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The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Pilot

Have you ever looked up at the sky, dreaming you could be a pilot on of one of those 200-ton machines whizzing by at 500 miles an hour? Or, simply wishing to feel the rush of adrenaline as your tires lift off the bounds of the earth and you feel yourself climb up into the sky? If so, you and I have something in common.

As an Airline Pilot for one of the world’s largest airlines, I can’t express just how thankful I am that I chose to pursue this field over a decade ago. The journey has taken me to places I literally could never have imagined, and it’s been one heck of a ride.

Why you should become a Pilot

I’ll start out by saying that being a pilot is by far the BEST job in the world.

  • Schedule flexibility is unparalleled. I can bid to work 4 days on & 3 days off, or a 14-day stretch of work with the rest of the month off (which is how I have so much time to explore the world!)
  • An above average salary. The initial cost of flight training is very expensive and typically requires loans, but I consider this a like any other return on investment. And for pilots, it’s definitely a pretty good ROI.
  • Getting paid to travel the world. Granted, you’ll likely be flying to mostly domestic locations the first 5 years or so. That’s ok, there’s plenty to see on layovers in big cities!
  • Travel benefits; when you’re done getting paid to travel, you can access standby benefits on not just your airline, but others as well! These are usually reduced fare (or even free) but only available when there are leftover seats on flights.

Becoming a pilot may seem daunting, but there are so many possibilities when it comes to flying. Chances are that you’ll find something perfect for you.

Types of pilots

There are many kinds of pilots out there.
I can’t say I never contemplated leaving everything for a job flying floatplanes around the Maldives…

First off, there are many different kinds of pilots. When it comes to flying, even the sky is not the limit. There are so many avenues you can follow within aviation;

  • Private Pilot – flying as a hobby (cannot be paid more than equal share of expenses):
    • Fly your friends and family
    • Serve your community as a volunteer pilot
    • The occasional $100 hamburger on the weekend
  • Commercial Pilot (non-airline):
    • Bush Pilot
    • Aerial Survey
    • Banner Towing
    • Corporate Pilot
    • Helicopter Flying (after obtaining rotorcraft rating)
  • Certified Flight Instructor:
    • Single Engine
    • Instrument
    • Multi-Engine
    • Designated Pilot Examiner
  • Airline Transport Pilot:
    • Regional Airlines (CommutAir, Republic, SkyWest, etc.)
    • Mainline Airlines (Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, etc.)
    • Legacy Airlines (American, Delta, United)
    • Cargo (FedEx, UPS, Atlas, Kalitta, ATI, etc.)
    • Charter (Kalitta, Atlas, National, etc.)
    • Corporate (FlexJet, NetJets, Delta Private Jets)
  • Military Pilot:
    • Fighter Jets
    • Bombers
    • Humanitarian
    • Aerial Refueling
    • Helicopters
    • Coast Guard
    • Air Force, Navy, Army

The possibilities are endless.

Are you medically fit to fly? You won’t know until you try!

The first step is to pass a medical exam with an Aviation Medical Expert. They are located all over the country. As a student and private pilot, all you will need is a 3rd class medical, but I highly recommend you obtain a 1st class medical if you intend to proceed any further with training. The 1st class medical is not a requirement to start training, but it can save you later headache in case you find out you don’t qualify (or need a special issuance or Statement of Demonstrated Ability).

You don’t need perfect vision to be a pilot, it just has to be correctable to 20/20 vision. If you have any medical questions, it’s best to direct them towards an AME. You would be surprised what medical conditions you can have and still obtain a medical certificate. There are pilots flying without limbs, after open-heart surgery, etc.

Now that the fun is over, it’s time to fly!

Flight training at the Florida Institute of Technology - a great place to learn!
Here I was over 10 years ago on an introductory flight out of Melbourne, Florida! The smile says it all.

The second step is an introductory flight! Almost all flight schools offer these, usually at a heavily discounted rate. If you are a high school student, look into aviation programs offered by your school. At any age, the Civil Air Patrol is a great way to get into aviation for free while serving your community.

Young Eagles, the 99’s, Women in Aviation International, Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and the Professional Pilots of Tomorrow are all examples of volunteer organizations that have been created to help aspiring students reach their dreams and goals.

A huge help: Flight Simulator

As much as it would be easy to write off video games as a way to become a pilot, there’s a lot of opportunity and potential contained in desktop-based Flight Simulators. In fact, Flight Simulator X, which came out in 2006, was my main source of inspiration for becoming a pilot in my teenage years.

