The ultimate guide to airline pilot stripes by flyingbynumbers

The ultimate guide to pilot stripes

When you board an airplane and see a pilot walking down the aisle, what do the different numbers of stripes on his or her uniform indicate? Do these stripes represent rank, years of experience, or some other criteria?

In this blog post, we will take a look at what airline pilot stripes mean and what they indicate about a pilot’s rank and experience.

Finally, we’ll clear up one frequent rumour — Can you have five pilot stripes?

Keep reading to learn more!

What are the stripes on pilot’s shoulders called?

Colloquially known as stripes, bars, or rings, the stripes on a pilot’s uniform are officially known as epaulettes. These epaulettes are typically worn on the shoulders of the uniform and can be made from a variety of materials, including cloth, metal, or leather.

The number of stripes on a pilot’s epaulette corresponds to his or her rank within the airline. For example, a first officer or copilot will typically have two stripes on their epaulette, while a captain will have four stripes.

Most airlines only use epaulettes to show their pilots rank. However, stemming from military origins, some airline pilots with more experience or rank may also have additional bars or other insignia attached to their epaulette.

What do pilot bars indicate?

A detailed breakdown

One pilot stripe, two pilot stripes, three pilot stripes and four pilot stripes signalling a captain

What does 1 stripe on a pilot uniform mean?

In commercial aviation, one stripe on an airline pilot uniform normally means the pilot is a cruise pilot.

Cruise pilots are used by some airlines that operate long haul and ultra-long haul flights. Exactly as the name suggests, cruise pilots are responsible for flying the plane during cruise phase, normally when the autopilot is in.

  • In very long flights, pilot rest becomes crucial, and there are often more than two pilots on the flight so that they can achieve in-flight rest before landing.
  • Some airlines hire cruise pilots — who are professional pilots with commercial pilot licences but may not have extensive experience on the aircraft type.
  • Cruise pilots only operate the aircraft during this phase, with the rested pilots taking over for takeoff and landing.

There is one other time pilots will have one stripe on their uniform, during flying training.

When pilots first start flying training, they will typically be given blank epaulettes — no stripes! Many training schools will then give their aspiring pilots an upgrade to one stripe after passing a significant milestone in the training — for example completing the ground school exams, or their single-engine training.

Sometimes cabin crew wear one pilot stripe

Do flight attendants also have stripes?

Yes. As a valuable part of the aircraft crew, sometimes flight attendant uniform’s also have one-stripe.

Click to see our flight attendant articles

What does 2 stripes on a pilot uniform mean?

Two stripes on an airline pilot uniform indicate that the pilot is a first officer. First officers — often known as co-pilots — are responsible for assisting the captain in flying the plane.

The role varies depending on the airline, but regularly incorporates most of the tasks the Captain performs, under their supervision. This includes communications, navigation, and flying the plane. In some cases, the first officer may even be responsible for taking over the plane if the captain becomes incapacitated.

For an in-depth look at co-pilots, check out our guide: What is a Co-pilot?

What does 3 stripes on a pilot uniform mean?

Arguably the most common number of stripes on a commercial pilot’s uniform, 3 bars indicate that the pilot is a senior first officer. Senior first officers are responsible for the same duties as a first officer, but they typically have more experience. As a result, if the captain becomes incapacitated, the senior first officer will become the first in command, ahead of a first officer.

  • Experience requirements for gaining a third pilot’s stripe vary depending on airlines.
  • Some airlines have a minimum number of years of flying experience
  • Other airlines use the experience on type, e.g. after 3000 hours of flying on an aircraft pilots will be awarded a third stripe

There are two reasons three bars are typically the most common number of stripes on pilot’s uniforms:

  • Over time, all two stripe first officers will gain the experience to become senior first officers. In periods of low-recruitment, virtually all airlines first officers will have 3 stripes.
  • For rest purposes on many long-haul flights, there are two copilots and one captain. Therefore, airlines typically hire more first officers than captains.

What does 4 stripes on a pilot uniform mean?

Four stripes on an airline pilot uniform indicate that the pilot is a captain. While all pilots may perform similar roles throughout a flight, Captains are legally responsible for the aircraft and making all the final decisions during the flight. Their ultimate role is to ensure that all the passengers and crew are safe.

Some pilots with four stripes will have additional roles within an airline — such as training captains, base captains, or management roles. However, commercial airlines do not normally distinguish these additional roles with more stripes. Therefore, four stripes is the most amount of stripes an airline pilot will ever have.

The secret five stripe airline pilot!

Hierarchy plays an important role in aviation, and pilot stripes are used to give a clear indication to all the crew and passengers onboard an airline of the differing roles.

Mythical five pilot epaulette

However, not all hierarchy is equal.

  • Most of the readers of this blog are from the United States and across Europe, countries that have a relatively egalitarian outlook.
  • But, in some areas of the world hierarchy plays a hugely significant cultural role, and with this is a LOVE for stripes.
  • One Harvard Business Review study pointed out Indonesia, China, and Saudi Arabia as the most strictly hierarchical societies.


From a pilot’s perspective, the differences in attitudes towards the number of bars on the uniform is very noticeable. Depending on where you are in the world, there is often a dramatic change in how other airport staff interact with you, as your career progresses, and you gain bars. Two-stripes in the Far East? Forget about it!

This has led to many famous stories and jokes among pilots, about having a 5 stripe pilot uniform made. As the captain of captains, it would speed things up and enable pushing to the front of the queue! The joke is now real, and it is possible to purchase novelty 5-stripe pilot epaulettes.

Yet, despite the odd story and rumour, unfortunately a real 5-stripe airline pilot uniform doesn’t exist. All Captains have to make do with 4!

Stripe Summary

Now that you know what airline pilot stripes mean, you can better understand the hierarchy on board an airplane. If any pilot falls unwell during a flight, the next most senior pilot will assume their role.

Airline pilot stripes indicate the pilot’s rank and experience on a flight. And they normally fall into four categories:

  • One stripe indicates that the pilot is a cruise pilot
  • Two stripes indicate that the pilot is a first officer
  • Three stripes indicate that the pilot is a senior first officer
  • Four stripes indicate that the pilot is the Captain

Finally, some legacy airlines do not count previous flying experience for the number of pilot bars. Therefore, previously highly decorated 4-stripe training captains moving to a legacy airline will join as a two stripe first officer, until they move up within that specific airline.

As a result, it can be difficult to tell a pilot’s overall experience levels just by looking at their uniform. Two stripes doesn’t necessarily mean the pilot has less experience, they could just be new to that specific airline!

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Josh
Josh

Flyingbynumber’s Resident Airline Captain — Josh

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