The role of a first officer is to be the second pilot (also referred to as the co-pilot) to the captain of an aircraft. On hand to assist the captain in flight preparation and operation of the aircraft, the first officer is present to fly the plane, should anything happen to the captain. The captain will delegate tasks to the first officer, and it is assumed that the first officer will fulfill these routine duties.     


What does a first officer do?

Some aspects of the job as a first officer include:

  • Assisting the captain in flight preparation and operations
  • Notifying the captain of any variations in standard flight operations
  • Support the captain with take-offs and landings
  • Maintaining navigation manuals and charts
  • Preparing the weight and balance forms for each flight
  • Assist captain in flight operations and tasks
  • Supervise fuelling, ground power unit, baggage loading and appropriate servicing of aircraft
  • Liaise with cabin crew and ground crew regularly to ensure all operations and procedures are in place pre-flight 
  • Communicate with air traffic control during flight, take-off and landing
  • Update aircraft logbook
  • Inspect aircraft for operational and technical performance
  • Act and control operations and procedures in the event of an emergency 


Watch this video and see how this new first officer fares on his first flight with passengers!

What qualifications do you need to become a first officer?

When you qualify as a pilot, your role will be a first officer.

To qualify as an airline pilot, you first need to gain an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL), which you can get through any relevant Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approved course you have completed. Before you start a course, a series of steps must be completed:

  • You will need 4 GCSEs at grade A*-C (9-4) – preferably Englidh, Maths and Science. Gaining a GCSE in another language will also be beneficial. You’ll also need at least 2 A-levels in similar subjects.
  • Then, you must pass several checks carried out by the CAA, which will determine whether you are suitable for flying. You will have a background check, security check and an Authority Class 1 Medical. These checks identify whether you have a criminal record, are physically fit for the role, and if your vision and hearing are to the required standard for a pilot.


NOTE: There are advanced courses you can take which could boost your skills pre-ATPL, which could improve your employability for the profession. Some universities offer a degree in Aviation, which could make you a very strong candidate. These are however, notoriously expensive on top of an ATPL course.

Another option to gain experience is through a Professional Aviation Pilot Practice apprenticeship. This can be of little cost if you are still in education, and is a great way to familiarise yourself with key areas of the role before enrolling onto a course.

If you’re thinking about becoming a pilot but aren’t sure, The Honourable Company of Air Pilots offers tests to inexperienced people, which aim to determine whether you are the ideal candidate. 

Once you have the necessary background to begin an ATPL, it’s time to choose what type of course you’ll tackle. 

Note: You must be at least 21 years of age to achieve a license. 

The course can be completed in an ‘Integrated’ or ‘Modular’ format. 

  • Integrated course: This is a sustained period of training that lasts for 18 months. This is a combination of practical elements and theory work, and requires no prior flying experience, as it is an inclusive scheme that aims to give participants the necessary flying time to warrant an ATPL. It’s an expensive option, with most courses costing around £87,000 – £89,000.
  • Modular course: This method gives you the option to complete your training in chunks, so that you can achieve specific modules at chosen times, giving you the freedom to train when you want to. This is a popular method as it allows you to earn in between modules, reducing the overall stress of the course. As an intermittent course, you might need to have a private pilot’s license with 100-200 hours flying experience to allow you to complete the practical modules.


Airlines might offer sponsorship to participants in order to complete their course. This is a helpful way to fund your training, which can be offered if pilots are in serious demand by airlines. Look into this early on, preferably before starting any courses, as the competition is high to gain sponsorship, for obvious reasons.

If you are a qualified pilot in the armed forces, you can complete a civil aviation course to become a commercial pilot.

Once you’ve achieved your ATPL, you will need to undergo regular training to maintain your license. 


What skills do you need to become a first officer?

Skills that will be beneficial to a job as a first officer include:

  • Technical and engineering competency
  • Knowledge and understanding of maths and physics
  • Exceptional communication skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Teamwork
  • Excellent coordination
  • Spatial awareness
  • The ability to problem solve
  • The ability to make decisions under pressure
  • The ability to remain calm under pressure


Working conditions

Working as a pilot is both physically and mentally demanding. You’ll be required to work long hours, live close to the airport, and you’ll be away from home very frequently. Jet lag will play a huge part in your job due to constantly crossing time zones during flights.


How much does a first officer earn?

A range of aspects will affect the salary you’ll be paid during your time as a first officer, the most common including: Flying time, flying experience, aircraft type and the airline itself.


Starting salary: £20,000 – £30,000

Experienced first officer: £38,000 – £90,000


What are your career prospects as a first officer?

As a first officer, you will work under a captain’s orders to gain more experience in your career, which will eventually see you working your way towards becoming a captain yourself. It can take around 15 years however, although for some it doesn’t take this long at all. Career progression will depend on your level of experience and the airline you work for.   


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