Microsoft released a new iteration of its Flight Simulator recently, and it can serve not only as a fantastic training tool but also motivation to learn. You can take part in “missions” that go from landing an F/A-18 on an aircraft carrier to flying a Janet 737 at Area 51, or you can take “lessons” curated by world-famous top-notch instructors.

In the end, the thousands of hours I spent on Flight Simulator boosted my flight training and aviation career tremendously – to the point that I’d have no idea where I would be now without it. It once even got me a job at the Harris Corporation working on the FAA’s NextGen project!

The tough part: finding your flight training route

The third step is finding a flight school that suits you. Whether it is your local mom-and-pop flight school or one of the world’s largest pilot factories, it is ultimately up to you to find success. It takes a LOT of time, money, and dedication to reach success. If you cannot commit fully to studying, learning, and flying on a regular basis, then do not waste your time or your instructor’s time (unless you’re just flying for fun or really rich).

If you’re looking to go the military route, you can get in touch with an array of recruiters from the Air Force, Navy, or Army that will help direct you. It’s a good idea, if possible, to get in touch with a local squadron that has the sort of flying job you’re interested in. They can best guide, recommend, and even prepare you to enlist with them. If you’re in high school, the AFROTC program is great for this.

The typical civilian/non-military path to becoming an Airline Pilot

Becoming a pilot involved working at regional airlines for some time!
My first airline job was flying Bombardier CRJ200s (50-seat regional jet) for Air Wisconsin Airlines!

You’ll find that the typical airline path is:

Student Pilot to Private Pilot (Single Engine Land)

  • Flying as a hobby
  • Minimum 36-40 hours / $6,000
  • Average 55-60 hours / $12,000
  • Minimum 1 month / typical 3 months

 Instrument Rating

  • Lets you fly into the clouds and low visibility
  • Minimum/average 20 hours in the simulator and 20 hours flying
  • $5,000 to $12,000
  • Minimum 1 month / typical 3 months

 Commercial (Single and Multi-Engine Land)

  • Allows you to get paid to fly
  • Minimum/average 200-250 hours (total time)
  • $30,000-$65,000
  • Minimum 2 months / typical 6-12 months

 Certified Flight Instructor

  • Not a requirement, just a good way to get flight time
  • Minimum is a Commercial Pilot License
  • $2,000-$10,000
  • Minimum 1 week / typical 2-6 months

Commercial job until 1500 hours total

  • Paid $15-50 per flight hour
  • Varies from 20-150 hours of flying per month
  • Minimum 10 months / typical 24 months

Airline Transport Pilot License (restricted)

  • Paid for by the airline
  • Minimums are 1500/1250/1000 hours depending on your part 141 flight school and university degree

The ‘typical’ times above assume you are regularly flying, and minimum times assume flying on a daily (or greater) basis. As you can see, it’s quite a long road, but it has been done by tens of thousands of successful pilots – you can do it too.

Expenses are high, but loans, scholarships, tax benefits, and grants are available. Going into debt may be a scary proposition, but I see it like starting a small business. There is risk involved, but the return on investment is being paid to command an airplane through the air at hundreds of miles per hour.

Who else gets to have so much fun and get paid for it?

Scholarships

The AOPA website is a great resource for flight training scholarships - Become a Pilot
The AOPA website is a great resource for flight training scholarships – Become a Pilot

There are a plethora of aviation scholarships available, and I expect this list to grow. I’m actually a scholarship application reviewer for the Professional Pilots of Tomorrow. They offer a $1500+ scholarship at least once a year. Other professional organizations that are a great help and offer scholarships include, but are not limited to:

  • The Organization for Black Aerospace Professionals
  • Women in Aviation, International
  • Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
  • The Ninety-Nines
  • Boeing
  • Experimental Aircraft Association
  • Civil Air Patrol

You can additionally look to outside sources, such as Walmart, for possible other scholarship opportunities. Aviation does fall in the STEM curriculum, which brings in even more opportunities for funding.

Loans

There are a ton of private loans accessible to nearly everybody. For example, AOPA offers a pretty good private loan, but there are a ton of banks available. You may also be eligible for Federal Student Aid under the FAFSA program if you are flying as part of your university courses.

