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So, you have your sights set on becoming a pilot, eh? We can’t blame you. The lifestyle does seem pretty alluring, at least in theory… the adventure! That “office” airplane view! The joys of breaking glass ceilings in previously male dominated fields! And that’s without even mentioning all the travel perks for both you and your loved ones. It’s all so exhilarating, right?
Of course, becoming a pilot these days doesn’t always involve the sort of glamor that Hollywood has probably impressed upon you (thinking “Catch Me if You Can” here). It’s a lot of work, to be sure, as many airlines are dealing with increasingly limited staff, and the hours aren’t exactly many people’s definition of ideal.
So, is it hard to become a pilot? Yes. But if you truly do want to fly, then there are a few steps you should be taking in order to break into the pilot profession.
As touched on above, many aspects of piloting nowadays are a pretty far cry from glamorous. The pay is often mediocre, with starting salaries of $30,000 and opportunities for raises and promotions few and far between (read: you’re likely going to work at an entry-level rate for a hot minute). Though the pay may be trifling, the workload most certainly is not.
Airlines today are intent on operating in the leanest fashion possible (farewell, free food and single-use blankets!), and that means stretching the schedules of their staff to max capacity, with most newer pilots flying a minimum of 50 hours a week. And those are just the hours spent in air — you know all that time you spend waiting for flights to board, take off, and finally de-board?
Yeah, pilots aren’t actually paid for any of that, which means that in the case of, say, a significant weather delay, you could wind up stuck on the tarmac getting paid literally nothing for it. Plus, seniority is slow to be gained, meaning there’s a good chance you’ll work the very worst of those 50 hours (overnights, weekends, holidays, etc.) for an indefinite amount of time.
But what about all those travel perks? Those more than compensate for the subpar hours, right? Like other airline employees (including flight attendants), pilots get free tickets for themselves and their families to fly on standby around the world.
But when you’re spending so much of your time away from your own bed, you have to honestly ask yourself — in your time off as an airline pilot, would you actually travel? Or, ironically, are you more likely to travel of your own volition working in another profession? It’s certainly something to consider.
And yet — if flying is really and truly your dream job, the above inconveniences may feel nominal (read this firsthand account of life as a pilot for proof of that).
So what qualifications do you need to be a pilot? Four-year college degrees are not required in order to fly U.S. regional airlines, but they are required for major (read: transcontinental) ones. And as with most professions, having a degree from a respected institution will up your chances of being hired, too.
What your degree is actually in isn’t overly essential (though a bachelor of science is often considered preferable), as you’ll have to receive no shortage of special training on top of your traditional schooling regardless.
You should know the answer to this before proceeding any further with specialized training, as the type of pilot you want to become will affect the licenses and “instrument ratings” (or specific areas within piloting you become qualified for) that you’ll need to obtain, as well as what type of aircraft you can fly; if you want to fly for Boeing, for instance, you likely won’t need the same ratings as a prospective helicopter pilot.
The categories you can choose from are:
These are both required by the Federal Aviation Administration before you can begin any real training. The medical certificate will need to be obtained through an FAA-affiliated medical examiner. The student pilot certificate, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have to be from an FAA-affiliated school. If there are any well-reviewed flight schools or flight instructors in your area that aren’t FAA affiliated, they may even prove to be slightly more cost-effective.
Just make sure you’re not skimping on the quality of instruction, as you’ll ultimately still need to pass a series of tests and examinations with the FAA before you can receive the necessary licenses and accreditations. There (thankfully, from a passenger’s perspective!) is no way to cut corners here.
How many years will it take to become a pilot? That depends on the type of program you choose. There are a few different options you have here, and it can feel a little overwhelming to choose the best option for you. The three main training program options you have here are:
After you choose a flight school, you’ll be able to rack up all the necessary FAA certificates and ratings you’ll need to actually start interviewing for commercial pilot jobs (if this is, indeed, what you’re after). Hopefully, you now feel a little closer to achieving your dream of becoming a professional pilot. Bon voyage!
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