How to Become a Pilot

Education, Certification and Other Requirements

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Pilots fly aircraft including planes and helicopters. Those who fly for a living are known as commercial pilots or airline pilots. Airline pilots transport people and cargo according to a fixed schedule. Commercial pilots work for companies that offer charter flights, provide rescue operations, do aerial photography, or provide flights for other reasons. If you'd like to become a pilot, find out if you have the characteristics to succeed in this occupation and then learn about the educational, training, and certification requirements.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Pilot?

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Professional pilots need certain soft skills—or personal characteristics—that are fundamental to succeeding in the profession. For example, communication is an important part of the job, so strong, active listening and speaking skills are beneficial to becoming a pilot. Also, critical thinking skills help pilots recognize problems, identify possible solutions, and then evaluate which one or ones will have the best outcome. Good time management skills come in handy for maintaining tight schedules.

Required Education, Training, and Certification

The required training and education depends on whether you plan to work as a commercial or an airline pilot. You can become a commercial pilot with a high school or equivalency diploma, but if your ultimate goal is to fly for a regional or major airline, you will need to earn a bachelor's degree. Don't worry if you aren't sure about this yet. You can always go back and get your bachelor's degree later. Many airline pilots begin their careers as commercial pilots.

To learn how to fly, you may choose to get flight instruction from an independent Federal Aviation Administration-certified instructor or at an FAA-certified pilot school. You eventually will have to get a student pilot certificate. You can take flying lessons without one, but it is necessary before you can fly solo. You must be at least 16 years old to qualify for one, and you will have to pass a physical examination administered by an FAA-Authorized Aviation Medical Examiner.

You eventually can apply for a private pilot certificate. To do this you must be at least 17 years old and have completed between 35 and 40 hours of flying time depending on the type of flight school you are attending. You have to pass both written and practical exams. There are many different ways for you to build flight time, some of which are free.

Private pilots can't be paid for their services according to FAA regulations. Therefore, if you want to earn a living as a pilot you must first get a Commercial Pilot's License. After that, if you want to fly for an airline, you are required to get an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certification.

How to Get Paid to Fly

To earn a Commercial Pilot's License, you must log at least 250 hours of flight time. It includes the time you spent earning your Private Pilot Certification. Also, you must be at least 18 years old and pass a physical examination as well as a written exam and practical flight exam. 

To apply for Airline Transport Pilot Certification, you will have to accrue at least 1,500 hours of flight time. Many applicants do this by working as a commercial pilot or through a stint in the military. You will also have to pass physical, written, and practical exams. To get a job with an airline, you must log thousands of hours of flight time.

When an airline or an on-demand air services company hires you, it will provide on-the-job training that will generally include six to eight hours of ground school in addition to 25 hours of flight time. You will also be trained to fly specific types of aircraft.

Getting Your First Job as a Commercial or Airline Pilot

The outlook for commercial pilots for the decade ending in 2028 projects 8% job growth, slightly better than the 5% growth projected for all occupations combined.

Some of the qualifications employers seek include:

  • Ability to work in a team and under extreme field conditions
  • Ability to stand or sit for long periods of time and ability to lift up to 50 pounds
  • Ability to adapt to changing schedules and high-pressure situations
  • Must be able to work a flexible schedule; including nights, weekends, and holidays
  • Must be willing to work multiple days away from home, working a varied schedule
  • Must be able to manage rest in order to be prepared for flight duty at all times during their tour