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How to Become a Pilot

By Ibrahim Okunade

Published:

Are you fascinated by the possibility of piloting people and cargo through the air? Becoming a pilot is an awe-inspiring journey that opens up a world of adventure, responsibility, and breathtaking views. This article guides you through the steps to turn your dream of flying into a reality.

Career Summary

How Much Does a Pilot Make?

Pilot Salary

So, how much does a pilot make? The answer depends on a number of factors, including the pilot’s skill, experience, and the type of company they work for. Per Glassdoor, the salary breakdown is as follows:

  • Entry Salary (US$81k)
  • Median Salary (US$102k)
  • Executive Salary (US$129k)

What does a Pilot do?

Pilots operate aircraft, ensuring the safety and efficiency of flights. They are responsible for navigating, communicating with air traffic control, and making critical decisions during takeoff, flight, and landing. Pilots may work for airlines, cargo carriers, charter companies, or in various specialized roles within aviation.

Pilot Career Progression

  • Student Pilot: The journey begins as a student pilot, where individuals receive basic flight training and work toward earning their private pilot license (PPL).
  • Private Pilot: After obtaining a PPL, pilots can fly for recreational purposes and as the pilot-in-command of small aircraft.
  • Commercial Pilot: With additional flight hours and training, pilots can earn a commercial pilot certificate, enabling them to be compensated for flying services.
  • Certified Flight Instructor (CFI): Some pilots become CFIs, teaching aspiring aviators to fly and helping them earn their pilot certificates.
  • Airline Transport Pilot (ATP): The ATP certificate is the highest level of pilot certification, typically requiring 1,500 flight hours and meeting specific experience requirements.
  • First Officer: Pilots often begin their airline careers as first officers (co-pilots) with regional airlines or in entry-level positions, gaining experience and flight hours.
  • Captain: After accumulating significant experience and seniority, pilots may advance to the position of captain, responsible for the operation of an aircraft and its crew.
Pilot Career Progression

Pros and Cons of Working as a Pilot

Pros:

  • Pilots can explore new destinations and cultures, experiencing the world from a unique perspective.
  • Flying offers a sense of freedom and independence that few other professions can match.
  • Flying presents constant challenges, both technically and mentally, making it a mentally stimulating and rewarding career.
  • Experienced airline pilots can earn competitive salaries and enjoy various benefits, including travel privileges.
  • Despite economic fluctuations, the demand for qualified pilots remains relatively stable, providing job security.

Cons:

  • Pilots often work irregular hours, including weekends and holidays.
  • Long-haul flights and layovers in distant locations can mean extended periods away from home and loved ones.
  • Operating aircraft requires high concentration levels and can lead to physical and mental fatigue.
  • Becoming a pilot involves a significant financial investment in education, flight training, and acquiring licenses and ratings.
  • Frequent layovers and changing time zones can result in jet lag and disrupted sleep patterns.

Useful Skills to Have as a Pilot

  • Navigation and Map Reading
  • Spatial Orientation
  • Decision-Making Under Pressure
  • Leadership and Adaptability
  • Stress Management

Popular Pilot Specialties

  • Commercial Airline Pilot
  • Cargo Pilot
  • Corporate Pilot
  • Flight Instructor
  • Helicopter Pilot
  • Air Ambulance Pilot
  • Search and Rescue Pilot
  • Military Pilot

How to Become a Pilot

Pilot 7 Steps to Career

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Most of the major airline companies typically mandate candidates to possess a bachelor’s degree in aviation or a related field when seeking airline pilot positions. Thus, if your aspiration is to pursue a career as an airline pilot, a common route students opt for is to attend a Federal Aviation Administration-approved institution. At these institutions, you can concurrently undertake aviation-focused coursework leading to a degree while receiving pilot training.

Do I Need an Aviation Degree to Become a Pilot?

An aviation degree is not an absolute prerequisite to becoming a pilot. While many major airlines do require a bachelor’s degree or a related field for their pilot candidates, this requirement doesn’t apply universally.

Some smaller regional airlines, private operators, or cargo carriers may have more flexible educational requirements, and individuals with diverse educational backgrounds can pursue careers as pilots.

For those who choose not to pursue an aviation degree, there are alternative pathways to becoming a pilot, such as attending a flight school independently or seeking out a certified flight instructor to provide the necessary training. These routes typically involve more direct flight training without the comprehensive academic coursework that comes with an aviation degree.

