What do Pilot Stripes Mean?

The number of stripes on a pilot’s uniform indicates his rank. The ranks are generally distributed as follows:

  • training captain
  • Captain
  • Senior First Officer
  • first officer
  • second officer
  • Cadet/Trainee

There is no worldwide standardization of stripes between airlines. Different airlines choose to award a different number of stripes to their pilots based on their rank, which also varies based on experience levels within the airline. The only standardization is that there is almost always a captain and a first officer flying the flight (unless it is a training flight). The captain and first officer are sometimes referred to as pilot and co-pilot).

training captain

A training captain has all the responsibilities of a normal captain, but also trains other pilots. A pilot who is new to the aircraft type or company will fly with a training captain until they reach the standard required to fly with a normal captain. Training captains are more experienced than normal captains, they are usually paid more and must be specifically selected after showing above average performance.

Although a training captain is senior to the rank of captain, they both wear the same number of stripes on their uniform in the vast majority of airlines. A training captain therefore wears 4 stripes on his uniform.

Captain

The captain (sometimes called “pilot”) is ultimately responsible for the aircraft, its crew and occupants, they fly with a training captain (where the training captain would be in charge).

The Captain wears 4 stripes on his uniform.

Senior First Officer

Generally speaking, a senior first officer is someone who has approximately 1,500 total flight hours. Some airlines may have additional requirements, such as holding a full ATPL or being nearly “ready to command”, which is an airline’s way of saying that it has the opportunity to be promoted to captain but that it wait for a position to become available.

Anyone other than the rank of captain or training captain is sometimes referred to as a “co-pilot”.

A senior first officer has 3 stripes on his uniform.

first officer

The co-pilot generally wears 2 or 3 stripes depending on the airline. Some co-pilots automatically receive 3 stripes from their day of joining (usually on long-haul airlines), while some start with 2 and only get 3 when promoted to senior first officer.

second officer

Some airlines (but not all) use the second officer role. This sometimes means a cruise relief pilot (i.e. not seated at the controls for takeoff and landing until their experience level increases).

The second officer would normally have 2 stripes on his uniform.

Cadet/Student Pilot

While at flight school, cadet pilots could wear any number of stripes depending on that specific flight school’s choice. Students often wear 1 stripe when holding a commercial pilot’s license (PCL) then 2 stripes once their instrument rating (IR) is completed.

Some flight schools even issue 3 stripes to their student pilots, although this seems a bit of a stretch considering they haven’t even flown a commercial aircraft at this point!