How to Become a Pilot

Education, Certification and Other Requirements

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 here's information to get you started. First 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?

Two pilots in cockpit of plane, view through glass
A pilot must log thousands of hours of flight time before she or he can work for an airline. Adrian Weinbrecht/Photodisc/Getty Images

To be a professional pilot you need certain soft skills—or personal characteristics. Pilots must be able to communicate well with others and therefore need strong active listening and speaking skills. They must also have excellent problem solving and critical thinking skills in order to recognize problems, identify possible solutions and then evaluate which one or ones will have the best outcome. In addition they must have good time management skills. You must assess whether you have these traits before you begin to pursue a career as a pilot.

Required Education, Training and Certification

The training and education you need will depend on whether you plan to work as a commercial or an airline pilot. If you want to become a commercial pilot you will need 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. As a matter of fact, many airline pilots begin their careers as commercial pilots.

Whatever you decide to do you will, of course, need to learn how to fly. You may get flight instruction from an independent FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)-certified instructor or at a FAA-certified pilot school. Use the searchable database on the FAA website to locate a school. You will eventually have to get a student pilot certificate. You don't need to have one to take flying lessons but you will need it 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. Find an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME).

You can eventually 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.

A private pilot can't be paid for his or her 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 will need to get Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certification. 

How to Get Paid to Fly

In order to earn a Commercial Pilot's License, you must log at least 250 hours of flight time. This includes the time you spent earning your Private Pilot Certification. In addition, 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 1500 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 6 to 8 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

Once you have the proper certification, you will look for a job. Here are some of the qualifications employers are seeking:

  • "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 lbs."
  • "Ability to adapt to changing schedules and high-pressure situations."
  • "Must be able to work 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 his or her rest in order to be prepared for flight duty at all times during their tour."

Sources