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Be an Airline Pilot: Education Requirements and Career Info

Learn how to become an airline pilot. Research the education and career requirements, training and licensure information, and experience required for starting a career in aviation.

Should I Become an Airline Pilot?

An airline pilot operates a plane's engines and controls to navigate and fly the vessel. He or she also checks hydraulic and engine systems for pre-flight safety and monitors fuel consumption and aircraft systems in-flight. Prospective pilots must satisfy a set number of flying hours and be in good physical and mental health to fly an airline carrier. Pilots must deal with possible hazards, such as jet lag, fatigue, and unfavorable weather conditions. However, they also might get to travel all over the world.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for all pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers was $117,920 in May 2015.

Career Requirements

To become a pilot you need a bachelor's degree in aircraft operations, aviation, aeronautical engineering, or a related field. In addition, you will complete up to two months of ground training and need more than 1,500 hours of flight experience. The skills you'll need for this career include strong communication, problem solving and observation skills, good depth perception and reaction time, and the ability to operate aircraft computer and navigation systems. Finally, you'll be required to have a commercial pilot's license and may need instrument rating certification or airline transport pilot certification.

How to Become an Airline Pilot

You can follow these five steps to become an airline pilot.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

While a college degree is not always required to get started in this career field, the BLS reports that airline pilots are required to have a bachelor's degree, which can be in any major. However, aspiring pilots can gain more relevant knowledge by enrolling in an aviation or aeronautics bachelor's program. Regardless of major, students must complete coursework in physics, aeronautical engineering, mathematics, and English. It's important to enroll in an aviation or aeronautics program that has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

While in school, consider joining a student club. Membership in a student club, such as the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) ACE club, can help you form networking connections, learn more about the industry, and find jobs after graduation.

Step 2: Acquire Flight Experience

Aspiring airline pilots are required to complete a certain number of hours of flight training to qualify for licensure. To obtain a commercial pilot's license, 250 hours of flight time - in addition to 1,500 hours of flight time for an airline transport pilot certificate - is required. Flight training can be completed through degree programs or through flying schools approved by the FAA. Airline pilots must also have a minimum of 40 hours of instrument flying experience in-air and through simulation. Instrument flying ratings demonstrate a pilot's ability to fly in low visibility conditions.

Consider finding personal flight instructors. Although formal training provides a basic education, it usually doesn't provide enough experience to easily succeed as an airline pilot, according to ALPA. By hiring personal instructors, you have the opportunity to acquire in-depth knowledge.

You may also want to join the military. According to the ALPA, many pilots have obtained flying experience through the military. Military pilots also have the opportunity to gain substantial flight experience and are often attractive candidates for airline companies.

Step 3: Obtain Licensure

To obtain a pilot's license, a minimum number of hours of flight experience must be completed. Individuals are also expected to pass a written exam, demonstrate flying ability and take an instrument flying rating exam. As a part of the pilot's license stipulations, individuals are required to pass a physical exam, which includes having vision correctible to 20/20, good hearing and no physical handicaps that could interfere with the job.

Step 4: Gain Professional Experience

Many airline companies require pilots to take physical, psychological and aptitude tests, as well as drug tests, as a prerequisite for employment. Once hired, pilots are generally required to undergo an additional 6-8 weeks of training, including at least 25 hours of flight time. Additionally, most new hires are brought on as co-pilots. It's also not uncommon for some pilots to start their career at small commuter or regional airline companies. This gives them the opportunity to gain more flying experience before being hired by a major airline.

Step 5: Advance as an Airline Pilot

Most advancement in this field is based on seniority, but pilots can reach the rank of captain through other means. Airline pilots can obtain an air transport pilot's license, which shows cross-country, night, and instrument flying experience. This requires passing additional FAA written and practical exams. Pilots may also aim to acquire more flight ratings. Typically, ratings directly correlate to the type of aircraft one can fly, such as a multi-engine jet.

Also, join a professional association. Airline pilots have the ability to continue learning and staying up-to-date with changes in the industry through membership with professional pilot associations. For example, pilots can access aircraft safety training webcasts and webinars offered by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) or safety seminars offered by the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA).

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