What is the Highest Rank for a Pilot?

Many air forces throughout the world use a similar ranking system to the military. However, these ranks can differ in each country. Britain’s RAF and the air forces of many Commonwealth countries use slightly different ranks that are based loosely on the naval equivalents.

Instead of Lieutenant, Commander, Captain, and Commodore, the air forces use Flight, Wing, Group, and Air. The first three are the units in which they use to command.

Airline pilots have a different ranking system. The rankings are:

  • Captain (Highest Rank)
  • Senior First Officer
  • First Officer
  • Second Officer

Here, in the USA, and many other countries, an airline pilot’s entry-level rank is known as First Officer. This job is sometimes known as the Co-Pilot but this person is as proficient in flying and as equally trained as the Captain.

A First Officer’s grade senior is Captain. The Captain acts as the pilot-in-command and sits next to the First Officer.

These days, most airlines have two pilots but on long-haul flights, such as pan-pacific journeys, the airline may include an additional pilot, the Second Officer, as a relief. They will take it in turns to pilot the aircraft from taking off, climbing, cruising, and landing.

This has changed since the early days of aviation. For many years, an airline would carry a Captain, First and Second Officers, a Navigator, and an engineer. However, as time moved on, technologies improved which rendered these positions on an aircraft obsolete.

A Second Officer is sometimes employed as cruise pilots by airlines. This means that they sit at the controls during the cruise. This is so the Captain and First Officer can get some sleep on long-haul flights.

What rank do you need to be a pilot?

All pilots have had to go through vigorous training in order to operate an aircraft. This usually includes hundreds of hours of flying in training as well as medicals and written exams.

The qualifications required may depend on the flight school you trained with or the employer you intend to work for.

There is a hierarchy in place so pilots can work their way through the airline ranks. These are as follows:

  • Second Officer - This is the low-hour pilot rank you require to join an airline and become a pilot. However, this rank is now dated and only a few airlines employ Second Officers. Promotion can be achieved when the pilot has gained enough hours of experience in the sky. 
  • First Officer - This is the most common rank of pilots who are found in the right seat of the cockpit.
  • Senior First Officer - This is the most senior position when sitting in the right-hand seat. Pilots usually acquire this rank as they are approaching eligibility for command.
  • Captain - This is the highest rank for pilots. When this position becomes available, a Senior First Officer or First Officer, with sufficient experience, seniority, and skill will have to complete a command course before being considered for the rank of Captain. Only then can they command the aircraft from the left-hand seat or right-hand seat in helicopters.
  • Training Captain - Through more qualifications, a Training Captain will provide simulator and line training to new pilots as well as experienced ones.

There are many more factors that need to be considered when qualifying as a pilot and it is not plain sailing after they have achieved a rank. A newly graduated pilot usually finds it quite hard to find a secure long-haul position.

Where do pilots wear their wings?

Ever noticed the wings on a pilot’s uniform? Well, they are there for a reason. Coming in a range of colors such as Gold, light Gold, Silver, Dark Silver, grey, and Champagne, many pilots opt for a color that is designed specifically for their uniform.

You will only ever see one, two, three, or four stripes, and never any more on a pilot’s uniform. Three and four stripes indicate the flight deck with the Captain wearing four stripes and the First Officer being allocated with three stripes.

On occasions, you may see a Senior First Officer wear three stripes and a First Officer wearing two but the most common is the former scenario.

The wings are worn above the left breast pocket on a pilot’s uniform. This is evident on either their jacket or shirt and sometimes both. Generally, the center features the airline’s logo too. In the United States, a First Officer’s wings include a small star on the top while the captain’s wing includes a star and a wreath.

These wings are a symbol of the countless hours of discipline and training that pilots have gone through to get to their prestigious position. While most people see a few wings, pilots see hard work and a reminder of the hard work they have experienced to achieve their rank.