What’s the difference between a Captain and a Pilot?

We’ve all heard “This is your Captain speaking” over tannoy systems on airline flights. And when you book a private jet flight, you will meet your Captain before you board the aircraft. But what is the difference between a Captain and other types of pilot?

Pilot cockpit at night

What is a pilot?

A pilot is a job description, and does not imply any qualification or rank. (Find out more about pilots and their jobs in our PrivateFly Pilot Survey).

Professional pilots have completed either a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) or a Air Transport Pilot’s Licence (ATPL). This differentiates them from amateur pilots who have a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL).

Captains, First Officers & Co-pilots

An aircraft must always have a nominated senior pilot who is in overall charge of the aircraft, this pilot is the Captain.

A newly-qualified airline or private jet pilot is allocated the rank of First Officer then later can become a Senior First Officer, before they take a Command Course. If this is successfully completed, this means they can become a Captain. In the military First Officers are called Co-pilots.

Commercially-chartered private jet flights in Europe and the US are operated by two pilots. One will take full responsibility for the flight and be referred to as the Captain. If both pilots are Command Course qualified, one pilot will take responsibility for the flight and will be referred to as ‘Commander’.

As as example, my flying CV shows a sample of the progression between pilot, First Officer and Captain.

Pilot hand on controls

Captain Adam Twidell
1990 – Joined Royal Air Force as a cadet pilot at University of Edinburgh, Scotland
1994 – Commissioned with Royal Air Force
1996 – Qualified as a pilot gaining RAF ‘wings’
1997 – Co-pilot, flying C130 Hercules
1999 – Captain, flying C130 Hercules
2004 – First Officer, NetJets, Citation XL
2005 – First Officer, Netjets, Citation XLS
2008 – Founded PrivateFly and continued to fly as a Citation XLS Captain

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