Pilot Career Guide

What is a pilot?

A pilot is a trained and certified professional who operates aircraft, such as airplanes and helicopters. Pilots play a vital role in many industries, including commercial aviation, military services, cargo transportation, emergency services, and private aviation. The significance of their position cannot be overstated; they ensure the safe and efficient transportation of people and goods across vast distances. This pivotal function directly impacts global trade, tourism, and international relations.

Pilots navigate aircraft by interpreting complex instruments and systems, responding to changing weather conditions, and making critical decisions under pressure to ensure the safety of the passengers and crew. This high level of responsibility is coupled with an extensive understanding of aerodynamics, meteorology, and aviation regulations. In addition to technical skills, the role of a pilot requires sound judgment, quick decision-making ability, and excellent hand-eye coordination.

Duties and responsibilities

A pilot’s primary responsibility is to operate an aircraft safely and efficiently. They direct pre-flight checks, inspecting the aircraft to confirm all systems are working correctly. They will check weather conditions and determine fuel needs before every flight. Pilots also communicate with air traffic control while in the air to receive important information and instructions. During the flight, they constantly monitor the aircraft’s systems and respond to any changes or anomalies

Pilots are also responsible for navigating the aircraft to its destination, which involves using a range of sophisticated navigation tools. Post-flight duties include completing reports and documentation related to the flight. When not flying, pilots spend time making their flight plans, arranging for aircraft maintenance, and keeping up-to-date with their training.

Work environment

A pilot primarily operates within the cockpit of their assigned aircraft, be it a commercial airliner, helicopter, or small private airplane. The cockpit is a confined and complex environment with numerous controls and instruments.

The profession isn’t limited to the cockpit alone. Pilots often spend time in airlines’ operation centers and control towers, interacting with flight dispatchers and air traffic control personnel. In addition, pilots frequently travel and may spend a significant amount of time away from home, staying in different cities or countries depending on their flight schedules.

Typical work hours

The working hours for pilots can be irregular and unpredictable, as flight routes and times primarily determine work schedules. A pilot can be scheduled to work early mornings, late nights, weekends, and holidays. Flight duration varies widely – from short regional transport to long-haul flights crossing multiple time zones.

Given the nature of the job, pilots often spend considerable time outside their home base. Downtime between flights is typically spent in hotels or onboard aircraft. It’s also worth noting that strict flight time limitations regulate pilots to prevent fatigue and maintain safety. This means there’s a maximum limit of hours that a pilot can fly within a specified period.

How to become a pilot

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a pilot. This path involves a series of steps, including education, training, certification, and experience accumulation.

Step 1: Meet basic eligibility requirements

To be eligible for a pilot’s license, you must be at least 17 years old and be fluent in English, the language used in all training material and examinations. Also, a minimum level of physical fitness is required, including good vision and no health conditions that would make flying hazardous.

Step 2: Earn a bachelor’s degree

It is not a strict requirement, but many airlines prefer a bachelor’s degree for their pilots. This education can be in any field, but those related to aviation, such as aviation science or aeronautical engineering, will provide a particularly useful base of knowledge.

Step 3: Obtain a Private Pilot License (PPL)

Before working toward being a commercial pilot, a PPL must be earned. It involves ground school courses and a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, of which at least 20 must be with an instructor, and ten must be solo flights.

Step 4: Gain maneuver and navigation experience

After obtaining a PPL, you should gain experience with cross-country flights (more than 50 miles from the departure airport) and night flying. This experience prepares you for more advanced training and licenses.

Step 5: Obtain an Instrument Rating (IR)

An IR is vital for all commercial pilots as it certifies you to fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), which is necessary for flying in all types of weather. Training for this rating involves at least 40 hours of flight time under IFR and further ground school instruction.

Step 6: Obtain a Commercial Pilot License (CPL)

A CPL is required for any pilot who seeks to be paid for their services. To qualify for this certification, you must be at least 18 years old, log at least 250 flight hours, acquire an Instrument Rating, and pass a medical and knowledge examination.

