Pilot Career Guide

What is a pilot?

A pilot is a certified professional that is trained to operate different aircraft. They are primarily responsible for developing flight plans and conducting pre-flight checks to determine if their aircraft is ready for departure. One thing that these professionals will need to be comfortable doing is collaborating with flight attendants to provide the best customer service to their clients during boarding, take-off, and landing. 

A crucial part of their job is to ensure the safety of passengers and cabin crew who are on board their flight. This requires these professionals to follow specific federal regulations and company policies that help maintain safe flight practices. They must perform routine checks on aircraft performance, altitude, fuel levels, and weather conditions to ensure a safe, yet comfortable flight for all passengers. Pilots need to be confident enough in their skills and practice to properly navigate their aircraft to its destination. 

Qualifications and eligibility

Every pilot will fulfill different requirements depending on the aircraft they want to fly. However, there are general prerequisites for all of them. These necessities include:  

A pilot must also have quick thinking skills. They should be aware of their situation and atmosphere at all times to avoid unwanted weather conditions, airspace violations, and loss of control. This can significantly impact the security of the flight, so it is important for these professionals to know how to handle the weather, traffic, and emergency situations.   

Work environment

Pilots are typically found working in and out of airports to fly airplanes, however, they will be working for different companies and agencies causing their day-to-day to vary a little from one another. Some examples include: 

  • Federal and local government agencies need them for transporting government officials and fulfilling different missions. 
  • The U.S Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all need these professionals to help serve their country. 
  • Commercial and private pilots will work with their airline or clients to determine the best time and route to take them to their final destination.  

Their day-to-day work life looks similar throughout the week with some of their duties including planning flight routes, checking the weather, and flying and navigating airplanes. It is common for them to work with fellow pilots and flight attendants to determine flight routes and schedules for future dates.  

Typical work hours

Pilots are known for having irregular schedules and working unusual hours due to differing flight schedules. This means they could be working during the day or through the night depending on their assignment. The FAA limits them to fly no more than 30 hours in any seven consecutive days to ensure they are well rested and focused for their duties. 

If you’re working as a pilot, you will most likely have to work several weekends and holidays. While it is common to work for an extended period of time, they will also get a few days off between their flights to avoid over-exhaustion. Once you become a senior pilot, you will have more flexibility in your schedule and can choose which days you would like to fly. 

Types of pilots

Pilots work in a variety of industries, so their duties vary based on the business they work for. They may earn their certification or gain experience in one or more of these areas.

Private Pilots

Every pilot is required to get a private pilot license to fly. This is perfect for anyone who is interested in flying without becoming a professional pilot. These individuals can perform services such as banner tows, crop dusting, and aerial photography. 

Flight Instructors

Flight instructors are commercial pilots that are paid to teach other people how to fly. This includes ground instruction as well as being an examiner in the sky. Flight instructors can work for flight schools or do freelance work. 

Military Pilots

These individuals work for the government to fly specialized aircraft to transport supplies and troops while executing combat missions. They are an essential part of the U.S. Armed Forces to support and protect international policies.  

Cargo Pilots

These professionals fly commercial airplanes to carry various packages across the world. Big shipping companies such as UPS and FedEx hire these individuals to support their worldwide delivery system.  

Airline Pilot

Airline pilots are individuals who board and fly passengers to different locations around the world. Those that work for big companies, such as Delta and Southwest, have the biggest earning potential. They work long hours, so it is important for them to be experienced to ensure a safe flight. 

Income potential

A pilot’s salary can vary greatly depending on their company, licensing, experience, and geographic location: 

  • The median annual salary is estimated to be $143,701 with a range from $107,020 to $179,235 
  • This salary can vary as much as $56,000 when you break it down by state, so make sure to check out your state’s statistics. For example, California offers the highest national salary at $129,358 – $131,358. Kansas and New Mexico offer the lowest salaries between $92,000 – $95,000.  

Keep in mind that salary differentiates based on what type of pilot you are. Private pilots typically fly for personal and family travel, so they usually aren’t making a lot of money unless they decide to be a personal pilot for the rich. Commercial pilots are the highest earners with an average salary of $160,970. Many commercial pilots become airline pilots, so you can make even more depending on the company you work for. Southwest Airlines and Delta Airlines are known to pay these professionals the highest salary for their work.  

While most have to work full-time, it is possible to work part-time as a pilot. This most likely means they will fly domestically or will fly one way and stay at that destination for a few days before they can fly back. Part-time employees typically will earn a lower salary for their reduced work hours. 

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the job market for pilots to increase by 13% from 2020 to 2030. This growth is expected as a result of workers leaving the field to retire and the increased demand for air travel after the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Career path

Once you have earned your license, you can then pursue a career in the military, law enforcement, government, fire-fighting, emergency medical services, or become an employee in the airline industry. Those who are interested in working in these fields will also need to earn their commercial pilot license to legally fly while carrying passengers and other equipment. 

Below is a list of positions that are rewarding career paths:

  • Cargo Pilot
  • Fighter Pilot
  • Flight Instructor 
  • EMS Helicopter Pilot
  • Crop Dusting Pilot
  • Aerial Firefighter Pilot
  • Air Taxi Pilot
  • Ferry Pilot
  • Test Pilot
  • Law Enforcement Pilot
  • Airline Pilot
  • Private Pilot
  • Personal Pilot
  • Air Tour Pilot
  • Airshow Stunt Pilot
  • Contract Pilot

Steps to becoming a pilot

1. Pursue an FAA-approved bachelor’s degree 

Many airline companies require a bachelor’s degree in aviation or a relevant field. If you’re confident about becoming one, you may want to attend an FAA-authorized school where you can earn an aviation degree while receiving training at the same time. There are over 100 schools/programs to choose from. This allows you to reach your end goal more quickly by attending an institution that can get you a head start on your flight hour requirements. 

