Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes or helicopters. Airline pilots fly for airlines that transport people and cargo on a fixed schedule. Commercial pilots also fly aircraft for charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, and crop dusting. They typically spend a considerable amount of time away from home because flights often involve overnight layovers.
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Commercial pilots typically do the following:
For all but small aircraft, two pilots usually make up the cockpit crew. Generally, the most experienced pilot - the captain - is in command and supervises all other crew members. The copilot, often called the first officer, shares flight duties with the captain. These duties include communicating with air traffic controllers, monitoring instruments, and steering the plane.
Before departure, commercial pilots plan their flights carefully, checking various systems on the aircraft and making sure that baggage and cargo have been loaded correctly. They also confer with air traffic controllers to learn about weather conditions and to confirm the flight route. Takeoffs and landings are the most difficult parts of the flight and require close coordination between the pilot and copilot. Once in the air, the captain and first officer usually alternate flying each leg of the flight. After landing, pilots must fill out records that document their flight and the maintenance status of the plane.
Commercial pilots employed by charter companies usually have many more non-flight duties. For example, they may schedule flights, arrange for maintenance of the plane, and load luggage to ensure a balanced weight. Pilots who fly helicopters must constantly look out for trees, bridges, power lines, transmission towers, and other dangerous obstacles. Regardless of the type of aircraft, all pilots must monitor warning devices that detect sudden shifts in wind patterns.
Pilots must speak clearly when conveying information to air traffic controllers. They must also listen carefully for instructions. They must be able to see clearly and judge the distance between objects. They must watch many systems at the same time. Even small changes can have significant effects, so they must constantly pay close attention to many details. They must regularly watch over gauges and dials to make sure that all systems are in working order. They must be able to identify complex problems and figure out appropriate solutions. When a plane encounters turbulence, for example, pilots assess the weather conditions, select a calmer airspace, and request a route change from air traffic control.
Because warning signals can appear with no notice, pilots must be able to respond quickly to any impending danger. They work closely with air traffic controllers and flight dispatchers. As a result, they need to be able to coordinate actions on the basis of the feedback they receive.
Commercial pilots work for airline companies, the federal government, express delivery companies, charter companies, private businesses, flight schools, and hospitals. Depending on who they work for, they could spend a considerable amount of time away from home, sometimes overnight or longer.
The Wall Street Journal, in a November 2012 article, reported that the largest U.S. airlines collectively employed nearly 51,000 pilots. Altogether, U.S. airlines have nearly 100,000 pilots flying the skies.
Captain Dave Fielding, BALPA National Executive Committee, looks at the different career roles available for a short-haul and long-haul airline pilot.
Many people are misinformed about what a "commercial pilot" is. They assume that if someone is a commercial pilot, they are an airline pilot. While it's true that airline pilots are, indeed, commercial pilots, commercial pilots are not necessarily airline pilots.
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I get a lot of emails, and sometimes phone calls, asking me questions like: How do I become a pilot? Where do I start? How long will it take? How much will it cost?" This article will answer those questions - and more. It's very thorough (read: long) and is packed full with information.