Here are some types of federal student loans you could receive for flight school, according to the FAFSA website:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans are loans made to eligible undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need to help cover the costs of higher education at a college or career school.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans are loans made to eligible undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, but eligibility is not based on financial need.
  • PLUS Loans are loans made to graduate or professional students and parents of dependent undergraduate students to help pay for education expenses not covered by other financial aid. Eligibility is not based on financial need, but a credit check is required. Borrowers who have an adverse credit history must meet additional requirements to qualify.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans allow you to combine all of your eligible federal student loans into a single loan with a single loan servicer.

Grants

grant is a form of financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid (unless, for example, you withdraw from school and owe a refund, or you receive a TEACH Grant and don’t complete your service obligation). A variety of federal grants are available, including: Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants, and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.

Most of these apply more to part 141 flight schools that are tied into university programs, but many of them can be used for standalone flight training.

Typical military path

Becoming a military pilot is one of the many paths you can take.
A Spanish Air Force F-18 pilot on the tarmac at Albacete Air Force Base, Spain on November 02, 2015 during NATO exercise Trident Juncture 15. Photo: Cynthia Vernat, HQ AIRCOM PAO.

I recommend, if airlines are the end goal and you want to take the military route, going with some sort of reserve unit over going active-duty. This means military units in the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Army National Guard, or other Reserve branches. If enlisted in one of these reserve units, your footprint to the airlines becomes much shorter than by going the active duty route (but still significantly longer than the civilian route). Note that to become an Officer and qualify for any reserve unit, you’ll need a college degree (bachelor’s).

If instead, you desire to go active duty, there are a couple considerations. First, most active duty military pilots are selected out of an extremely competitive group of military service academy graduates, such as those enrolled in the Naval Academy in Annapolis or a university ROTC program. (The problem with the ROTC program is that your chances of getting a coveted pilot slot are much slimmer.) If you want to fly a fighter jet, even after making it through all these hoops, you once again have to face qualifying for a few slots once in UFT. After that, you owe 10 years of your life before you can even think of applying to an airline.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree and you desire to go the Reserve route, you’ll have to chose a branch/unit/base/airplane that suits you and successfully enlist for a competitive pilot slot there. If selected, you can expect about 18-24 months of training before you will be sent on missions. Luckily, this saves you the tens of thousands (close to $100k) you might spend on flight school. After about 3-4 years total, you should have enough total time (750 hours) to qualify for a restricted-Airline Transport Pilot License, which means you can start working for a regional airline.

Typical airline career

Becoming a pilot: Atlas Air is a good stepping stone airline.
One of the stepping stones I took to get to my dream airline was flying Boeing 747s for Atlas Air. Best airplane I’ve ever flown.

There are a few misconceptions about an airline pilot’s career. These include:

  1. Pilots are gone a lot
    • Depends on the airline, usually untrue. Check out my instagram if you want to verify that we CAN have a lot of time off if desired.
  2. Pilots make a lot of money
    • Depends on the airline – usually not for the first 5-10 years.
  3. The co-pilot doesn’t do anything
    • The First Officer and Captain usually switch between Pilot Flying (flying the airplane and commanding the autopilot) and Pilot Monitoring (radios, aircraft systems, fuel management/navigation) every flight.
  4. Upgrade to Captain is based on merit
    • Not true, purely based on that company’s seniority. Everyone starts at the bottom, regardless of experience.

You can expect, once you have your commercial license and 750/1000/1250/1500 hours total (depending on your category of restricted-ATP), to spend about 3-8 years at a regional airline before becoming competitive for a legacy carrier (American, Delta, United). There are exceptions to the rule, such as getting hired after a year and a half at a regional, or still being at a regional after 15 years. You can accelerate your path to a legacy by exceling in what you do and expanding your resume.

Some regionals have quick upgrade times, so you could become a Captain as soon as you reach 1000 hours of Part 121 (airline) Turbine Time, but it may take several years at other. Being a Captain means you can wrack up turbine Pilot-in-Command time (TPIC), which is valuable for all airlines, especially Cargo (FedEx and UPS, the best paying airlines). This should be a consideration when looking at regionals.

You can alternatively leave for a major airline or a charter/cargo airline much sooner than you can get hired at a legacy carrier. Legacy carriers look at the overall picture of your application, so this doesn’t necessarily make you more competitive. Despite thinking it would slow down my progression, I left Air Wisconsin in 2017 to join Atlas Air and fly the B747. To my earnest surprise, I only spent about 6 months there before I got an invitation to interview from Delta Air Lines.

