How to Become a Pilot: Education & Licensure Requirements

Jan 09, 2021

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.

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Should I Become a Pilot?

If you're reading this article, you might be wondering, how do 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's 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. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median salary for all airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers in May 2019 was $147,220 with a 9% increase in job growth for 2019 - 2029.

Pilot Job Duties

The primary job duty of commercial pilots is to fly planes for companies. However, there are other duties associated with the job as well. Pilots are responsible for assessing the condition of the aircraft before and after each flight and ensuring that the plane is below its required weight limit for every flight. They also need to create flight plans and submit them to air traffic control and ensure that weather conditions are favorable for flight. Pilots need to communicate regularly with air traffic control and be physically and mentally prepared for any emergencies that might happen during the flight.

Pilot education includes learning the instruments to fly
becoming a pilot

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associate's or bachelor's degree or military flight training
Degree Field(s) Aviation, aeronautics, or a comparable discipline
Licensure/Certification Pilot's license required, Airline Transportation Pilot (ATP) Certification specifically for airlines
Experience 250 flight hours
Key Skills Good depth perception and quick reaction time; good communication and problem-solving skills; knowledge of on-board systems and the ability to monitor them
Median Salary (May 2019) $147,220 (For all airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

An associate's or bachelor's degree in aviation, aeronautics or a comparable discipline, is usually part of the pilot education requirements. But many pilots are also trained by the military. It is also required to have 250 hours in flight. You must also have a pilot's license and some airline certifications may be required. In addition, a pilot must have good depth perception, quick reaction time, good communication, problem-solving skills, and the knowledge of on-board systems and the ability to monitor them.

Steps to Becoming a Pilot

Here are the steps you can take in how to become a pilot:

Step 1: Obtain a College Education

You might be wondering, what education is needed to become a pilot? For those who did not learn how to fly airplanes in the military, there are college degree programs available for pilot education. While a degree may not be required, employers generally prefer pilots with a college education. Although there is no specific degree required for pilot positions, commercial airlines tend to prefer applicants with a bachelor's degree over those with an associate's degree. Thus, the education needed to be a pilot usually includes some type of college degree.

What specific classes and what education do you need to be a pilot? Majoring in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, physics, or computer science may provide a good educational foundation for pilots. Airlines prefer applicants who have taken liberal arts courses, along with classes such as aeronautical engineering. Flight school classes are typically taught by an instructor who is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Some examples of topics covered in flight school include:

  • Aeromedical knowledge
  • Aircraft mechanics
  • Principles of flight
  • Navigation and flight planning
  • Weather forecasting
  • Flight maneuvers and pilot duties

Many major airlines offer cadet programs. These programs offer training as a pilot, and benefits such as tuition reimbursement upon completion of the program. This can be a huge benefit as a commercial pilot's license (CPL) can cost upwards of $30,000 including pilot school. Some major airlines that offer cadet programs include:

  • American Airlines Cadet Academy
  • Delta Pilot Career Program
  • United Aviate Program

Step 2: Gain Flying Hours

So, now you know the education a pilot needs, but how do you become a pilot? 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.

The FAA requirements for earning a commercial pilot's license are as follows:

  • 250 hours of flight time
  • 100 hours of pilot-in-command time
  • 50 hours of cross-country time
  • 20 hours of training
  • 10 hours of solo training, including both cross country and night flying

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. Some examples of pilot licenses and certifications include:

  • Instrument rating
  • Sport pilot license
  • Recreational pilot license
  • Airline transport pilot license
  • Multi-crew pilot license

Step 5: Work as a Pilot

All pilots must begin somewhere, and major airline companies will not hire inexperienced pilots. Generally, pilots hired at major airlines have around 4,000 hours of experience flying commercial planes. 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. Some start as a flight instructor, which allows them to log hours while continuing to learn and become more efficient fliers.

Step 6: Advance in the Field

Pilots follow a ranking system of seniority. 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 of chief pilot positions.

To become a pilot, you need to have the proper training, either a degree or through the military, and experience flying.

Expert Contributor: Sean Harrington Sean has two master's degrees from the University of Arkansas in Operations Management and Engineering. He has ten years of teaching experience.

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