselves once they meet all required minimums for training and flight hours. Most of the time they stay with the same airline as first officer and as a pilot which gives them added seniority and a strong reputation within the company. A Senior or First Officer generally is required to have a minimum of 1500 hours of flight time and pass all rating and test requirements for their company and the type of aircraft they are flying as well.
Next down on the totem pole of pilot ranking are those with two stripes on their uniform- the second officer.
The second officers are at a lower rank than the captain and first officers. They have fewer hours and are generally much more limited in what they can and cannot do in an actual aircraft. Most can only fly with another higher ranking officer flying, they cannot assist with takeoffs and landings and are limited in terms of what type so aircraft they can fly and in what light and weather conditions they are allowed to fly. It is worth noting that not every airline has second officers and that their jobs can vary from one airline to another. When they are part of the flight crew, they will assist the captain and his co-pilot as needed before, during and after the flight.
The final rank for a flight crew you will see when looking at the pilot’s uniform is a single stripe. These are for cadets and pilots in the early stages of training.
One stripe is worn by flight school students to note that they are allowed to accompany a pilot into the flight deck but are not allowed to actually do any flying. Most receive their first stripe when they obtain their Commercial Pilot License and begin working with an airline company and start their flight simulator and book training. Many flight schools will issue the stripe upon successful completion of the trainee’s Instrument Rating testing. These junior ranking pilots are distinguished with a single stripe so they can be picked out and the general cabin crew and non-pilot crew on any airline at any given time.
Final thoughts on commercial pilot rank
While there are many ranks denoting an aircraft pilot’s seniority, all of them know how to safely handle the aircraft during take-off, cruise and landing. So, you should feel safe in an aircraft despite how many stripes your pilots have on their uniforms – they have been hired to fly after a rigorous selection process.