How To Become A Pilot

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Little girl pretending to be a pilot

Adobe Stock / yuryimaging

April 18, 2024 at 10:36AM UTC
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.

1. Understand what you’re getting into.

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). 

2. Get a four-year bachelor degree (if you don’t have one already).

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. 

3. Choose what type of pilot you want to become.

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:
  • Sport Pilot: These certifications are the easiest to obtain, though you’d be hard put to turn a Sport Pilot license into a career. That’s because they’re only meant for pilots flying locally, in light aircraft, during daylight hours, and in low altitudes. Plus, you’re only permitted to have one passenger. Only 20 logged hours of training time are needed for this certification, and a medical certificate (more on this later) is not required, making it comparatively way more attainable than the other classifications of pilots. 
  • Recreational Pilot: This certificate requires at least 30 logged hours of flight time, including 15 hours with an instructor. This classification is pretty limited, too — recreational pilots aren’t permitted to fly more than 50 nautical miles from their departure airport, at night time, or within controlled airport space. You can fly slightly heavier aircraft than sport pilots, but again, neither of these are the certifications to pursue if you’re interested in being a pilot as a career.
  • Private pilots: The private pilot certificate is the most common one. It involves much more intensive training than the above two categories, meaning those with private pilot licenses get to fly at night and in and out of controlled airports, using whatever type(s) of aircraft they became licensed for in flight school. However, this is also not the certification you want to pursue if you’re interested in piloting as a career since those with private pilot licenses are forbidden from receiving compensation for their services. At least 40 hours of logged flight time is required for this certification, with 20 of those hours being with an instructor. 
  • Commercial pilot: Finally, the moment you prospective pilots-for-pay have been waiting for. Commercial airline pilots are paid for their flying services and know how, which isn’t inconsiderable. In addition to fixed schedule flights (what most of us are accustomed to), they can also fly charter flights, emergency planes, rescue operations, and… crop dusters? Regardless of what specific aircraft you’re flying, it’s going to be complex, and the amount of precise knowledge required in order to earn a commercial pilot license is considerable. You’ll also need to be at least 23 years old have a logged a minimum of 250 logged flight hours.
  • Flight instructor: You must already have your commercial pilot license in order to be a flight instructor, which is precisely why many pilots receive this additional certification as a means of making some side money or easing into retirement. However, some people do obtain their commercial license with the precise intent of instructing all along. Pay runs the gamut, but those in the industry recommend charging about $50/hour as you get started. That said, commercial pilots who fly schedule flights with major airlines are generally better compensated, though the freedom to make your own schedule as an instructor is especially appealing to some.
  • Airport Transport Pilot: The most advanced certification of them all, airline transport pilot licenses are now required by all commercial airlines in addition to the general commercial pilot license for anyone interested in flying schedule commercial aircraft for a living. To earn this certification, you must have at least 1,500 logged flight hours, including 250 hours acting as pilot in command (or PIC), and you must be at least 23 years old, though restricted licenses are occasionally given to pilots aged 21 and 22.

4. Get a student pilot certificate and a Class 1 medical certificate.

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.

5. Go to flight school.

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:
  • Fast-Track Airline Programs: This is going to be your quickest and most affordable option if you’re interested in getting your commercial pilot certificate. These programs allow pilot hopefuls with no prior flight experience logged to gain the necessary FAA-dictated experience in a very condensed amount of time. Often, they’ll involve fairly intensive daily training, so this route likely isn’t for anyone wishing to keep a steady day job while training. You may be able to complete your training at these programs within a year (depending, of course, on how much time you put into it), but some additional hours and flight experience may still be required outside of a fast-track program before you’re ready for your wings. 
  • Traditional colleges: Some colleges and universities do offer accredited aviation programs, meaning you’ll get flight training in conjunction with a regular bachelor degree. Understandably, this tends to be the most expensive option, and as a four-year degree, it’s also the longest program to complete.
  • Your local airport Fixed Based Operators (FBOs): Many provide training, and you get to set your own pace, a convenience not necessarily found with the above two options. You’ll fly in and out of a small, local airport (not a major controlled one), and therefore the schedule is more flexible, but this also means you’re less likely to fly as regularly as your peers in the fast-track and collegiate programs. Thus, it’ll take you longer to finish, and you’ll also have less control over who your flight instructor is.
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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