How to Become an Airline or Commercial Pilot
Pilots and copilots work together to fly complex aircraft.
Most airline pilots begin their careers as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots typically need a high school diploma or equivalent. Airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree. All pilots who are paid to fly must have at least a commercial pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In addition, airline pilots must have the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. The ATP certificate, and instrument and multiengine ratings expand the privileges granted by the commercial pilot’s license and may be required by certain employers.
Most pilots begin their flight training with independent instructors or through flight schools. Fixed base operators (FBO) usually provide a wide range of general aviation services, such as aircraft fueling, maintenance, and on-demand air transportation services, and they may also offer flight training. An FBO may manage a flight school or call its training department a school. Some flight schools are parts of 2- and 4-year colleges and universities.
Education and Training
Airline pilots typically need a bachelor’s degree in any subject, along with a commercial pilot’s license and an ATP certificate from the FAA. Airline pilots typically start their careers in flying as commercial pilots. Pilots usually accrue thousands of hours of flight experience to get a job with regional or major airlines.
The military traditionally has been an important source of experienced pilots because of the extensive training it provides. However, increased duty requirements have reduced the incentives for these pilots to transfer out of military aviation and into civilian aviation. Most military pilots who transfer to civilian aviation are able to transfer directly into the airlines rather than working in commercial aviation.
Commercial pilots must have a commercial pilot’s license and typically need a high school diploma or the equivalent. Some employers have additional requirements. For example, agricultural pilots need to have an understanding of common agricultural practices, fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides. Flight instructors have to have special FAA-issued certificates and ratings, such as Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), CFI-Instrument (CFII), Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI), MEI-Instrument (MEII), and possibly others. Many additional requirements exist for other specialties. They range from being able to operate gliders and tow banners to being qualified to fly helicopters and airships.
Commercial pilots typically begin their flight training with independent FAA-certified flight instructors or at schools that offer flight training. The FAA certifies hundreds of civilian flight schools, which range from small FBOs to large state universities. Some colleges and universities offer pilot training as part of a 2- or 4-year aviation degree. Regardless of whether pilots attend flight schools or learn from independent instructors, all pilots need the FAA’s commercial pilot license before they can be paid to fly. In addition, most commercial pilots need an instrument rating, typically to fly through clouds or other conditions that limit visibility. An instrument rating also is required to carry paying passengers more than 50 miles from the point of origin of their flight or at night.
Interviews for positions with major and regional airlines often reflect the FAA exams for pilot licenses, certificates, and instrument ratings, and can be intense. Airlines frequently will conduct their own psychological and aptitude tests in order to make sure that their pilots are of good moral character and can make good decisions under pressure.
Airline and commercial pilots who are newly hired by airlines or on-demand air services companies must undergo moderate-term on-the-job training in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). This training usually includes 6–8 weeks of ground school and 25 hours of flight time. In addition, commercial pilots may need specific training based on the type of flying they are doing. For example, those who tow banners will likely need at least 200 hours in airplanes with conventional (tailwheel) landing gear. Further, various types of ratings for specific aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 or Cessna Citation, typically are acquired through employer-based training and generally are earned by pilots who have at least a commercial license.
Besides initial training and licensing requirements, all pilots must maintain their experience in performing certain maneuvers. This requirement means that pilots must perform specific maneuvers and procedures a given number of times within a specified amount of time. Furthermore, pilots must undergo periodic training and medical examinations, generally every year or every other year.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Airline pilots typically begin their careers as commercial pilots. Pilots usually accrue thousands of hours of flight experience as commercial pilots or in the military to get a job with regional or major airlines.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Those who are seeking a career as a professional pilot typically get their licenses and ratings in the following order:
- Student Pilot Certificate
- Private Pilot License
- Instrument Rating
- Commercial Pilot License
- Multi-Engine Rating
- Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
Each certificate and rating requires that pilots pass a written exam on the ground and a practical flying exam, usually called a check ride, in an appropriate aircraft. In addition to earning these licenses, many pilots get Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) rating after they get their commercial certificate. The CFI rating helps them build flight time and experience more quickly and at less personal expense. Current licensing regulations can be found in FARs.
Commercial pilot license. To qualify for a commercial pilot license, applicants must be at least 18 years old and meet certain flight-hour requirements. When student pilots first begin their training, they need to get a logbook and keep detailed records of their flight time. Also, their school may require them to log their ground instruction time. The logbook must be endorsed by the flight instructor in order for the student to be able to take the FAA knowledge and practical exams. For specific requirements, including details on the types and quantities of flight experience and knowledge requirements, see the FARs. Part 61 of Title 14 of the code of federal regulations (14 CFR part 61) covers the basic rules for the certification of pilots. Flight schools can train pilots in accordance with the rules from part 61 or the rules found in 14 CFR part 141.
In addition, applicants must pass the appropriate medical exam, meet all of the detailed flight experience and knowledge requirements, and pass a written exam and a practical flight exam in order to become commercially licensed. The physical exam confirms that the pilot’s vision is correctable to 20/20 and that no physical handicaps exist that could impair the pilot’s performance.
Commercial pilots must hold an instrument rating if they want to carry passengers for pay more than 50 miles from the point of origin of their flight or at night.
Instrument rating. Earning their instrument rating enables pilots to fly during periods of low visibility, also known as instrument meteorological conditions or IMC. They may qualify for this rating by having at least 40 hours of instrument flight experience and 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command and by meeting other requirements detailed in the FARs.
Airline transport pilot (ATP) certification. Beginning in 2013, all pilot crews of a scheduled commercial airliner must have ATP certificates. To earn the ATP certificate, applicants must be at least 23 years old, have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, and pass written and practical flight exams. Furthermore, airline pilots usually maintain one or more aircraft-type ratings, which allow them to fly aircraft that require specific training, depending on the requirements of their particular airline. Some exceptions and alternative requirements are detailed in the FARs.
Pilots must pass periodic physical and practical flight examinations to be able to perform the duties granted by their certificate.
Minimum time requirements to get a certificate or rating may not be enough to get some jobs. To make up the gap between paying for training and flying for the major airlines, many commercial pilots begin their careers as flight instructors and on-demand charter pilots. These positions typically require less experience than airline jobs require. When pilots have built enough flying hours, they can apply to the airlines. Newly hired pilots at regional airlines typically have about 2,000 hours of flight experience. Newly hired pilots at major airlines typically have about 4,000 hours of flight experience. Many commercial piloting jobs have minimum requirements of around 500 hours. Numerous factors can affect this number, such as the type of flight time the pilot has.
Communication skills. Pilots must speak clearly when conveying information to air traffic controllers and other crew members. They must also listen carefully for instructions.
Observational skills. Pilots must regularly watch over screens, gauges, and dials to make sure that all systems are in working order. They also need to maintain situational awareness by looking for other aircraft or obstacles. Pilots must be able to see clearly, be able to judge the distance between objects, and possess good color vision.
Problem-solving skills. Pilots must be able to identify complex problems and figure out appropriate solutions. When a plane encounters turbulence, for example, pilots may assess the weather conditions and request a change in route or altitude from air traffic control.
Quick reaction time. Pilots must be able to respond quickly, and with good judgment, to any impending danger, because warning signals can appear with no notice.
For airline pilots, advancement depends on a system of seniority outlined in collective bargaining contracts. Typically, after 1 to 5 years, flight engineers may advance to first officer positions and, after 5 to 15 years, first officers can become captains. In large companies, a captain could become a chief pilot or a director of aviation.