Why Do Commercial Pilots Wear Short Sleeves? (5 Reasons You’d Never Guess)

Days of the Flight Engineer


Today I’d like to discuss, “Why Do Commercial Pilots Wear Short Sleeves?”

It appears that everywhere you look most commercial pilots seem to wear short-sleeved shirts.

There is actually no specific rationale for this, although there are certain comfort and safety issues to take into consideration.

In fact, I can think of many reasons why commercial pilots prefer short-sleeve shirts.

And I’d like to share these with you now.

Why Do Commercial Pilots Wear Short Sleeves?

The trend of “commercial pilots wearing short sleeves” was started by Pan American Airlines. Short sleeve shirts are cheaper, easier to launder, plus cockpit temperatures can become uncomfortably warm due to sunlight.  

1. Did You Call Me “Cheap”? 

It’s a common misconception that all pilots are wealthy. In reality, every pilot starts at the bottom with very low wages.

It takes one heck of a lot of money and time to become a commercial pilot and the training is very expensive so a four-year college education in aerospace and the commercial pilot’s license usually with a certified flight instructor rating would cost in the neighborhood of $120,000 to $150,000

Then you have a couple of years ahead of you as a flight instructor in order to build the massive 1200 hours you need to fly as captain for an FAA Part 135 operator. During that six-year period, money gets pretty scarce and then you’re looking at maybe making $60,000 per year after that.

You have to learn to be damn tight with your money because you don’t have any.

So in my experience, I’d say yeah, pilots are a cheap lot.

So it’s a short story here as to the reason for the short sleeve shirts, they’re a heck of a lot cheaper than the long sleeve. I had to special order long sleeve shirts so I was always grateful to have the option of short sleeves since all my long-sleeved shirts had to be special ordered.

Final Approach
Cleared to Land

2. The Comfort Factor

We all know that wearing short sleeve shirts is much more comfortable than the old long sleeve shirt.

A short sleeve shirt is by far a lot easier to care for where laundering is concerned. They take half the time of a short sleeve to iron, a pilot has to be able to iron his own shirts and do it properly. after all, you want a good crisp clean look.

I did show quite a few pilots how to iron.

A short-sleeve shirt is definitely much much cooler to wear on the flight deck while sitting in the direct sunlight a lot of the time and it can get very warm in spite of air conditioning.

3. You Can’t Always Wear Short Sleeves 

There are some airlines that still require long sleeve shirts that I have heard about but I never flew for anybody like that. It was an option for most places I worked.

Delta airlines had a policy that stated data for pilot wore a long sleeve shirt then at all times off the flight deck the blazer and hat must be worn. that made the short sleeve shirt more advantageous when a pilot wanted to it enter the terminal to get a cup of coffee or a snack without having to get all dressed up.

if a pilot chooses to have body art on their arms tattoos that is then they must wear a long sleeve shirt at all times to cover any art. I’ve also heard of a story about a pilot who is badly burned and wore a long sleeve shirt by choice and requirement by the company to cover the scars.

4. Beware of the Sloppy Eater

I don’t think I know anyone that doesn’t get a little disgusted when they drag their long sleeve through a bowl of spaghetti. I have done it numerous times and then I’ve dragged my sleeve through the dirt that was on the aircraft, or some type of residue during the pre-flights that I got next to and didn’t realize it.

I once showed up for work all crisp and clean and freshly ironed, made it through the preflight, settled into my seat, and a flight attendant brought me a fresh cup of coffee which I immediately spilled down the whole front of my shirt. Terribly irritating incident. But we were able to freshen my shirt with a little bit of carbonated water so that I didn’t look quite so frumpy. Of course, this was on a long haul day leaving Detroit early in the morning bound for Boston then down to the Turks and Caicos Islands then back to Boston and home to Detroit. A long long day.

Then there’s always the guy that spills food all down the front of the shirt and the sleeves as well. I tried very hard not to bid schedules that any part of the crew was like that.

5. Short Sleeves For Efficiency & Safety

Everybody knows how many knobs and switches are in the cockpit.

They are everywhere.

So short sleeve shirts are pretty darn handy when it comes to working in that environment.

The last thing you want to do is flip the switch or knob accidentally.

Boeing 737 Flight Deck
The Boeing 737 cockpit home away from home.

Final Thoughts

I hope you have a better idea of why commercial pilots wear short sleeves.

As you can see the trend was started by Pan American Airlines, and it has literally “caught on” ever since.

However, most pilots will attest to the fact that short sleeves provide more comfort in a warm cockpit.

Plus, let’s not forget that pilots are notoriously cheap (yes, I hold my hands up to this too).

Furthermore, a soiled long-sleeve shirt doesn’t look very professional, and there is the safety concern of accidentally flicking a switch.

But, let’s have a moment of quiet contemplation for those commercial pilots who unfortunately don’t have the luxury of being able to wear short sleeves.

How sad!

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