It’s essential to research the specific requirements of the airline or type of flying job you’re interested in and tailor your education and training accordingly. Ultimately, while an aviation degree can be advantageous, it is not the only way to achieve your goal of becoming a pilot.

How Long Does it Take to Get an Aviation Degree?

A bachelor’s degree in aviation or a related field typically takes about four years of full-time study to complete. This degree provides a more comprehensive education in aviation and may include flight training as part of the program. It’s often chosen by those aspiring to become airline transport pilots or pursue aviation management, aviation technology, or aviation safety careers.

How Much Does it Cost to Get an Aviation Degree?

The cost of getting an aviation degree varies depending on the school you choose and your location. However, you can expect to pay between $8,910 and $23,129 for an aviation degree program. In addition to tuition, you will also need to factor in the cost of flight training, which can be quite expensive. The cost of flight training will vary depending on the number of hours you need to fly to obtain your pilot’s license.

Can I Become a Pilot Through Online Education?

While you can learn theoretical aviation knowledge through online education, becoming a pilot typically requires hands-on flight training that cannot be fully accomplished online. For instance, many aspects of aviation, such as aerodynamics, navigation, regulations, and meteorology, can be learned online through ground school courses.

However, flight training, which includes actual flying in an aircraft, is a critical component of becoming a pilot. This part cannot be done online. Flight training requires physical presence in an aircraft with a certified flight instructor to teach you practical flying skills and maneuvers.

Nonetheless, some aviation schools offer a hybrid approach where you complete the theoretical portion of your training online and the practical flight training in person. These programs can offer flexibility while maintaining the hands-on experience required.

What are Some Web Resources to Help a Budding Pilot?

Becoming a better pilot involves continuous learning and staying up-to-date with the latest aviation knowledge and best practices. There are several web resources and websites that can help you improve your piloting skills, stay informed about aviation developments, and connect with the aviation community.

  • FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam): The FAA offers a wide range of safety resources and online courses through FAASTeam. These resources cover various aviation topics and are a great way to enhance your knowledge and skills. You can also access FAA regulations, advisory circulars, and other essential documents on the official FAA website.
  • AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association): AOPA provides articles, videos, webinars, and educational content on aviation safety, regulations, and pilot proficiency. You can find information about pilot requirements for different stages of training. There’s also an aviation job board for pilot openings.
  • EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association): EAA offers resources for pilots, including articles, webinars, and information on recreational aviation and aircraft building.
  • Aviation Podcasts: There are many aviation podcasts available, covering a wide range of topics from safety to aviation history. Some popular ones include Aviation News Talk and Airplane Geeks.
  • Safety Organizations: Organizations like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) provide safety reports, recommendations, and insights that can enhance your safety awareness.

Learn Radio Communication for Pilots 

Learn radio basics and how to talk to ATC as a pilot in this comprehensive course by Pilot Academia. The course is for student pilots who want to get higher scores in practice exams and all people who want to be a pilot in the future.

Learn More

Step 2: Obtain Your Private Pilot License

For those who do not want the bachelor’s degree path, obtaining a private pilot license could be their actual first step in becoming a pilot. A Private Pilot License (PPL) is a type of pilot certificate or license that allows an individual to act as the pilot-in-command (PIC) of an aircraft for personal, non-commercial purposes. It is one of the foundational pilot licenses and serves as the starting point for many individuals pursuing a career in aviation. Private pilot requirements include flight training, ground school training, and checkride.

  • Eligibility

Before you can obtain a private pilot license (PPL), you must meet certain eligibility requirements. In many countries, including the United States, these requirements typically include being at least 17 years old (age requirements may vary by country), holding a valid aviation medical certificate, and having a sufficient command of the language in which flight operations are conducted (usually English).

  • Ground School Training

To prepare for the private pilot written exam, you’ll need to complete ground school training. Ground school covers essential aviation knowledge, including aerodynamics, aviation regulations, navigation, weather, and aircraft systems. You can take ground school courses at a flight school, online, or through self-study using textbooks and resources.

  • Flight Training

The practical aspect of obtaining a PPL involves flight training with a certified flight instructor (CFI). During flight training, you’ll learn how to operate an aircraft, perform various maneuvers, navigate, communicate with air traffic control, and handle emergency situations. Flight training typically includes both dual instruction (with the instructor) and solo flight time.

  • Flight Hours

You’ll need to accumulate a minimum number of flight hours, as specified by the aviation authority in your country. In the United States, for example, you must log a minimum of 40 flight hours, which includes at least 20 hours of flight training with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight time. However, many students require more hours to reach proficiency.

