From Private Pilot to Airline Pilot, and Everything in Between

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Becoming an airline pilot is not a quick and easy task: There is extensive training involved, it costs a lot of money and even when you've earned a commercial pilot certificate, it can be difficult to find a job without a lot of flying hours under your belt.

The path to becoming an airline pilot can be divided into two phases: Training and time-building, although these will overlap sometimes.

There are many career paths one can take to gain the experience necessary for an airline job, but in general, here's the progression from private pilot to an airline pilot:  

Training

Training can be accomplished at a Part 61 or a Part 141 flight school, and includes a series of certificates and ratings, most of which must need to be accomplished in a particular order.  To become an airline pilot, you'll need the following certificates and ratings:

  • Private Pilot Certificate
  • Instrument Rating
  • Multi-Engine Certificate
  • Commercial Pilot Certificate, with high-performance endorsement
  • Certified Flight Instructor Certificate (optional, but common)
  • CFI- Instrument Add-On and MuIti-Engine Instructor Certificate (both are optional, but some flight schools require these as minimum qualifications for new flight instructors.)
  • ATP: Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. This often comes later, after the commercial pilot has gained more experience, as the ATP certificate requires a pilot to have 1500 hours logged to apply.

Time-Building

Once you've earned the appropriate pilot certificates, you'll probably have around 300-500 hours of flight time logged - not enough to get that airline job.

Many pilots choose to become flight instructors at this point, but others find employment as sightseeing pilots, pipeline patrol pilots, or a variety of other entry-level pilot jobs. Here are a few things a low-time pilot can expect to do while building hours:

  • Hang out at the Airport and make friends.'
  • Fly as much as possible, with anyone who offers.
  • Network and make a good impression on airport employees and fellow pilots.
  • Find a job as a flight instructor, banner towing pilot, pipeline flying, aerial photography or something else that doesn't require an ATP certificate. These are all good options, but some of these jobs, like pipeline patrol, are seasonal and the random schedule means a random pay check. Flight instructing is a common way to build hours since instructor jobs tend to be more regular. Many flight schools offer a retainer fee to keep you as an employee, and since flight schools are often paired with FBOs that have larger, faster airplanes, instructors often have the opportunity for advancement.
  • Look for opportunities to fly bigger, faster airplanes in a scheduled environment. Getting turbine pilot in command (PIC) time is crucial to moving on to an airline job. Within a couple of years, you should have the credentials to apply for an airline job. But if you're flying jets, you might surprise yourself and choose to keep the job you have if you like it.

Keep in mind that at any point during this progression, you could actually impress someone enough to get hired with a charter or corporate flight department, even with few hours logged in your logbook.

If you're a smart, safe, and good at networking, you might just get lucky.

If you're not that person, you'll have to put in a couple of years flying small planes. Once you pass that magical 1,500 hour mark, you can consider making the transition to a regional airline.

Regional airlines will sometimes hire pilots with as little as 1500 hours, but you'll need to make yourself marketable in other ways, like having clean record, a bachelor's degree, a variety of flight experiences in different airplanes and instructor or evaluator experience.  

If you're motivated and can stay focused on flying, you might make it to a regional airline within three to five years, and then to a major carrier a few years after that. For some people, the road to becoming an airline pilot can take just a few years; for others, it can take ten or even fifteen years.

 

Want to become an airline pilot? Start building your time as early and as often as possible! 

Time-Building Ideas