Become a Pilot: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn about the steps necessary to become a pilot. Research the job description and the licensing requirements and find out how to start a career as an airline pilot.

Should I Become a Pilot?

Airline and commercial pilots are trained to operate aerial vehicles in order to perform duties like transporting supplies and passengers. Although this career may appeal to adventurous souls, there is also a high level of stress and responsibility involved in commanding aircraft under different weather conditions and in various difficult situations. Typically, two pilots are required in most aircraft, and the most experienced pilot is considered the captain.

Career Requirements

Degree LevelAssociate's or bachelor's degree (many pilots are trained by the military)
Degree FieldAviation, aeronautics or a comparable discipline
Licensure/CertificationCommercial pilot's license, airline certifications
Experience250 hours in flight
Key SkillsGood depth perception, quick reaction time, good communication and problem-solving skills; knowledge of on-board systems and ability to monitor them
Salary (2014) $118,140 annually (median salary for all airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Step 1: Obtain a College Education

For those who did not learn how to fly airplanes in the military, there are college degree programs available. While a degree may not be required, employers generally prefer pilots with a college education. Commercial airlines tend to prefer applicants with a bachelor's degree over those with an associate's degree. Majoring in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, physics or computer science may provide a good educational foundation for pilots. Flight school classes are typically taught by an instructor who is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Success Tip:

  • Take courses that apply to your career goal. Airlines prefer applicants who have taken liberal arts courses, along with classes such as aeronautical engineering.

Step 2: Gain Flying Hours

According to the BLS, prior to earning a pilot's license, a pilot-in-training needs to log a minimum of 250 hours of flight experience. Pilots may log these hours through the U.S. Armed Forces, where they will obtain familiarity with many different types of aircraft. Additionally, the FAA licenses flight instructors and flight schools to help pilots earn necessary flight experience. Many pilots begin their careers as flight instructors and eventually become commercial pilots after gaining more flying time and experience.

Step 3: Earn a Pilot's License

After obtaining the necessary flight hours, applicants 18 years or older can complete the rest of the requirements for a commercial pilot's license from the federal government. Pilots must pass a physical examination to ensure they have good vision and hearing as well as no physical impairments that might interfere with flight performance. Candidates must also pass a written exam that includes safety information and a skills test that is observed by an FAA-certified instructor.

Step 4: Complete Additional Tests and Training

Depending on the type of pilot position, additional tests and licenses may be required. The FAA offers many different types of certification, such as airworthiness certificates and medical certificates. Certain airlines may also require their pilots to take psychological and intelligence tests.

Step 5: Work as a Pilot

At first, most pilots employed with commercial airlines work as co-pilots and obtain additional experience through this position. Alternatively, pilots may obtain employment in other industries, like emergency services, agriculture or reforestation. Pilots typically advance with experience. For example, some pilots may begin their careers flying charter planes or helicopters before working with commercial airlines. Generally, pilots hired at major airlines have around 4,000 hours of experience flying commercial planes.

Success Tip:

  • Gain experience by working as a flight instructor. All pilots must begin somewhere, and major airline companies will not hire inexperienced pilots. By beginning their flying careers as flight instructors, pilots can log hours while continuing to learn and become more efficient fliers.

Step 6: Advance in the Field

Pilots follow a ranking system of seniority, much like the army. After gaining many years of experience, typically 5-15 years, pilots at the first officer rank may be able to advance to the rank of captain, as outlined in their contract. Larger airline companies usually have opportunities for even further advancement, such as director or chief pilot positions.

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