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How to become an airline pilot

How to become an airline pilot

So, you want to be an airline pilot. You want to fly the magnificent machines that streak across the sky, white contrails a perfect contrast to the brilliant blue of the atmosphere. You want to see kids pointing at your plane, squealing with excitement. You want the adventure, the romance, the intrigue of travel. You want to fly.

Pilots are naturally the attention points of any flight. They are in control, and they have successfully brought an enormous, complicated piece of machinery off the ground, through a flight and back down to earth. They have earned the respect and gratitude they are given, and they have worked hard for it.

But just how did they get there, and more importantly for you, how can you get there? What’s the route to becoming an airline pilot? What pilot qualifications are necessary?


While much of a pilot’s life is as mundane as any other job, there are thrilling moments that offer a greater high than just about any other job you could find. After all, what other job allows you to chase the sunset – from the sky?

We have put together a guide to help you as you work your way through the process of becoming an airline pilot. If you haven’t quite decided if a pilot’s life is for you yet, this info will help you take the final step – if you dare.

Who can be a pilot?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 119,000 commercial and airline pilot jobs in the United States. Pilot salaries very widely depending on experience. These positions are filled by people from all across the spectrum of diversity, including women and minorities. About half of professional pilots never flew in the military, and contrary to what you might have heard, you do not have to possess 20/20 vision to become a pilot, as long as your vision can be corrected to 20/20 with contacts or glasses. This is much less restrictive than the traditional military requirement to fly planes.

Pilots must obviously be willing to travel as well. Your schedule will vary according to the airline you work for, but plan to be away from home about half of the month. You don’t have to be on the cover of the next fitness magazine, but you must be in good shape and ready for the rigors of a long flight.

To be eligible for a student pilot certificate (“certificate” is the technical term for what most people refer to as a pilot’s license), where many people start, you must be at least 16 years old and able to read, write, speak and understand English. Private pilot applicants must be 17, and commercial pilots and flight instructors must be at least 18 with the same language requirements.

Types of Pilots

As you consider looking for the latest pilot jobs, remember that there are several types of pilots. A student pilot is where you begin – you learn to fly while working your way through basic knowledge and skills, including standard airport-to-airport cross-country flying and interacting with air traffic control.

A sport pilot can fly at low speeds and does not need a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certificate. Recreational pilots fly for fun (they are not professionals), but have many restrictions (can only carry one passenger, can’t fly at night, etc.), so most continue on to earn their Private Pilots certificate, which allows you do much more. Pilots next earn an instrument rating to fly in low visibility conditions, and then they go for their Commercial Pilot’s Certificate (more details on this below). Additional qualification levels include a Certificated Flight Instructor, an Airline Transport Pilot and a Designated Examiner.

Once you earn a pilot certificate, it does not expire, but you do have to keep your skills up by flying a certain number of hours within a specified time period (or have a designated instructor evaluate and sign off on you). The industry is very regulated to keep unqualified people from causing harm.


While there is no absolute degree requirement to be a pilot, most airlines do prefer that you earn a college degree. At a minimum, this shows you can learn and can stick with something and succeed. You don’t have to major in aviation, but it certainly can’t hurt if you are attending a school with that major. Some college courses include actual flight training so you can graduate with a commercial pilot’s certificate and an instrument rating. Technical schools often offer programs as well.

If a college program doesn’t work for you, you can get your training from a local flight school. This will take longer, but your commercial certificate will be just as valid as any other. Most pilots do invest a good sum of money in their training – lessons and plane rentals are not cheap, and with 250 flight hours required before you earn your commercial rate, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the air. To get more flight hours, you could work as a flight instructor or a charter company as well.

Another route to pilot training is the military. Your training will be paid for, but the exchange is that you commit to many years of service after your year of pilot training. You are not guaranteed to pass the flight training or that you will end up flying what you want to fly, and you run the risk of actual combat. Your training, however, is top-notch and the equipment you learn on is incredible (think fighter jets).

Commercial Pilots

To become eligible for pilot jobs for hire, you must earn a commercial pilot certificate. You accomplish this by passing commercial pilot ground school and logging 250 or more flight hours. Some of these hours must take place under certain condition and include specified maneuvers

You must also pass a written test and a check-ride, where a Federal Aviation Administration official will watch you plan a flight, ask you aviation-related questions and go with you on a flight. He or she will ask you to perform certain maneuvers and will direct your flying during the test (much like a driver’s license test).

Commercial pilots must also keep an up-to-date medical certificate (first or second class). This simply verifies that you meet the health and fitness requirements necessary to be a pilot. You must also earn and keep an instrument rating so you can fly in low visibility conditions due to weather or other factors. You earn this by passing instrument ground school, spending a specified amount of instrument flight time (with no visibility) and passing an instrument check-ride.

You must also earn a multi-engine rating if you want to fly a plane with multiple engines, which includes most passenger planes in commercial use. Most airline pilots also eventually earn an airline transport pilot certificate, which is the highest level pilot certificate available. This means you can be the captain of a large commercial aircraft, but the requirements are strenuous – you must pass a written test, possess a first-class medical certificate and have logged 1,500 flight hours, including 250 hours as the pilot in command.

How to Get Hired

Because most major airlines never hire a pilot who has just earned his or her commercial pilot’s certificate (250 hours of flight time), you must accumulate as much flight experience as you can. Most applicants who are hired by major airlines have logged thousands of flight hours, although regional or commuter airlines may have lesser requirements.

Your experience is based on the number and complexity of aircraft you have flown, the complexity of the flying (jet or propeller, day or night, local or cross-country, visibility or instruments, etc.) and the positions you have held. Get as much varied experience as you can before you apply to a major airline.

Another factor in getting hired is timing. You may have all the pilot qualifications in the world, but if there aren’t many openings when you are ready to be hired, you’ll have a difficult time finding a job. You may find yourself in for several different employers and changes in cities before you career is over. Bankruptcies, furloughs and airline consolidations have been a part of the industry for years, so be prepared to be flexible and ride it out.


Your seniority will dictate just about everything once you are hired, including which plane you fly (which in turn determines your pilot salary), your schedule (whether you are home for weekends and holidays) and much more. All pilots are considered equally qualified (provided they pass required training and check rides), so a seniority system prevents favoritism. You move up in the ranks when a pilot retires or leaves for a new job, and when new pilots are hired in after you. Many pilots try to stay at the same airline as long as possible so they don’t lose their seniority by switching airlines.

The captain (the pilot in the left seat of the plane) always has more seniority than the first officer (or co-pilot) in the right seat of the plane. As you increase in seniority, you will move into the captain’s seat.


Like many other jobs, an airline pilot position may not be as glamorous as it first seems. There are plenty of downsides, but the upside is truly enormous – how many people get to sit at the controls of a giant plane, knowing they have the skills and experience to successfully fly it?

Plus, you can’t beat the view!

For more information on the latest pilot jobs, check our listings. With hundreds of jobs available, your chances of finding just the right pilot job are increasing every day!

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