How to become a professional pilot
Many people are interested in learning how to pilot an airplane, but only a select few turn this passion into a career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were approximately 113,900 airline and commercial piloting jobs in the U.S. in 2020. However, this number is expected to grow 13% from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average for all occupations.
This guide will walk you through how to become an airline pilot—one of the most advanced jobs for professional pilots.
1. Earn an aviation degree
Earning a four-year degree in an aviation-related field is a common first step toward becoming a professional pilot. Although some piloting jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree, it’s a standard requirement for most major airlines.
“At times when demand is very high for pilots, employers might not require a four-year degree. But when supply overwhelms demand, having that degree can give you a big step up when applying to airlines,” says Jennifer Torres, assistant professor at Lynn University’s College of Aeronautics.
Four-year aviation degrees, such as Lynn University’s professional pilot bachelor’s degree, give you a foundational understanding of flight theory, safety and aviation regulations. They can also prepare you for careers in airline management.
“You have to remember that there are many different careers in aviation,” says Frank Ferrante—also an assistant professor at the College of Aeronautics. “With a bachelor’s degree in aviation, you have the option to expand your career beyond piloting.”
2. Complete flight training
Aspiring pilots need to complete flight training at a flight school certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or with an FAA-certified private instructor. Flight training is made up of ground school classes that provide practical knowledge and flight lessons in an airplane or simulator.
Participating in flight training does not have any prerequisites, but before you can start flying solo, you need to obtain a student pilot certificate through the FAA. You will also need a medical certificate. These are administered by FAA-authorized medical examiners and must be renewed regularly.
Some colleges offer flight training as part of their in-person, four-year aviation degrees. “When you’re affiliated with a university or flight school, they guide you through the process of earning different levels of pilot licenses,” says Ferrante. “Your advisors and instructors make sure you know each step you need to take.”
As you progress through flight school, your training will be tailored toward reaching a certain license or rating. You will also be provided with resources to help you prepare for FAA exams.
3. Earn a private pilot license
A private pilot license, also known as a certificate, allows you to legally fly a single-engine aircraft. With this type of license, you can take family and friends for rides in a private plane, but you cannot be employed as a professional pilot. However, all aspiring pilots need to earn their private pilot license before moving on to more advanced certifications.
“All of us start with what we call a private pilot license,” says Torres. “It's the first step in learning how to fly from point A to point B. Typically, you start in a small, single-engine airplane and rely heavily on visual cues outside the aircraft.”
To earn your private pilot license, you need to have 40 hours of logged flight experience and an endorsement from your flight instructor. You also need to pass a written knowledge test and practical flight test administered by the FAA. On the FAA website, you can find sample test questions for their written exams.
4. Add your instrument rating
An instrument rating demonstrates your ability to fly during periods of low visibility by relying on the instrumentation inside the airplane. “Once you add your instrument rating, you can fly without looking outside,” says Torres. “You learn how to rely on the equipment inside the airplane to tell how your airplane is turning or climbing. This is essential for piloting in lower visibility and ceiling weather conditions.”
To add an instrument rating to your pilot license, FAA Part 61 flight schools require 50 hours of cross-country flight time (10 of which must be inside an airplane) and 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time (15 of which must be under the supervision of an instructor who has an instrument-airplane rating).
Part 141 flight schools don't have a requirement for cross-country flight time, and the minimum instrument hours requirement is 35.
Earning your instrument rating requires passing a written test and a practical test. “The instrument rating written test is a lot different than the private pilot written test, because it focuses exclusively on the instruments inside the plane,” says Ferrante.
5. Earn your commercial pilot license
To get a paid job as a pilot, you need to earn a commercial pilot license. The training for this license is more extensive than private pilot training and places a heavy emphasis on learning different regulations.
Similar to other piloting licenses, earning your commercial license requires passing a written test and flight test. To qualify for this license, you need between 190 hours and 250 hours of flight time, depending on what type of flight school you attended.
Students who attended a flight school approved by Federal Aviation Regulation Part 141 can earn their commercial license at 190 hours of logged flight time, while students who attended a Part 61 flight school need to have 250 hours.
Torres explains that attending a Part 141 flight school can save you a substantial amount of time and money. “Here at Lynn, our professional pilot program is in compliance with Part 141, which means our students can earn their commercial pilot license at 190 hours of total flight time. But there are Part 61 flight schools around the country that require 250 hours of flight time. This 60-hour difference in flight time can increase costs significantly.”
6. Add your multi-engine rating
To fly an aircraft with more than one engine, you need to receive your multi-engine rating. There is no written test for this rating. Instead, you will have to complete a flight test, or a checkride, exhibiting your proficiency.
This rating is a requirement for commercial airline pilots and any pilots who wish to fly larger aircraft.
7. Gain flight experience
You only need 190–250 hours of flight time to gain a commercial pilot license—but if you want to become an airline pilot, you will need to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time.
There are several ways you can go about gaining this flight experience:
- Become a flight instructor
- Become a charter pilot
- Join the military and work as a military pilot
“To build your flight time, you may want to get a paying job as a pilot,” says Ferrante. “Most people choose to become flight instructors and teach new pilots how to fly. Another option is becoming a charter pilot and flying small, twin-engine airlines with passengers onboard.”
Torres says it’s crucial for aspiring airline pilots to keep their goals in mind as they build their flight hours. “It’s all about setting goals and building up your career step by step,” she says.
8. Earn your airline transport pilot license
The final qualification to become an airline pilot is to earn your airline transport pilot (ATP) license. This is the highest level of pilot license offered by the FAA. Earning your ATP license requires a written knowledge test, a practical test, and 1,500 hours of flight time, which most people obtain through working as a flight instructor or commercial charter pilot.
Get started with a professional pilot degree
The specific steps of becoming a pilot vary depending on your career interests. For example, if you become an airline pilot and end up flying more sophisticated aircraft, you might need to earn additional type ratings. In many cases, your employer will pay for you to earn additional type ratings as needed.
Torres emphasizes that a passion for aviation is one of the most important qualities for aspiring pilots. “To have the perseverance to go through all the steps of becoming a pilot, you really do have to love what you do,” she says. “If you’re willing to put in the work, piloting can be a very rewarding career path.”
Piloting is just one of many types of aviation careers available today. A professional pilot bachelor’s degree from Lynn University prepares you with the training and practical knowledge to build your career in several aviation areas. For more information, reach out to us today.