Step 7: Accumulate flight hours

In general, airlines look for pilots with a large amount of flight time. Most of these hours are logged by working as a flight instructor, although other options might include aerial photography flights, banner towing, or aerial tour jobs.

Step 8: Obtain an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL)

The highest level of pilot certification is the ATPL, which is necessary to command aircraft that carry passengers or cargo. This certification requires at least 1,500 hours of flight time and further examinations on regulations, navigation, and meteorology.

Step 9: Apply for a job with an airline

Once you’ve obtained all necessary certifications and logged a significant number of flight hours, you’ll be in an excellent position to apply for a job with an airline. Each airline has its own hiring practices and requirements, but many look for at least two years of college and a strong background of flight hours.

How much do pilots make?

Pilot salaries vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Factors such as the type of aircraft flown, the pilot’s rank, and whether the pilot works for commercial airlines, cargo carriers, or private charter companies can significantly impact earnings.

Highest paying industries

  • Scheduled Air Transportation – $160,970
  • Non-scheduled Chartered Freight Air Transportation – $131,930
  • Couriers and Express Delivery Services – $129,800
  • Support Activities for Air Transportation – $128,240
  • Nonscheduled Chartered Passenger Air Transportation – $125,670

Highest paying states

  • Hawaii – $139,260
  • Nevada – $136,320
  • Delaware – $135,270
  • Rhode Island – $133,240
  • Connecticut – $131,710

Browse pilot salary data by market

Types of pilots

Below, we explore common areas of specialization for pilots. This section offers insight into the roles and responsibilities involved, helping you gain a clear picture of your potential career path.

Commercial airline pilot

Often the first type of pilot role that comes to mind. One of the most popular career paths is working with commercial airlines. In this role, pilots often operate flights regionally and internationally, requiring the ability to handle large aircraft, navigate complex flight paths, and interact effectively with other airline staff, including co-pilots and flight attendants. Additionally, maintaining a calm disposition during emergencies or turbulent weather conditions is a vital aspect of this role.

Military pilot

These professionals fulfill critical roles in the defense force and are responsible for operating aircraft used for military missions. Their tasks could range from airlifting troops to engaging in aerial combat. They require intensive training and high levels of physical fitness.

Test pilot

Here is an adrenaline-inducing option for those with a passion for aviation and a penchant for risk-taking. Test pilots fly aircraft still in the testing phase. They not only ensure the planes are safe for future operation, but they also provide feedback for design efficiency and effectiveness.

Flight instructor

Flight instructors educate future pilots on aviation essentials through a mix of theory lessons and practical flying exercises. Good communication and teaching skills are vital in this role.

Private charter pilot

An often-overlooked option in the aviation industry, private pilots operate smaller aircraft carrying a limited number of passengers or cargo. These journeys are usually not part of regular commercial routes and can involve flying to remote or high-end destinations.

Cargo pilot

Flying cargo planes is another common career path for individuals with pilot training. Unlike other types of piloting, this profession often operates under different time constraints and may include nighttime or irregular hours, as shipping timetables dictate their schedules. As such, it demands the ability to adapt to diverse working hours alongside an in-depth understanding of loading practices and planning for fuel efficiency.

Agricultural pilot

A vital role in the agricultural sector involves operating aircraft to provide services such as crop spraying, aerial seeding, and livestock herding. An agricultural pilot needs a comprehensive understanding of their aircraft’s operation and knowledge of various agricultural processes.

Flight instructor

These professionals provide hands-on training to aspiring pilots. Their duties go beyond practical teaching, extending to theory instructions on flight procedures, navigation, meteorology, and aircraft technicalities. Patience, communication skills, and understanding individual learning styles are essential in this role.

Top skills for pilots

This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a pilot.

Spatial awareness

The ability to fully understand and navigate the three-dimensional environment is essential in this profession. Pilots must have a clear grasp of their aircraft’s position relative to other objects, which is particularly important during takeoffs, landings, and when flying in close proximity to other aircraft.

