To work as an airplane pilot, you typically need to:
- have at least a high school diploma or equivalent;
- have good health and vision;
- complete flight training;
- complete requirements for a commercial pilot's certificate; and
- have an instrument rating.
Education after high school
Education requirements for pilots vary depending on the type of flying they do. A high school diploma is the minimum requirement. However, most pilots have at least an associate degree and many have a bachelor's degree. Many airlines require a bachelor's degree to work as a commercial pilot.
All pilots learn their flying skills in one of three ways. These are:
- attend a flight school approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA);
- take private lessons from a FAA-licensed instructor; or
- take flight training in the military.
Some colleges and universities offer FAA-approved flight training. These programs combine flight training with regular college course work.
Initial training for pilots takes from three to six weeks. This training includes ground school, simulator training, and actual flight. Instructor pilots fly with you at first to make sure you follow all procedures and fly safely. As you gain experience and flight time you fly solo (alone without an instructor) and practice specific flying skills. While you are training, you are issued a student pilot's certificate. The next step after completing initial training is to earn your private certificate. To do this, you must pass a written exam and a flight test with a FAA flight examiner.
Before you can fly for pay, you must earn at least a commercial certificate and an instrument rating. To qualify for the commercial certificate, you must have at least 250 hours of flight time and pass another exam and flight test.
There are many levels of certificates and ratings for different aircraft and flying jobs. Airline pilots must have at least a bachelor's degree. They also must have an Airline Transport certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings. To apply for an Airline Transport certificate you must:
- be at least 23 years old;
- have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time;
- have experience flying at night and on instruments alone;
- pass FAA written exams and flight tests;
- have experience flying the exact type of aircraft;
- pass medical exams; and
- pass psychological and aptitude tests.
For additional details on flight training and certification, go to the FAA website.
Pilots gather the required flight hours, certificates, and ratings over a period of years. In general, you progress from private pilot to commercial pilot. Later, you advance to airline transport. It takes years of experience and study to reach the highest certificates and ratings.
Pilots continue to study, train, and take tests throughout their careers. They must maintain their credentials and medical certificates to be able to fly. At first, pilots pay for much of their own training. Later, employers, such as airlines, pay for or provide training to their pilots.
The military trains people to be airplane pilots, airplane navigators, and helicopter pilots. You need a bachelor's degree to enter any of these training programs. Training lasts two years for airplane pilots and one to two years for helicopter pilots. Airplane navigators receive six to 12 months of training.
Flying for the military is the best preparation for this occupation. In the military, you receive a level of training that is difficult to get or afford as a civilian. You fly high performance aircraft under all types of weather conditions. You also fly thousands of hours in jet or turbine-powered aircraft similar to commercial civilian aircraft.