Airline Pay

Airline pilots are not salaried, so pay varies extremely. Usually, the pay system works like this:

  • Pay guarantee of 75 hours per month
  • You can fly more or less than the guarantee if desired, within limits
  • A pay scale with pay rates that increase for each year of longevity
  • Higher pay rates for larger aircraft and for captains

At regional airlines, you can expect to make between $30,000 (+signing bonuses, up to $100k) as an absolute minimum first year, and $200k as a 10-year regional pilot who works a bit extra on days off. You likely won’t make six figures until you upgrade to Captain, assuming you work more than the minimum guarantee.

At mainline carriers, you can expect between $40,000 first year and $300k as a very experienced captain. That’ll take at least 10-15 years there and assumes a lot of overtime.

At legacy carriers, you will start around $90,000 first year, expect to make $150k by your third year, $250k by your tenth year, and can make upwards of $500k as a hard-working senior captain.

These pay scales unfortunately vary with the economy. During this pandemic, I doubt there will be many pilots (outside of cargo airlines which are flourishing) making anywhere near those upper limits.

Even though the money can be great, I don’t recommend pursuing this job for the sake of the money. If you do that, you’ll be a very grumpy airline pilot. This job is taxing, requires a lot of time away from home, and without passion – it comes just another job.

Quality of life

Becoming a pilot can mean working terrible schedules
A typical regional airline schedule versus a mainline carrier schedule

This is very important, even more so than pay. Quality of life in this job is all over the spectrum, but here’s what you can expect.

Regional Airlines

This is typically the first airline job pilots will have. You will fly 50 to 76 seat jets (or turboprops) within the continental US and to Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean.

  • 14-17 days of work
  • 1-4 day trips
  • Many early wakeups (before 4am) and late finishes (after 1am)
  • Reserve/”on-call” schedule as a junior pilot
  • Duty days (time on the job) up to 16 hours
  • Weekends off after 6-12 months to a year as an FO, weekends off after 2-4 years as a Captain

Cargo/Charter Airlines (Atlas, Kalitta, ABX, ATI, National, Western Global)

Some pilots choose these airlines as their destination carriers because of the unique, fun style of flying they do. Other prefer flying cargo over passengers.

  • 17-20 days of work
  • 3-20 day trips
  • Many, many time zones and wakeups at literally any time of the day
  • Duty days (on the job) for 30 hours nonstop (with rest breaks)
  • Weekends off: depends on the length of your trips

Mainline and Legacy Airlines

The typical dream airline is one of these, offering high quality of life and decent pay. These include carriers such as United or Delta.

  • 12-16 days of work
  • 1-5 day trips
  • Highly variable wake-up times depending on domestic or international
  • Duty days are typically shorter than the other types of airlines
  • Weekends off after 2 months to many years, depending which airplane you choose

Cargo (FedEx and UPS)

Flying cargo might not seem glamorous, but these jobs offer the best pay in the industry – and pretty good quality of life too.

  • 10-16 days of work
  • 1-16 day trips
  • Might start your day at 10/11PM and work through the night, or fly nice day routes, depending on the airplane and your seniority
  • Duty days are similar or shorter to those of legacy airlines
  • Weekends off very quickly if you choose a smaller airplane, or after years on a larger one

Non-airline jobs

There are also fantastic non-airline flying jobs available. There are a ton of government flying jobs which offer health care, pensions, great quality of line, and more predictable career progression than the airlines. Most of these can be found at usajobs.gov.

There are very successful pilots that pursue careers in flight instruction, often becoming a Designated Pilot Examiner or managing a flight school. This can be extremely lucrative, and offer much better quality-of-life than any airline ever could. Most of these jobs allow you to be home every night, while still having the satisfaction of flying for a living.

Become a pilot: It’s the best decision you’ll ever make

Becoming an airline pilot was the best decision I've ever made.
Becoming an airline pilot was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Despite the obstacles, the headaches, the early wakeups, the cold weather walkarounds, the weekends gone, there is simply no better job than being a pilot. Even after 10 years of flying, I never get tired of lifting off the bounds of the earth and feeling the freedom of being airborne.

The benefit of being able to look at the departures board, pick a random flight, and just go is unparalleled. And the pay to work ratio is great too. I typically choose to work less and make less – it’s amazing that I have that choice in the first place.

This career offers so much flexibility, your potential is truly unlimited. Whatever you choose to do, I wish you clear skies and strong tailwinds. Thanks for reading.

Keep Exploring the World

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