As part of your flight training, you’ll eventually reach a point where your flight instructor allows you to fly solo. Solo flight is a significant milestone in your training and demonstrates your readiness to operate an aircraft independently.

  • Checkride

After receiving comprehensive flight training, student pilots must prepare for a knowledge test and their final evaluation, known as the checkride. The flight instructor will assess the student’s readiness and, when they feel confident, sign off for the checkride.

The checkride is conducted by an FAA examiner and evaluates the student’s knowledge and practical flying skills. During the checkride, the student must demonstrate flight planning, interactions with air traffic control, flight maneuvers, and the ability to follow the examiner’s directions. Upon successfully passing the checkride, the student becomes an official private pilot, having earned their Private Pilot License (PPL).

How Much Does It Cost to Get a Private Pilot License

The cost associated with obtaining a private pilot certificate can vary significantly, ranging from approximately $6,000 to $20,000. Multiple factors contribute to these cost variations, with geographic location being one of the primary determinants. Flight training expenses tend to be higher in regions characterized by high living costs compared to more rural areas where training costs may be comparatively lower.

Step 3: Acquire Your Instrument Rating

Except you’re satisfied with being able to fly only a handful of people non-commercially with your pilot license, a private pilot license is not enough. Thus, after obtaining your private pilot license, you need to acquire an instrument rating.

An Instrument Rating (IR) is an advanced pilot certification that allows a pilot to operate an aircraft solely by reference to instruments, even when visibility is poor or in adverse weather conditions. This rating enhances a pilot’s skills and capabilities, enabling them to fly safely and effectively in a wider range of situations.

Here is a simple breakdown of what is required for you to get an instrument rating:

  • You must either already hold a Private Pilot Certificate or apply for one concurrently with your Instrument Rating.
  • You should be proficient in reading, speaking, writing, and understanding the English language.
  • Complete ground training with an authorized instructor (IGI or CFII) or through a home study course.
  • Obtain a logbook endorsement from an authorized instructor certifying your readiness to take the knowledge test.
  • Complete required training, including:
    • Fifty hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command.
    • Forty hours of actual or simulated instrument time, with at least 15 hours from an authorized instructor.
    • Three hours of instrument flight training within two calendar months before the check ride.
    • A cross-country flight of 250 nautical miles with instrument approaches at each airport and three different types of approaches (e.g., VOR, ILS, GPS).
  • Pass the knowledge test (unless you already hold an instrument rating in another category, like a helicopter or powered lift).
  • Successfully pass the required practical test.

Most Important Pilot Skills You Will Learn

Becoming a pilot involves developing a wide range of skills, both technical and non-technical, to ensure the safe and proficient operation of an aircraft. Here are some of the key pilot skills you will learn during your training.

Aircraft Operation Skills
  • Flight Controls: Flight control is one of the most important pilot skills you need. You’ll learn how to manipulate the aircraft’s control surfaces, including the yoke or stick, rudder pedals, and throttle, to control pitch, roll, and yaw.
  • Aircraft Systems: Understanding and operating various aircraft systems, including engine, electrical, hydraulic, and avionics systems.
  • Navigation: Navigating using charts, GPS, and navigation aids, and planning routes.
  • Instrument Flying: Flying solely by reference to instrument, which is a critical skill for flying in low visibility or adverse weather conditions.
Aerodynamics and Flight Principles
  • Understanding Aerodynamics: Knowledge of how aircraft generate lift, the effects of drag, and the principles of flight.
  • Stall and Spin Recovery: Techniques to recover from a stall or spin, which are critical for safety.
Communication Skills and Decision-Making
  • Radio Communication: Effective communication with air traffic control (ATC) and other aircraft using radio procedures.
  • Crew Communication: If flying with a crew, clear communication and coordination with co-pilots and crew members.
  • Risk Management: Evaluating and mitigating risks associated with flight, including weather, equipment, and personal factors.
  • Crisis Management: Handling emergencies and making sound decisions under pressure.
Weather Interpretation and Flight Planning
  • Weather Analysis: Understanding weather reports, forecasts, and how weather conditions can affect flight safety.
  • Flight Planning: Planning routes, calculating fuel requirements, and ensuring safe and efficient navigation.
  • Dead Reckoning: Navigating by estimating your position based on known factors like time, speed, and heading.
Situational Awareness and Emergency Training
  • Situational Awareness: Maintaining awareness of your aircraft’s position, altitude, heading, and overall flying environment.
  • Emergency Training: Preparing for and responding to various in-flight emergencies, such as engine failures, fires, and medical incidents.