Mental acuity

Alertness and mental sharpness are vital for someone in this role. A pilot should be able to process information quickly, react to sudden changes promptly, and multitask effectively under stressful conditions.

Technical knowledge

It goes without saying that a comprehensive understanding of aeronautics, navigation, weather patterns, and aircraft systems is a basic requirement. This knowledge is fully achieved through certification courses, continuing education, and practical flying hours to gain real-life experience and situation handling.

Communication skills

Communicating clearly, in all conditions, is imperative. Whether it’s relaying information to air traffic controllers, communicating with the cabin crew, or updating passengers, the ability to convey messages accurately and efficiently can go a long way in ensuring both safety and smooth operations.

Calm and composed demeanor

To deal with unforeseen situations or emergencies during flight, it’s pivotal for pilots to remain calm and composed. This not only allows them to make rational, well-thought-out decisions but also helps assuage the crew and passengers’ concerns.


In this profession, strong leadership skills are a must. Pilots must take control, make critical decisions, and inspire confidence in their crew, which requires leading by example, fostering team harmony, and demonstrating firm decision-making abilities.

Physical health and stamina

Flying a plane isn’t only about soft skills and intelligence. Good physical health, including hand-eye coordination and excellent vision, is essential. Similarly, pilots often work long hours with irregular schedules, so being able to handle these conditions and maintain high performance under potential fatigue is important.

Pilot career path

Being a pilot opens doors to versatile career development opportunities. The path to reaching the pinnacle of this career, however, requires accumulated flight hours and increased mastery and education.

Job advancement opportunities

Initially, you could start as a student pilot, progressing to a private pilot, and then to a commercial pilot. The goal for many is to become an airline transport pilot, which is the highest-grade certification.

With a commercial pilot certification, you can venture into different areas, such as corporate or charter operations, firefighting, search and rescue, or camp logistics.

Leadership roles

Within commercial aviation, long-term growth could lead to a role as a check airman, responsible for evaluating and training other pilots. Or you might choose to continue into management, becoming a chief pilot or director of operations. These positions require significant professional experience, but offer the chance to influence the direction of an airline or flight department.

Education and academia

Finally, you can choose to pass on your expertise through teaching. All newly licensed pilots start out by gaining instructor ratings. However, some find a true passion in teaching and stick with it, going on to hold senior instructor roles, become the chief flight instructor, or work in an aviation academic setting to shape the future pilots of the world.

With the aviation industry’s continuous evolution, a pilot’s role has undergone significant changes. The most critical transition in this profession has been the shift from operating conventional aircraft to using high-tech, computerized systems. This transformation has created a demand for pilots who can manage complex systems and adapt to advanced flight technology.

As sustainability becomes a central concern across industries, greener flying methods are being developed. This process calls for changes in flight operations, pushing pilots to adapt to these conditions. The focus is decreasing carbon footprints, which may modify the technical skills pilots need. For instance, a new approach to flight planning that optimizes fuel efficiency might be required.

In recent years, the aviation industry has also seen a rise in the use of drones, which opens up new avenues for the profession. It brings an additional skill set, and those in the field should consider embracing the technology, as it could increase their competitiveness in the market.

Employment projections

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job growth rate for airline and commercial pilots is projected to be 6% through 2031. Job prospects are mainly positive, with low-cost regional airlines and non-scheduled aviation services expected to offer the best job opportunities.

Pilot career tips

Stay updated with flight regulations

As a pilot, staying current with the latest flight regulations is vital. These rules can often change due to technological advancements, shifting protocols, and updated international standards. Always staying current with these changes will ensure you can react to scenarios with the most recent knowledge.

Keep up physical and mental health

Physical and mental health are paramount in this field, as a pilot is responsible for the lives of numerous passengers. Regular exercise, healthy eating, and maintaining emotional well-being are all part of maintaining a standard of fitness that will allow you to perform at your best. Additionally, avoid drugs and alcohol as they can impair judgment and lead to long-term health issues.

