How Much Does a Pilot Make
Growth Trends for Related Jobs
High-Level Responsibilities, High-Level Pay
You'll be the most popular speaker at your child's Career Day when you explain what it's like to be a pilot and show young girls that working moms have non-traditional jobs, too. Becoming a pilot requires good communication and problem-solving skills, plus the ability to make quick decisions and react fast, all tasks that you have already mastered as a mother. If flying is your dream, get your passport ready and sign up for flying lessons.
Pilots of airplanes, helicopters and other aircraft do much more than fly. They check the weather, file flight plans with air traffic control and tackle a large checklist of safety precautions. Does the aircraft have enough fuel for the trip? Has the cargo been packed so the load is balanced and within the weight limit?
During takeoff and landing, the pilot communicates with air traffic control and ground personnel. Once in the air, the pilot uses visual and cockpit instruments to monitor engines, fuel, changing weather and other conditions that could affect the flight. She watches for malfunctions and is trained in how to handle them if they occur.
Airline pilots work primarily for major passenger airlines, piloting scheduled flights. They have a co-pilot, who is capable of flying the plane but is usually less experienced than the pilot. Commercial pilots may handle charter flights, tours or material applications such as crop dusting or fighting fires. Corporate pilots fly a company's executives and accompanying staff to meetings or other events.
To become a pilot of any type, you first must get your pilot's license from an FAA-approved flight school. You can find schools near you on the website faa.gov or check out colleges with aviation programs. You can begin lessons without a student license. Before you solo, however, you need a Student Pilot Certificate (that's the official title of the student license) and a medical certificate that certifies that you are healthy enough to pilot an aircraft.
To apply for a Student Pilot Certificate, you must be fluent in English and at least 16 years old. Your flight school can help you find medical professionals who conduct pilot physicals. Your readiness to solo is determined by your instructor; there are no minimum hours required. Generally, the more often you fly, the sooner you'll have enough experience to solo.
You must be 17 or older to earn a Private Pilot Certificate. This requires logging a certain number of solo hours, including night flying, and passing both written and practical flying exams. In addition, you must have experience flying "cross-country" which actually means a specified distance between airports (i.e. 50 miles, 150 miles, etc.) The number of hours for each requirement varies depending on the type of license you're applying for, such as single-engine plane, multi-engine, etc.
You may be able to take some of the ground courses online, which could be helpful if you work or have small children. The flying, of course, would have to be done in person. In addition to traditional scholarship avenues, look for those that specifically target women, such as those through Women in Aviation International and other organizations.
The median salary for airline pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers in May 2016 was $127,820. The highest 10 percent earned over $208,000, and the lowest 10 percent earned $65,000. The median wage for commercial pilots was $77,200, with the highest 10 percent earning $147,240 and the lowest 10 percent earning $39,430. A median salary is the midpoint, with half earning more and half earning less.
About the Industry
Not all pilots fly passenger airplanes for major, low-cost and regional airlines. Other jobs include: working for cargo carriers such as those transporting mail and packages; corporate and charter flights; freight carriers; emergency medical flights; towing banners; reporting traffic and weather for media; guiding tours and sightseeing; law enforcement such as border patrol; airshow stunt flying; and even ferry service, in which you deliver an airplane to another location.
Years of Experience
Most pilots start out earning about $20,000 a year and gain flight experience until they have 500 flight hours. Their salaries typically increase annually as they gain more flight experience and the rank of captain at a regional airline, where salaries average $55,000. With more flight experience, they may advance to captain at a major airline, where salaries average $135,000.
The progression from student to Airline Transport License is typically:
- Student pilot certificate (must be 16+)
- Private pilot certificate (must be 17+)
- Instrument rating (needed for commercial pilot certificate if flying at night or 50+ miles)
- Commercial pilot certificate (must be 18+)
- Multi-engine rating (needed for ATP certificate)
- Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate (must be 21+ with some exceptions to be a co-pilot, 23+ for captain)
Each certificate requires both ground and flight training, as well as passing written, oral and flight tests for that level.
Advancement steps for airline pilots are spelled out in the contracts negotiated by their union. After one to five years, a flight engineer with the proper training and certificates can advance to co-pilot (also called first mate), although being a flight engineer is not a required step. After five to 15 years, a co-pilot who meets all other necessary qualifications may advance to captain.
Getting hired as an airline pilot is competitive, and most airlines look for candidates whose qualifications exceed the minimum. They also look for those with a passion for flying and professional attitudes. (HINT: They check your social media posts.)
Job Growth Trend
The need for airline and commercial pilots is expected to grow four percent from 2016 to 2026, which is slower than for most occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More advanced technology will enable larger planes to fly more people at a time, so fewer pilots will be needed.
However, pilots will be needed to replace those who retire at the FAA's mandatory age of 65. Boeing's Airline Pilot and Technician Outlook estimates that 617,000 new pilots will be needed around the world by 2035.
There are additional licenses you can earn, including Recreational and Sport licenses, which have fewer requirements. These don't allow you to work for pay, but they could be used as stepping stones to getting your Private Pilot Certificate.
- Airline Pilot Central: Pilot Salaries in 2017: Which Airline Will Have the Highest Pay?
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Airline and Commercial Pilots
- Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association: Career Pilots
- Federal Aviation Administration: Become a Pilot
- Airline Pilots Association International: Training Pathways to the Flight Deck
- ALPA: Cleared to Dream: Who's Hiring
- Upper Limit Aviation: Different Pilot Licenses Explained: Sport, Recreational and Private Pilot
- Women in Aviation International: Scholarship Application Requirements
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.