You’re sitting at the gate waiting for your flight to start its boarding process.
Finally, you see them, the pilots, striding down the terminal and arriving at the counter. Perhaps there are two of them, or maybe there are three, depending on how long your flight is.
But, who’s who?
That’s where pilot stripes come in!
In this quick post, we’ll show you the different versions of modern aviation uniforms so you know what the stripes mean and who will be ultimately responsible for your flight.
4 Pilot Stripes
In commercial aviation, the captain of a plane wears 4 stripes on their shoulder epaulettes and sleeves. Known also as the pilot in command (PIC), this is the person responsible ultimately for everything that takes place on the flight.
According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the multinational flight agency under the United Nations, this is the pilot responsible for the operation and safety of the aircraft during flight time. The ICAO also states that the PIC has “final authority as to the disposition of the aircraft while in command.”
In most cases, the captain sits in the left seat of the cockpit, with their second in command on their right. One exception might be when the pilot in command is training a pilot; in this case, they’ll sit on the right but still be the PIC.
In general parlance, one might call the captain of the plane the “pilot,” with the second in command as the “co-pilot.” However, they’re all pilots, really.
In addition to the 4 stripes on their blazer, the captain usually also sports a qualification badge which is a pair of wings and a star enclosed in a laurel wreath.
3 Pilot Stripes
In commercial aviation, the first officer (FO) is the second in command of the aircraft, after the captain. This first officer wears 3 pilot stripes on their airline uniform.
Though the first officer is second in command, they usually control the aircraft just as much as the pilot in command. This is especially true on medium-haul flights and long-haul flights, and then the phrasing used is “pilot flying” and “pilot not flying” (or “pilot monitoring”) to differentiate who is currently operating the controls. Even if the first officer is piloting the aircraft, however, the captain is still ultimately responsible for the flight and retains the title of pilot in command.
First officers usually sit in the right seat inside a cockpit, with the captain to their left. However, on some longer flights, particularly intercontinental flights, the first officer may move to the left seat if the PIC goes for a rest break.
In some longer flights, though rare, there may be two first officers, a senior first officer and a junior first officer. The senior FO, of course, has the title of second in command.
In addition to the 3 stripes on their blazer, the first officer usually also sports a qualification badge which is a pair of wings and a star.
2 Pilot Stripes
In commercial aviation, a second officer is an airline pilot who wears 2 stripes on their epaulettes and sleeves.
On long-haul flights, second officers are often third in command, taking the right seat if the PIC goes for a rest break (when the first officer moves over to the left seat). However, sometimes the 2-stripe pilot uniform designation is given to a pilot in training.
On almost all short-haul flights and many medium-haul flights, there is no second officer on board, as there is no need for the pilot in command and the first officer to take rest breaks. However, the definition of second officer is more ambiguous than the others, as their role and utilization may vary airline to airline.
In addition to the 2 stripes on their blazer, the second officer usually also sports a qualification badge which is a pair of wings.
1 Pilot Stripe
Seeing 1 pilot stripe is quite rare nowadays, but it designates either a third officer or a trainee pilot, in some cases (though trainees usually get two stars), depending on the airline.
A third officer used to be more common, decades ago on longer flights and when flying was more manual. These days, the technology inside the flight deck make third officers mostly redundant.
Well, I hope that helps answer your questions on what pilot stripes mean on airline uniforms! If you have any questions, feedback, or other points to add about airline uniform stripes, wings, or other accoutrements, let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!