This article was written by Captain Brendan O’Neal, BALPA Chairman, and first published on BALPA blog. Read the original article. The opinion of the authors does not necessarily correspond with that of the editorial team.


It’s something pilots hear all the time: “Pilots are just bus drivers in the sky” or even “being a pilot is easy… I’ve done it on my computer flight simulator loads of times.” 

But these simplistic views of the job of a pilot that are held by many members of the public have huge failings. Firstly, pilots undergo extensive training to be able to operate aircraft safely and this training continues throughout a career. Secondly, there is more to the job than simply flying the plane. So, let me elaborate a little more about what being a pilot actually means. 

On one hand a pilot is a person who operates the flying controls of an aircraft. But a pilot is more than just a ‘plane driver’. The job encompasses numerous roles from planning the flight, engaging with staff and passengers through to filling in reams of paperwork. So, the job of a pilot is more than the simple definition implies.

So, what should the real definition of a pilot and his job description be?

Over the years we’ve seen the number of aircrew in the cockpit reduce. Flights pre-1970 often needed a navigator and flight engineer as well as the pilots. But improved technology has removed the need for so many people at the controls and the pilot has taken responsibility for those roles. 

Pilot Navigator:

As sophisticated electronic flight management systems were developed, the navigator's position was discontinued. The role was assumed first by dual-licensed pilot-navigators, and later by the flight's primary pilots (captain and first officer). Most civilian air navigators were retired or made redundant by the early 1980s.

Nowadays every pilot needs to be able to get the aircraft from A to B. That means planning the route (or having it planned for you by your company), checking the weather en route, knowing which diversions are available and how to get to them. You must also be able to program and monitor the aircraft’s onboard navigation systems and have a working understanding of how to navigate should these fail.

Pilot Engineer:

Like the role of navigator this job has also been incorporated in to that of the pilot. Starting in the 1980s, the development of powerful and small integrated circuits and other advances in computers and digital technology eliminated the need for flight engineers on airliners and many modern military aircraft. On two-pilot flight deck airplanes, sensors and computers monitor and adjust systems automatically. There is no on-board technical expert and third pair of eyes.

In modern airliners, if a malfunction, abnormality or emergency occurs, it is displayed on an electronic display panel and action must be taken to rectify the abnormal condition. However, despite the automation, pilots still need a comprehensive knowledge of aircraft systems to be able to deal with problems that may occur and on occasions to be able to ’think outside the box’.

Pilot Computer Technician: 

Modern aviation is all about computers. Fewer people in the cockpit means more technology on board. But all this technology needs to be programmed and monitored and that’s where the human comes in. Like the well-known saying suggests, ’put rubbish in, get rubbish out!’. Pilots today must understand a variety of computer systems that help fly the plane, navigate and communicate. When flying through the autopilot you never want to hear the phrase “What’s it doing now”! You need to be ahead of the aircraft and the automation at all times.