Step 4: Get Your Commercial Pilot License

The licenses never end, do they? Well, air transport is a serious business, and it’s important to ensure only the best pilots get to fly people and cargo. A commercial pilot license (CPL) is a pilot license that allows you to fly airplanes for hire. This means that you can fly passengers and cargo for money.

To get a commercial pilot license, a private pilot license is a prerequisite, logbook endorsements to take the aeronautical knowledge test and the practice test. You will also need to pass the commercial pilot knowledge test and the commercial pilot practical test.

A total flight time of 250 hours is required to earn a commercial pilot license. Of these 250 hours, you must log at least 100 hours as a pilot in command and 10 hours each of instrument training and technically advanced airplanes.

Step 5: Level Up With Multi-Engine Rating

The multi-engine rating is an important step on the journey to becoming an airline pilot. It is a pilot rating that allows you to fly airplanes with two or more engines. Airline pilots are required to have a multi-engine rating because they fly large airplanes with multiple engines.

Multi-engine airplanes are safer than single-engine airplanes because if one engine fails, the pilot can still fly the airplane safely on the remaining engine(s). The multi-engine rating training focuses on teaching the pilot how to fly a multi-engine airplane safely and efficiently. This includes learning how to start and operate multiple engines, how to handle engine failures, and how to coordinate the engines for takeoff, landing, and cruising.

Once you have obtained a multi-engine rating, you can start applying for jobs that require it. There are many different types of jobs available for pilots with multi-engine ratings, such as flying for charter companies and corporate flight departments.

Step 6: Rack Up the Flight Hours

To fly as a pilot for commercial airlines, you will need a lot of flight hours — 1,500 hours. This is why your multi-engine rating and commercial pilot license become an advantage. You can get a flight instructor certificate in addition to these certifications to rack up more flight hours. The great thing is that you get to earn money as you rack up these hours, whether transporting people or cargo on single and multi-engine aircraft or helping new pilots learn the ropes as a flight instructor.

Step 7: Get Your Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate

With 1,500 flight hours in the bag, it’s time to finally apply for an Airline Transport Pilot certification, the highest achievement of pilot certification.

In addition to 1,500 flight hours, airline transport pilot requirements include:

  • Be at least 23 years of age.
  • Possess either:
    • A commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating
    • Or meet the military experience requirements to qualify for a commercial pilot certificate and an instrument rating,
    • Or a foreign airline transport pilot license with instrument privileges
  • Medical requirements:
    • Hold a 1st class medical certificate to act as Pilot-In-Command
    • Hold a 2nd class medical certificate to act as Second-In-Command
  • 1,500 hours of Total Flight Time:
    • 500 hours of Cross-Country Flight Time
    • 250 hours as Pilot-In-Command (PIC)
    • 100 hours of Night Flight Time
    • 75 hours of Instrument Training
    • 50 hours of In-Class of Rating Sought
  • Pass an ATP knowledge test.
  • Complete and pass an ATP-CTP training program.

Beyond flying roles, ATP-certified pilots can take on additional responsibilities, such as instructing other pilots in air transportation services. They can also endorse pilot logbooks and training records for aircraft within the same category, class, and type for which the ATP holder is rated.

What’s the Career Outlook for Pilots?

A guide on how to become a pilot will be incomplete without assessing the career outlook. The career outlook for pilots appears relatively promising. According to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment prospects for airline and commercial pilots are projected to grow by 4% from 2022 to 2032. This growth rate aligns with the average for all occupations, indicating a steady demand for pilot services in the coming years.

Furthermore, the industry anticipates an average of around 16,800 annual job openings for airline and commercial pilots over the next decade. This suggests that there will be ample opportunities for aspiring pilots to enter the profession and for experienced pilots to advance their careers. With these factors in mind, pursuing a career in aviation continues to hold potential for those with a passion for flying and a commitment to safety and professionalism.

Pilot Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities for a Pilot?

Pilots have a wide range of job opportunities within the aviation industry and beyond.

