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What It Takes To Become An Airline Pilot
I recently spent $80,000 on flight school to become a pilot. Here is what the intensive training program looked like.
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“I don’t see myself as anything other than a pilot,” said one 32-year-old commercial pilot (not pictured). Shutterstock.com
This essay from said is based on a transcribed conversation with a 32-year-old commercial pilot from Wayne, NJ, about pilot training during the pandemic. They asked to remain anonymous, but Insider verified their identities and employment. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I am a 32 year old commercial pilot and recently got a job as a first officer for a regional airline in the US. Despite the pilot shortage in the U.S., airlines don’t skimp when it comes to safety—and my time in training is proof of that.
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I started my career in the Marine Corps working with the F-18. That’s what really lit the fuse for me. I wasn’t a pilot at the time, but I was helping support an F-18 squadron. Thanks to the Marine Corps Bill and some financial help from my parents, I was able to afford flight school.
They take you to the plane and show you how it works and to see if you feel comfortable in the air and at the controls. If you decide you want to go ahead, you pay out of pocket — per flight or for the entire program.
You can go as often as you want – once a week, four times a week. It depends on how available you are and how quickly you want to complete the program.
As an aspiring commercial pilot, there are several steps you need to go through before you can take to the skies professionally
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You start as a student pilot, and after flying for at least 35 hours, you can take the Private Pilot License (PPL) test. Once you get your private pilot’s license, you’ll be able to fly small aircraft under 12,500 pounds without any additional endorsements.
(Editor’s note: 35 hours is the minimum if you are going through the FAA Part 141 program, 40 if you are going through the Part 61 program.)
It’s like getting your driver’s license — you can drive a small car, but you can’t drive a semi truck.
After that, you need an Instrument Rating (IR), which means you can read the gauges on the plane and fly in the clouds. This rating teaches students how to fly an aircraft based solely on the instruments inside the aircraft while communicating with air traffic control (ATC).
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You can get a CPL to fly single-engine or multi-engine aircraft for pay or hire, but you will need an authorization to fly a jet aircraft from one of the major airlines.
It took me about a year from my first flight to the moment I became a flight instructor
Working as a flight instructor is usually how most aspiring pilots get the hours they need after earning their CPL. It took another two years before I had enough hours to be hired by an airline. (
Editor’s Note: Major airlines will not hire pilots who do not have enough hours to qualify for an Airline Pilot License (ATP), which can take anywhere from 750 to 1,500 hours.
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I was in the middle of my flight instructor training when COVID-19 hit, which took me longer than usual to complete the required flight hours.
It can be less or more, depending on how quickly you go through the program and the type of program you choose. I went to flight school full time and didn’t have a job during that time.
For context, a commercial airline pilot might have a starting salary of around $40,000, but it could be as high as $200,000 by the time you retire.
I currently work for one of the regional airlines in the US, which means we have an agreement for certain routes with the major partner airlines you’ve heard of
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My flight school, Paragon Flight Training, has ties to regional airlines. Before the pandemic, these airlines were hiring new graduates from the program. This was stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now aspiring flight school pilots can find pilot jobs online and at air shows across the US.
After doing my hours, I heard back from my current company within a month or two. While receiving your hours and grades are the bare minimum to consider for a job with a commercial airline, moral character is also looked at in hiring.
They are looking for someone they can sit in the cockpit or cockpit with, someone they can fly with
Some of the questions they ask are technical questions related to aviation, such as flight rules, aeronautical charts and flight scenarios. A technical question might be, “You are at 15,000 feet and need to be at 8,000 feet in 30 miles going 200 knots: When should you start descending?” Some are HR questions, such as, “If you and your captain disagreed, how would you resolve the disagreement?”
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They also look at your driving record. They want to make sure you’re not a reckless driver, that you don’t have a DUI. They do background checks, look at previous employers and your credit. It’s all to make sure that nothing will jeopardize the flight — that you will never be insecure about it.
I’m just getting started, so it’s mostly paperwork right now. This is followed by simulator training to make sure you know the aircraft correctly — this is standard procedure for all airlines.
After completing the training in the classroom and on the simulator, we will take the air traffic pilot exam. This is necessary to transport passengers and the last step before we ascend to the sky.
I will be flying as the first officer and my job is to assist the captain and make sure the plane flies safely. Once we start flying, we have to go back once a year to make sure there are no new updates we need to know about — that we still know how to fly this type of airplane properly. You get retraining to make sure you do everything safely.
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The training is very specific — you have to go through every item and you can’t rush it. Pilots working on their licenses can work on flight maneuvers, cross-country flight planning, learn to read the weather forecast, and learn aircraft systems.
They need pilots now more than ever. Everyone wants to fly again, so they’re looking for all the pilots they can get.
As a pilot instructor I taught students as young as 13, but my colleagues are 50 and older
And not all of them are flight instructors either — there are pilots from other airlines who have accepted a new job, but also new pilots who have recently changed careers. Doctors, financial advisors — some people just don’t want to work at a desk. Another classmate worked for the corporate side of a major airline and wanted to make a change. I can’t see myself in such a career much longer. There is a wide range of people who get into this.
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As for me, as soon as I worked with the F-18 I knew that was what I wanted to do. I have no regrets at all. I don’t see myself as anything other than a pilot. Becoming a pilot can take a while to fly. But if you are determined to learn to fly, the runway is clear. There are very defined steps to obtain a pilot’s license. So how long does it take to become a pilot?
How long it takes to learn to fly depends on what kind of pilot’s license you want (there are several) and the quality of your flight school. Having access to flight hours and certified training is a key part of passing the exams and requirements.
Each takes a different amount of time and requires different requirements to be met. So, we’re going to break it down by type.
It is important for a pilot to get off to a good start. Taking shortcuts or attending a worse flight school can lead to bad habits and put you and your passengers at risk. Even if you just want to become a private pilot right now, getting a comprehensive education will prepare you best. Ideally, becoming a pilot should only take 3 to 4 years, the time it takes to earn a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aviation. Getting an education is also good for consistency of training, so it is
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