Even if your state doesn’t have a school nearby, it may be worth visiting other pilot schools in different locations to understand the benefits of attending an FAA-accredited institution. 

Options of FAA-accredited colleges:

2. Acquire a Private Pilot license 

Every individual needs to acquire a Private Pilot license from the Federal Aviation Administration to legally fly a plane. Students begin in a single-engine airplane, where they will learn basic navigation, aircraft maneuvers, flight planning, and emergency policies. After the coursework is done for the certificate, students will need to pass the FAA written exam with a 70% or higher.

3. Earn an instrument rating 

Once you earn your private pilot certificate, the next step is to add an instrument rating to your license. An instrument rating requires additional training with advanced instruments that guide a plane through various weather conditions and altitudes. This certification will also allow these professionals to become more familiar with air traffic control and the National Airspace System. Earning an instrument rating is essential for navigating through harsh weather conditions while keeping in contact with other planes and airports. Options for instrument rating courses include:

4. Obtain a Commercial Pilot license

Pilots must reach specific experience and testing requirements to demonstrate they can fly to a higher standard as a commercial pilot. These individuals will need 250 hours of flight time along with passing the Commercial Pilot Knowledge Test. This certification is essential to be legally compensated for flying passengers or cargo in the air. 

According to federal regulations, these professionals will need to log in the following flight experience conditions to get their license: 

  • Total Flight Time: 250 hours
  • Pilot-In-Command (PIC): 100 hours
  • Cross-Country PIC: 50 hours
  • Technically Advanced Airplane (TAA): 10 hours
  • Instrument Training: 10 hours

Commercial pilots may need to take certain health tests to ensure their vision, hearing, mental, cardiovascular, and neurological processes are working efficiently. 

5. Acquire a flight instructor certificate 

Many decide to become flight instructors to gain experience and earn the flight hours needed to become airline pilots.

A commercial pilot can log in flight hours and earn extra money while working as a flight instructor. Since most airlines require a significant amount of flight hours, becoming a flight instructor is the best way to accumulate the flight hours and experience needed to be a strong candidate. 

There are different flight instructor certificates you can earn based on what you’re interested in teaching. Here are the different types of certificates: 

There are many flight schools offering these certificates, including CFI Academy, Thrust Flight, Regal Air, and more.

6. Work on getting a multi-engine rating

Another requirement to becoming an airline pilot is to earn your multi-engine rating. To fly large passenger airplanes, these professionals need to add multi-engine privileges to their commercial pilot license. Earning a multi-engine rating prepares you to fly bigger and faster aircraft while offering the security of having a second engine in case of an engine failure. Gaining experience in these more complex aircraft opens doors to becoming more knowledgeable about other advanced gear such as retractable landing instruments, flaps, and a controllable pitch propeller. 

Companies are looking for individuals with multi-engine ratings, so be sure to earn your certificate before applying to different airline positions. 

Popular schools offering multi-engine ratings include:

7. Gain experience and earn flight requirements 

Many choose to become flight instructors to get the quality and needed flight experience to meet the requirements of the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Commercial pilots must earn this certificate if they are planning to become a professional pilot for an airline. They will need to accumulate 1,500 hours of flight time to be eligible for the certificate. Pilots will become strong candidates for any professional pilot position if they decide to earn the ATP certificate. Once you have between 500 and 1,500 hours of flight time, it would be wise to start interviewing with different companies you would like to work for. 

A list of different ways to earn flight hour requirements:

  • Tow Banners
  • Fly Skydivers
  • Fly Scenic Tours
  • Fly Aerial Photographers
  • Work as a Military Pilot
  • Attend Training Classes
  • Work as a Private Pilot

8. Stay up-to-date with continuing education requirements

Most professionals will need to complete a flight review every 6 to 12 months to keep their current license. This will include a proficiency check in an actual airplane or simulator to ensure they are staying up-to-date with basic flight procedures and safety policies. They may also receive additional training on airplane operations depending on the company they work for.    

Tips for becoming a pilot

If you are interested in becoming a pilot, there are specific actions you should take to become successful. Here are some helpful tips: 

  • Research the requirements and career path you need to take. Talk with other professionals in the field and visit different training programs to make sure this is the right job for you. 
  • Training can be a big financial investment. It is important to prepare and save for training and certification expenses before you start classes. 
  • There are different medical conditions that may disqualify someone. There are three medical certificates to be aware of before you begin your journey:
    • 3rd Class – This certificate is needed for student, recreational, and private pilots
    • 2nd Class- This certificate is required for commercial pilots
    • 1st Class- This certificate is required for airline pilots who are ATP-rated. 
  • Be prepared to spend time training and studying. Many people will have a full-time or part-time job in the program, but it is important to be aware of the time commitment you make when you begin flight school. 
  • Make sure you have good study habits. You will need to take in-flight examinations as well as written tests. 
  • Learn as much as you can about different aircraft equipment and procedures before you fly, so you can be prepared for your first experience in the air. 
  • Plan ahead for any potential hazards, so you can be prepared for any emergency situation you may encounter. 

Pilot FAQs