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Be an Airline Pilot: Education Requirements and Career Info

Learn how to become an airline pilot. Research the education and career requirements, training and licensure information, and experience required for starting a career in aviation.

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Do I Want to Be an Airline Pilot?

An airline pilot operates a plane's engines and controls to navigate and fly the vessel. He or she also checks hydraulic and engine systems for safety pre-flight and monitors fuel consumption and aircraft systems in-flight.

Pilots must deal with possible hazards, such as jet lag, fatigue and unfavorable weather conditions. However, they also might get to travel all over the world, and they make significantly more than the average American, with a mean annual salary of $129,600 as of May 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job Requirements

Prospective pilots must satisfy a set number of flying hours and be in good physical and mental health to obtain a pilot's license. Further certifications and ratings are available, depending on the flight environment in which one wishes to work.

Many airline companies look for pilots with a bachelor's degree, along with extensive flight training and experience. The following table outlines common requirements to become an airline pilot:

Common Requirements
Degree Level A degree is not always required, but a bachelor's degree may improve job prospects*
Degree Fields Aircraft operations, aviation, aeronautical engineering or a related field*
Licensure and Certification A commercial pilot's license and instrument rating are required; airline captains also need an airline transport pilot certificate*
Experience 250 hours of flight experience for a commercial pilot's license, 1,500 hours of flight time for an airline transport pilot certificate*
Key Skills Strong communication skills, depth perception, monitoring skills, quick reaction time, problem-solving skills, attention to detail*
Computer Skills Ability to operate aircraft computer and navigation systems**
Technical Skills Ability to use a radio, run pre-flight checks and monitor engine and hydraulic systems*
Additional Requirements Individuals must be 18 to receive a commercial pilots license and 23 to receive a transport pilot certificate*, pilots are required to retire at 65; applicants are required to pass a physical examination, have vision that can be corrected to 20/20, possess passing scores on psychological and aptitude tests and pass a drug test**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) **Airline Pilots Association, International (ALPA).

Step 1: Obtain a College Degree

While a college degree is not always required to get started in this career, the BLS reports that it is common for employers to look for individuals with a college degree. There are several colleges that offer bachelor's degree programs in aviation or aeronautics in the United States. Regardless of major, students must complete coursework in physics, aeronautical engineering, mathematics and English. It's important to enroll in an aviation or aeronautics program that has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Success Tip:

  • Join a student club. Membership in a student club, such as the ALPA ACE club, can help students form networking connections and learn more about the industry while still in school. ACE club membership also can help aspiring pilots form the relationships they need to find jobs after graduation.

Step 2: Acquire Flight Experience

Aspiring airline pilots are required to complete a certain number of hours of flight training to qualify for licensure. To obtain a commercial pilot's license, 250 hours of flight time are required, and 1,500 hours of flight time are required for an airline transport pilot certificate. Flight training can be completed through degree programs or through a flying school that is approved by the FAA. Airline pilots must also have 40 hours of instrument flying experience in-air and through simulation. Instrument flying ratings demonstrate a pilot's ability to fly in low visibility conditions.

Success Tip:

  • Find personal flight instructors. Although formal training provides a basic education, according to ALPA, it usually doesn't provide enough experience to easily succeed as an airline pilot. By hiring personal instructors, students have the opportunity to acquire in-depth knowledge from multiple professionals.
  • Join the military. According to the ALPA, many pilots have obtained flying experience through the military, so aspiring airline pilots might consider joining. Military pilots also have the opportunity to gain substantial flight experience and are often attractive candidates for airline companies.

Step 3: Obtain Licensure

To obtain a pilot's license, a minimum number of hours of flight experience must be completed. Individuals are also expected to pass a written exam, demonstrate flying ability and take an instrument flying rating exam. As a part of the pilot's license stipulations, individuals are required to pass a physical exam, which includes having vision correctible to 20/20, good hearing and no physical handicaps that could interfere with the job.

Step 4: Gain Professional Experience

Many airline companies require pilots to take physical, psychological and aptitude tests, as well as drug tests, as a prerequisite for employment. Once they're hired on, pilots are generally required to undergo an additional six to eight weeks of training, including at least 25 hours of flight time. Additionally, most new hires are brought on as co-pilots. It's also not uncommon for some pilots to start their career at small commuter or regional airline companies. This gives them the opportunity to gain more flying experience before being hired by a major airline.

Step 5: Advance as an Airline Pilot

Most advancement in this field is based on seniority, but pilots can work towards reaching the rank of captain through other means. Airline pilots can obtain an air transport pilot's license, which shows cross-country, night and instrument flying experience. This requires passing additional FAA written and practical exams. Pilots may also aim to acquire more flight ratings; typically, ratings directly correlate to the type of aircraft one can fly, such as a multi-engine jet.

Success Tip:

  • Continue education. Airline pilots have the ability to continue their educations throughout their careers through practical experience and additional training. For example, aspiring pilots can access aircraft safety training webcasts and webinars offered by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) or safety seminars offered by the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA).
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