Enroll in continuous flight training

Continuous flight training will allow you to enhance your skills and knowledge base even after attaining initial certification. Remaining open to learning and practicing new methods will also make you adaptable to changing technologies. As with most industries, aviation constantly evolves with new ideas and procedures.

  • Aerobatic training courses
  • Safety management systems programs
  • Jet transition courses
  • Advanced ground instructor courses

Build a professional network

Just like in any other profession, networking can create opportunities for advancement and professional growth. Attend aviation-related events, seminars, and webinars. Exchange experiences with other professionals in the field that can provide insightful perspectives, tips or advice. Finally, join professional associations. They often feature numerous resources like training programs, job opportunities, industry updates, and networking occasions.

  • Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)
  • Professional Pilot’s Association (PPA)
  • International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA)

Where the pilot jobs are

Top employers

  • Delta Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • FedEx Express

Top states

  • Texas
  • California
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Georgia

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Aviation JobNet
  • Airline Pilot Central


What skills are needed to become a pilot?

Being a pilot requires various skills, including excellent hand-eye coordination to control the aircraft properly and good spatial awareness to understand the aircraft’s position on the horizon or terrain. Problem-solving skills are necessary to make quick decisions when unexpected situations arise. Additionally, excellent communication skills are essential to accurately understand and convey information to ground control, passengers, and co-pilots.

What is the workload and schedule like for a pilot?

Workload and schedules can significantly vary. Some pilots may work 30 to 40 hours a week, while others may work 90 hours or more. The schedule can involve late-night flights, extended travel, and continuous shifts that change from week to week. The workload may be strenuous, particularly on long-haul flights or in challenging weather conditions. Nevertheless, schedules must comply with aviation laws that limit flying hours to ensure pilot rest and safety.

What kind of physical requirements are there to become a pilot?

Medical fitness is essential. Pilots must regularly undergo medical examinations to maintain their license. Color blindness, poor vision, and certain medical conditions can be barriers to obtaining a pilot’s license. A pilot should also have good stamina and physical endurance to cope with unusual hours and jet lag.

What stress and challenges are associated with being a pilot?

The profession can be demanding physically and emotionally. Handling massive aircraft, carrying hundreds of passengers, and flying under varying weather conditions can generate stress. Unpredictable schedules can affect personal lives. Handling emergencies and making critical decisions swiftly can also contribute to job stress. Therefore, good stress management skills are necessary.

What type of training is required to become a pilot?

Prospective pilots must learn to operate an airplane or helicopter, which involves both classroom instruction and practical experience. Most people learn to fly by attending a flight school approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). After completing your training, you must pass written and practical exams to receive your license.

What differences exist in requirements between flying for commercial airlines versus privately owned jets?

Both require a high level of training, skills, and commitment. Commercial airline pilots usually have advanced training and more flight hours due to the increased responsibility of carrying hundreds of passengers. This typically includes a first-class medical certificate, Air Transport Pilot rating, and type ratings for specific aircraft. On the other hand, pilots of privately-owned jets are often expected to perform multiple roles outside of just operating the aircraft, like interfacing with clients or additional ground responsibilities.

How does career progression generally work for pilots?

Career progression varies but typically begins with becoming a private pilot, then moving to become a certified flight instructor to accumulate flight hours. These hours are critical for employment opportunities as a commercial pilot. They can begin working for small charter companies or regional airlines before stepping up to major airlines. Over time, depending on experience, performance, and openings, a pilot may progress from first officer to a captain position.

What job hazards are pilots exposed to?

Pilots can face several hazards. Extended hours may lead to fatigue, potentially affecting performance. Irregular schedules can disrupt sleep and lead to exhaustion. Prolonged sitting can lead to physical discomfort or more significant health issues. They are also exposed to low-level radiation during flights, which over years, could have health implications. Stress is a significant factor due to the high responsibility associated with the safety of passengers and crew.