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.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Fields Aircraft operations, aviation, aeronautical engineering or related field
Training and Experience Up to 2 months of ground training; more 1500 hours of flight experience
Licensure and Certification Commercial pilot's license; instrument rating; airline transport pilot certificate
Key Skills Strong communication, problem-solving and observation skills, good depth perception and reaction time, ability to operate aircraft computer and navigation systems
Salary $118,140 per year (2014 median salary for all airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA)

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

While a college degree is not always required to get started in this career field, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (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).

Success Tip:

  • Join a student club. Membership in a student club, such as the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) ACE club, can help students 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.

Success Tips:

  • Find 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, students have the opportunity to acquire in-depth knowledge.
  • 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 to 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.

Success Tip:

  • 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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