Day in the life of
Senior Copilot – Patrick Smith
There’s a tremendous amount of variation here. Some pilots work punishing schedules at low pay; others enjoy fat salaries and long layovers in glamorous foreign cities. It depends on which company the pilot works for, which aircraft and base he or she is assigned to, whether he or she is a first officer or a captain, and so forth.
I have about twenty years of tenure with one of the bigger commercial carriers. I typically work between twelve and sixteen days each month, in blocks ranging from one or two days to a week or more on the road. I fly to Europe, Africa, South America, and to any of dozens of cities in the U.S. Some pilots fly only international routes; others fly only domestic.
I’m currently a senior first officer — a “copilot” in popular parlance. With my seniority level, I could easily be a captain on any of several aircraft types. However, I choose not to. While I would earn more money, I would lose many of the quality-of-life benefits that come with being a senior copilot. As it is, I can pretty much pick and choose where and when I fly, with almost total control over my schedule. It’s hard to put a price on that.
A copilot is not an apprentice. He or she shares flying duties with the captain more or less equally. The captain is officially in charge and earns a larger paycheck to accompany that responsibility, but both individuals fly the aircraft. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do and both are part of the decision-making process. In fact, owing to the seniority process and situations like mine, it’s not uncommon for the copilot to be older or more experienced than the captain.
Pros and cons
The pros include good pay and, once you’ve earned enough seniority, a great lifestyle with a very flexible schedule. Not to mention the thrill of getting to fly jets. I grew up obsessed with airplanes and airlines. Doing what I do for a living gives me a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment that is, by itself, the job’s biggest reward.
The trouble is, none of this comes easy. The airline business is notoriously cyclical, and almost every pilot has experienced one or more bankruptcies, liquidations, or extended layoffs along the way. I was into my 40s and had worked for five different airlines before I was finally earning a respectable salary and actually enjoying myself. Was it worth it? Sure. But it took a long time and there were no guarantees. Flying is like baseball in a lot of ways. Most of those who set out for the big leagues never make it. And even if you DO make it, all it takes is a merger or a war or a pandemic to send everything spinning again.
That’s true in many industries, of course, but the way the airline seniority systems work, there is never any sideways transfer of benefits or salary. When a pilot is out of work, for whatever reason, he or she cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where they left off. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. No exceptions. You lose everything. So any threats to our jobs or companies make us very nervous.
pilot and navigate the flight of fixed-wing, multi-engine aircraft, usually on scheduled air carrier routes, for the transport of passengers and cargo. Requires Federal Air Transport Pilot certificate and rating for specific aircraft type used. Includes regional, National, and international airline pilots and flight instructors of airline pilots.