If you dream of piloting an airplane to exotic locales, you're not alone. Becoming a professional pilot requires classroom coursework and flight training to meet strict licensing requirements. Many commercial and airline pilots earn comfortable livings, but future job opportunities are limited.
Federal Aviation Administration Regulations
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposes strict regulations on operating an aircraft. You must speak, read and understand English, and be at least 17 years old to get a pilot’s license. Before flying solo, you must obtain a medical certificate from an FAA-authorized medical examiner.
The FAA issues several types of pilot certificates, some geared to leisure flight and others to commercial flight. A private pilot certificate enables you to fly under 18,000 feet, within and outside the United States, and carry passengers for business or recreation. To pilot a passenger aircraft for an airline, you must obtain an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate.
Private Pilot Certificate
You can complete a private pilot certification course in about a month. FAA regulations require applicants to complete at least 40 hours of flight time. In private pilot training, flight schools usually instruct students using single-engine airplanes such as a Cessna 150.
Typically, students complete 20 hours of flying with an instructor and 20 hours of solo flight. The training often includes at least 10 takeoffs and landings, several hours of night flying and cross-country flights.
Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
ATP certification requires classroom work and flight simulator training. The FAA requires ATP students to undergo at least 30 hours of ground school training, as well as four hours of fixed-base flight simulator and six hours of full-motion simulator training. Ground school coursework includes subjects such as in aerodynamics, transport airplane performance, navigating weather conditions, professionalism and air carrier operations.
After completing an ATP program, you must pass the FAA’s ATP Multi-Engine (ATM) knowledge test to obtain your license. ATP certification is for experienced pilots and applicants must have the requisite flight hours to take the test. Military pilots must have 750 flight hours, graduates of four-year college flight programs need 1,000 hours and graduates of two-year college flight programs need 1,250 hours. Pilots who attended private flight schools must have 1,500 flight hours.
ATP Flight School Locations
You can find ATP training courses throughout the United States, offered by private flight schools, community colleges and four-year colleges or universities. Private schools such as ATP Jets in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and Phoenix East Aviation in Dayton Beach, Florida, offer courses for private pilot and ATP certification.
Most airlines do not require pilots to have a college degree. However, airlines predominately hire pilots who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
The FAA publishes a list of approved colleges, universities and community colleges that offer commercial pilot degree programs. In four-year programs, coursework often includes subjects such as computer science, sociology, physics, psychology and mathematics, along with flight training.
Some colleges and universities have partnerships with commercial airlines, which offer internships for commercial pilot students. For example, United Airlines provides internships for pilot students from more than a dozen colleges. The program includes training on United’s flight simulators and coursework at the company headquarters.
Community college pilot programs usually take two years to complete and allow you to earn an associate’s degree.
Commercial Pilot License Cost
Not everyone can afford the high ATP flight school cost. However, private flight schools often offer financing, and colleges, universities and community colleges provide financial aid programs.
Private flight schools have high fees, but offer short training periods. For instance, ATP Jets offers an ATP certification course that runs seven days and costs nearly $5,000.
The cost of four-year pilot programs varies, often depending on the private or public status of the college or university you attend. Besides tuition and textbook costs, you must pay lab fees, which covers live flight and flight simulator exercises. Lab fees often cost $5,000 or more, each semester.
Community college costs often rival the expenses of four-year pilot courses. For example, Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Washington, offers a two-year commercial pilot program that costs about $34,000 per year. The price includes tuition, textbooks, insurance, lab fees and housing.
In 2017, airline pilots earned a median salary of around $137,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median salary represents the wage at the middle of the pilot pay scale. High earners took home more than $200,000, while pilots at the bottom of the pay scale made around $68,000.
Pilot Job Outlook
According to the BLS, job opportunities for airline pilots should increase by just 3 percent, from now until 2026. As airlines replace fleets with high-capacity aircraft and switch to advanced scheduling technology, they will need fewer pilots.