Become an Aircraft Pilot: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become an aircraft pilot. Research the education, training, and licensure information and experience required for starting a career as an aircraft pilot. View article »

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Video Transcript

Should I Become an Aircraft Pilot?

Airline pilots fly aircraft according to set schedules to transport cargo and people. Commercial pilots might fly charter flights or those used for firefighting, crop dusting, or rescue purposes. Hazards that pilots might face include weather, fatigue, and extreme noise. There are many kinds of aircraft that pilots may fly, including airplanes, helicopters, balloons, and gliders. While pilots have irregular schedules, airline pilots may have the opportunity to fly to exotic destinations.

Career Requirements

Licensure and/or Certification FAA pilot's license
Experience At least 40 hours of flight experience
Degree Level Not required; earning a degree my be necessary for commercial positions
Degree Field Aviation
Key Skills Should be detail-oriented,have good depth perception, strong communication skills, and quick reactions; must have knowledge of cockpit instrumental panels and controls
Median Salary (2015)* $117,290 (for all airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers)

Sources: FAA, *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Steps to Become an Aircraft Pilot

Step 1: Complete Flight School Training

Individuals interested in becoming an aircraft pilot will first need to determine what type of aircraft they want to fly. The FAA offers several types of pilot's licenses, including private pilot, recreational pilot, and sports pilot. The types of aircraft that people fly include airplanes, helicopters, balloons, airships, and gliders.

Next, aspiring aircraft pilots need to attend an FAA-certified flight school or take private lessons from an FAA-certified instructor. These programs may be found at flight training schools, community colleges, and technical schools. Topics covered include basic aerodynamics, aircraft components, and flight controls, FAA regulations, aircraft weight and balance, basic navigation, flight planning, and aircraft systems. Every hour of training and flight instruction is logged to ensure new pilots have completed the minimum hours needed to learn how to fly an airplane.

Step 2: Earn a Private Pilot's License

Along with a minimum amount of flight hours, students need to demonstrate sufficient skills and knowledge to their flight instructor before they may earn an FAA private pilot's license. This license, also known as a certificate, will allow them to fly an aircraft and carry passengers and baggage without compensation. Individuals will need to earn a commercial pilot's license to get paid to transport people and property.

To earn a private pilot's license, individuals must be at least 17 years old. Private glider pilots or free flight balloon operators must be at least 16. An FAA medical certificate is required. Aspiring pilots must pass a written exam and complete at least 40 hours of flight training. Half of this training must be with a flight instructor, and at least 10 hours must be in solo flight time. A practical flight test is also required.

Step 3: Earn a Commercial Pilot's License

In order to be compensated for transporting people and property, pilots should obtain a commercial license. Applicants must be 18 years or older. While in training, students should be prepared to keep detailed logs of both their in-flight hours as well as their on-ground hours. Students should reference the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARS) for specific requirements. In order to receive a commercial pilot's license, students must pass a variety of exams, including both a medical and physical exam (pilots must have 20/20 vision or employ corrective eye wear), a comprehensive written exam, and a flight exam where students can demonstrate their practical knowledge of flying an aircraft. Once pilots have obtained their license, they must pass regular physical screenings and practical flight tests in order to keep the status of the license up-to-date. Commercial pilot licenses apply to airplanes, balloons, helicopters, and other aircraft.

Step 4: Seek Employment

Individuals with a private pilot's license may seek employment as a pilot. According to job postings for aircraft pilots, employers seek pilots to test new aircraft, develop flight simulation programs, and conduct national security missions. Employers preferred pilots with several years of flight experience and various pilot licenses.

Aspiring aircraft pilots should consider a degree program. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most pilots employed by airline companies hold a bachelor's degree; the degree can be in any subject. Some universities even have 2- to 4-year aviation programs that provide training for aspiring pilots.

Step 5: Advance in the Field

Regarding promotion, airline pilots follow a ranking system, much like that of officers in the army, that requires pilots to gain years of experience in order to advance. Entry level pilots must have up to 5 years of experience before qualifying for a position as a first officer, the next rank in line. Becoming a captain, the next rank after officer, may take another 5 to 10 years of experience. Captains may then take higher level positions that branch out of the seniority system, such as chief pilot or director of the aviation department for an airline.

To summarize, aspiring aircraft pilots need to attend an FAA-certified flight school or take private lessons from an FAA-certified instructor and complete a minimum number of flight hours and a written exam and flight test. Licensure is required, and some individuals might choose to earn an aviation degree.

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