Here are some of the key job opportunities for pilots:

  • Airline Pilot: Airline pilots operate commercial aircraft, flying passengers and cargo on scheduled routes. Opportunities exist with regional, national, and international airlines.
  • Cargo Pilot: Cargo pilots specialize in transporting goods and freight. They may work for cargo airlines or companies that operate their aircraft.
  • Charter Pilot: Charter pilots fly aircraft on-demand for various purposes, including business travel, leisure trips, and medical transport.
  • Corporate Pilot: Corporate pilots are employed by companies to operate private jets for executive travel. They often work directly for corporations or individuals.
  • Flight Instructor: Flight instructors teach aspiring pilots the skills and knowledge needed to earn pilot certificates and ratings. They work at flight schools and universities.
  • Banner Tow Pilot: Banner tow pilots tow advertising banners behind aircraft for promotional purposes.
  • Agricultural Pilot: Agricultural pilots, also known as crop dusters, apply fertilizers and pesticides to crops from aircraft.
  • Firefighting Pilot: Firefighting pilots operate water-dropping aircraft to combat wildfires and provide aerial support to ground firefighting crews.
  • Search and Rescue Pilot: Search and rescue pilots fly missions to locate and assist individuals in distress, often working with government agencies or organizations.
  • Helicopter Pilot: Helicopter pilots operate rotary-wing aircraft for various purposes, including medical transport, law enforcement, and aerial photography.
  • Tour Pilot: Tour pilots provide sightseeing tours and scenic flights to passengers, showcasing local landmarks and attractions.
  • Bush Pilot: Bush pilots operate in remote or wilderness areas, transporting passengers, supplies, and equipment to remote locations.
  • Airshow Pilot: Airshow pilots perform aerobatic maneuvers and stunts at airshows and aviation events, showcasing their flying skills.
  • Government and Military Pilot: Government and military pilots serve in various roles, including transport, reconnaissance, and combat missions. They work for armed forces and government agencies.
  • Air Traffic Controller: While not a pilot, air traffic controllers play a critical role in aviation. They manage aircraft movements and ensure safe and efficient air traffic flow.
  • Aviation Management: Pilots can transition into aviation management roles, overseeing airline operations, safety, and airport management.
  • Aviation Safety Inspector: Aviation safety inspectors work for regulatory agencies like the FAA to ensure compliance with safety regulations and standards.

What Type of Organizations Hire Pilots?

There are several types of organizations that require the services of pilots, including:

  • Airlines
  • Charter Companies
  • Corporate Businesses
  • Flight Schools
  • Firefighting and Aerial Firefighting Organizations
  • Search and Rescue Organizations
  • Law Enforcement
  • Tourism Companies
  • Government and Military
  • Air Ambulance
  • Aviation Safety and Regulatory Agencies

Strategies to Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance as a Pilot

Knowing how to become a pilot is not enough. You must understand how to strike a sweet balance between work and personal life. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is a critical aspect of overall well-being for anyone. For pilots, achieving this balance can be particularly challenging due to the nature of their profession.

  • Set Boundaries: Establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life is paramount. Pilots should define specific times to engage with work-related tasks and consciously disconnect from work when off-duty to recharge mentally and emotionally.
  • Maximize Layovers: Pilots can make the most of layovers by planning activities that align with their interests. Exploring new destinations, engaging in leisure activities, or simply relaxing can contribute to a sense of personal fulfillment.
  • Establish a Support Network: Building a network of fellow pilots and aviation professionals who understand the unique challenges can provide valuable emotional support and practical advice.
  • Proactive Schedule Management: Pilots can be proactive in managing their schedules by requesting preferences that align with personal priorities whenever possible. Flexibility and adaptability are key when dealing with unexpected changes.
  • Embrace the Benefits of the Job: Pilots can embrace the benefits of their profession, such as travel privileges and flexible schedules, to enhance their personal lives. Using travel perks for family vacations or leveraging flexible hours for hobbies and interests can create a positive work-life synergy.

Should I Become a Pilot?

The big question here is whether you should become a pilot or not. Admittedly, the requirements look daunting. However, it is achievable. As we’ve explored in this article, the path to becoming a pilot involves multiple steps, from obtaining the necessary education and training to earning the required licenses and ratings. However, beyond the technical aspects, it’s crucial to make this decision with a clear understanding of your personal interests and skills.

The decision must be borne of your passion for aviation, adaptability to irregular schedules, and love for the skies. Whether you aspire to become a commercial airline pilot, explore a career in aviation management, or specialize in a niche field like agricultural aviation or aerial firefighting, your journey should be driven by your individual aspirations.

So, before taking flight on this exciting adventure, do your research, gather information, and seek guidance from experienced pilots and mentors. Make an informed decision that propels you toward a fulfilling career and allows you to soar with confidence in the skies for years to come.


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Ibrahim Okunade

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