What is a Chief Pilot?

What is a Chief Pilot?

If you do not work in the aviation industry or if you are new to it, you may never have heard the term or title, Chief Pilot. Hearing it for the first time you may have deduced that due to the word Chief that they are in an elevated position, but you may still be wondering What is a Chief Pilot?

According to the Webster Dictionary, a Chief may be said to be:

  • the head or leader of any body of people;
  • a commander, as of an army;
  • a head person, as of a tribe, clan, or family;
  • a person in authority who directs the work of others;
  • the principal actor or agent.

In today’s corporate structure, the title Chief Pilot is a universal title given to the most senior ranking pilot in an aviation flight department. There are sometimes substantial variances to the level of duties and responsibilities of a Chief Pilot based on the size and scope of the flight department they work for. We will break out some of the distinctions that define the job a little better in the following article.

In the Eyes of the FAA, What is a Chief Pilot?

The FAA or Federal Aviation Administration is the government agency assigned safety oversight of the aviation industry in the United States. They are responsible for certification of pilots and aircraft in the US airspace system and control of air traffic within the sovereign boundaries of the US.

If you ask an Aviation Safety Inspector working for the FAA, What is a Chief Pilot? the answer would depend on the regulations under which a flight is carried out. The FAA issues the regulations that govern aviation but there are differences in the rules for flying based on whether it is for personal use or carrying the public at large in commercial air transportation.

The rules for flying your own personal airplane are categorized as Part 91 Operating Rules while the rules for flying the public in commercial flight operations are categorized as Part 135 or Part 121. Part 135 rules apply to air charter and Part 121 rules apply to the airlines. So what is a chief pilot under Part 91? Does the title still apply? Yes it does apply but it is not regulated.

Under Part 91 rules the FAA does not govern the use of or qualifications for a Chief Pilot. Most companies bestow the title Chief to the managing pilot and issue their own qualification minimums based on industry practices. Under Parts 135 and 121 the position of Chief Pilot is required by regulation and the qualifications are clearly defined by the FAA.

When flying under Parts 135 and 121 a Chief Pilot is named in Operation Specification A006 and their duties and responsibilities are spelled out in their general manual.

If you asked, “What is a Chief Pilot?”, you may also ask “What does a Chief Pilot do”?

What is a Chief Pilot?

When you ask, What is a Chief Pilot? the answer is the same regardless of the company’s size but when you ask “What does a Chief Pilot do?” the size and scope of the company will determine the answer. At smaller companies a Chief Pilot may be hired as a “paper tiger”, in other words, in name only. In this scenario the owner, DO, VP or President etc. hires someone into the position but gives them little authority or autonomy to actually manage. They carry the title but have little authority. A pay increase may be nominal or non-existent.

The next scenario would be in a small company where the Chief is literally doing it all. HR, Accounting, Flying etc. They are usually burned out very quickly and either are released or walk off the job. Most small companies will offer the position that falls somewhere in between the two extremes.

As a company grows and it has more resources, the guy or gal managing the flight-crews will be more likely to begin working with other professionals such as a controller in the accounting department and a Director of HR. While this can be a good thing, it too has challenges if your team mates in other departments do not understand the aviation game. You may have to spend some time educating them.

What is a chief pilot to the pilot group? As the managing pilot, the Chief is the pilot responsible for providing enough flight crews to properly staff the department. They are directly responsible for training of flight crew and management of each pilot’s performance. One would also hope that they are responsible for removing obstacles in order for the department to run at peak efficiency.

In some Part 91 companies the Chief Pilot may actually be the department head while in others there will be a Director of Aviation or VP of Aviation that the Chief will answer too. As you can see there are a lot of variables that go with the title. This makes it difficult to answer the question, “What is a Chief Pilot?” with one answer. The true answer is that “It depends”.

what is a chief pilot? The chief is the lead pilot

What is a Chief Pilot Responsible For?

What is a Chief Pilot title as it relates to level of authority? One last distinction is the LEVEL of Chief Pilot. Some airlines and a few of the larger air charter companies are too large for one person to manage. They bring in assistants to help. These assistants are categorized as Regional Chief Pilots, Base Chief Pilots, and/or Fleet Chief. The titles are self explanatory with a Regional CP overseeing a particular region such as the southern US, whereas a Base CP will manage a particular base. Phoenix Base Chief Pilot, for example. Finally the Fleet Chief Pilot will lead the crews of a particular fleet such as the Hawker Fleet Chief. These Chief Pilots do not have to meet Part 119 requirements but will usually be a more experienced pilot.

So if someone asks you What is a Chief Pilot?, you can tell them the Chief Pilot is the person responsible for ensuring adequate flight-crew members to staff the company’s aircraft. The Chief is involved in recruiting, interviewing, vetting, hiring, training and managing flight crew for the flight operations department. Crew duty assignments, scheduling and performance monitoring all go with the territory.

It is a tough and challenging position but has many rewards as well. It is often a thankless job but your reward is in being the person that people turn to when problems arise and you rise to the occasion. Your reward is in being able to build a team that functions at top efficiency that moves the movers and shakers of the world. Your reward is in being able to see those you hire develop into top notch pilots and realize their own career aspirations. What is a Chief Pilot? Now you know.

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