At WiseGEEK, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
An airline pilot operates aircraft for an air transport company, usually called an airline. For large jet aircraft, the pilot may be part of a larger crew required to safely maintain and operate the vehicle. On smaller aircraft, the pilot may work alone. Many commercial airline pilots received their initial training during military service. The airline pilot is a prestigious position requiring high levels of training and experience, and the pilot occupies a cultural position similar to that of ship captains in previous eras.
The aviation industry began in the early years of the 20th century, shortly after the successful development of heavier-than-air flight. Companies specializing in air freight and travel soon formed, similar to the shipping and travel companies of previous centuries. These were the first airlines. As air travel developed into an affordable and then essential service, the position of the airline pilot gained prestige and responsibility. Modern airline pilots must safely operate aircraft that are complex, expensive, and carry hundreds of passengers.
Any aircraft, from a hot-air balloon to a space shuttle, must be operated by a qualified pilot. This involves rigorous education and training, including hundreds of hours of supervised flight before a pilot is allowed to fly solo. Many pilots receive their training during military service, although private training is also available. Responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft, the pilot has jurisdiction over personnel and behavior on board that is not unlike a military command. This includes the airline pilot, whose authority during a flight is backed by law in most nations.
Other duties of an airline pilot include navigating to a given destination, sometimes using alternate routes if conditions force a deviation from the original schedule, called a flight plan. The pilot must operate the aircraft’s complex systems and be ready to compensate in case of malfunctions. Weather and atmospheric conditions can also create variables, as well as factors such as cargo weight or unruly passenger behavior. On larger aircraft, a co-pilot helps to operate systems and serves as an alternate or replacement pilot when necessary. Pilots for major airlines enjoy high pay and benefits and often belong to unions such as the Air Line Pilots Association.
In literature and entertainment, the airline pilot has become a cultural archetype, combining the romantic image of the aviator with an air of responsibility and gravity. Disaster and suspense films set on aircraft often portray airline pilots as heroic figures. Peter Graves successfully spoofed this image as Captain Oveur in the 1980 comedy Airplane! In the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can, a con man dresses as an airline pilot to trick bankers and beautiful women into trusting him. In 2009, airline pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger gained worldwide fame after successfully landing a critically damaged airliner in the Hudson River near New York City, saving the lives of all on board.