Would you rather work an adventurous job than sit in an office? Are you confident, decisive, and able to work well under pressure? Do you enjoy meeting new people and traveling?
And are you considering certifications and on-the-job training as an alternative to a four-year degree?
At Transizion, we focus on helping people find the perfect career. Whether that means getting into the college of your dreams or pursuing an alternative path to the best fit, we’re here to help with valuable tips and resources. That’s why in this series of articles, we’re diving deep into a wide range of professions.
In this post, we’ll focus on how to become a commercial pilot. Read on to learn about working conditions, education, job outlook, salary, and overall job satisfaction in this field.
What Do Commercial Pilots Do?
Commercial pilots fly planes for charter flights, aerial tours, aerial photography, and tasks like firefighting, rescue operations, and crop dusting. They may transport passengers, cargo, or both.
Being a commercial pilot is not the same as being an airline pilot, but most airline pilots begin their careers as commercial pilots. If you want to fly for an airline, gaining experience as a commercial pilot first can help you land the job.
In addition to flying planes, commercial pilots:
- Conduct preflight checks on engines, hydraulics, and other systems.
- Ensure that cargo is loaded and the plane’s weight is properly balanced.
- Check weather conditions, flight schedules, and fuel.
- Contact the control tower for takeoff and arrival instructions.
- Monitor engines, hydraulics, and other systems throughout the flight.
- Navigate the aircraft using cockpit instruments.
- Monitor warning devices that detect changes in wind patterns.
If a charter company employs you, you’ll have additional responsibilities like scheduling flights, arranging for plane maintenance, and interacting warmly and professionally with passengers.
Commercial pilots may work for the federal government, charter companies, private businesses, express delivery companies, flight schools, and hospitals. With so many potential employers and specialties, the work environment varies widely.
In most of these roles, you can expect travel, occasional long hours, and managing bad weather and turbulence. Unless you work as a flight instructor, you’ll likely have an irregular and sometimes unpredictable work schedule.
Because the job requires a high level of concentration and puts the safety of others in your hands, it can be mentally and emotionally draining. You must be alert, quick to react, and prepared to make adjustments when needed.
But if you enjoy travel, adventure, meeting new people, and unbeatable views, you’ll likely love working as a commercial pilot. Plus, many pilots say they appreciate being able to “leave work at work.” When you’re not in the cockpit, the workday is truly over. And if you’re passionate about aviation, even work won’t feel like “work.”
So, how do you know if becoming a commercial pilot is the right career move for you?
Important qualities for a commercial pilot to have include:
- Strong communication skills
- Ability to work well under pressure
- Attention to detail
- Situational awareness
- Leadership ability
- Technical skills
- Desire to learn
- Strong work ethic
And, of course, a commercial pilot should be comfortable with heights and possess the courage to navigate through dangerous, high-pressure situations.
How to Become a Commercial Pilot
The steps to becoming a commercial pilot include the following:
- Get a private pilot certificate (40 hours of training)
- Acquire an instrument rating, which allows you to fly longer distances in any type of weather
- Gain flight hours (minimum of 250 hours)
- Pass written and practical tests
- Obtain a commercial pilot license
After completing these steps, you’re eligible to work as a commercial pilot.
To advance your career, you can pursue additional certifications like the Flight Instructor Certification or the Airline Transport Pilot Certification, which takes 1,500 hours of flight time and is required by most airlines.
You don’t need a degree to be a commercial pilot or an airline pilot. However, most major airlines prefer a bachelor’s degree, and some airlines (like Delta) require them. So, if your eventual goal is to fly for an airline, pursuing a bachelor’s degree may open up more opportunities. The degree can be in any field that interests you–it doesn’t have to be related to aviation.
So, you don’t need a degree. But you do need flight training, which you can get by attending flight school or through a certified flight instructor.
Both options will prepare you for a career in aviation and allow you to meet certification requirements. If you prefer the flexibility to set your own schedule, working with a flight instructor is the path for you. But if you’d like to learn in a more structured environment, you may want to attend flight school.
Here are some excellent training centers and flight schools to consider:
School, Location, Tuition
- Birmingham Flight Center, Birmingham, Alabama: $45/hour for training and $150/hour training aircraft rental rate
- Aeroguard Flight Training, Locations in Arizona, Florida, and Texas: $90,000 for a two-year program
- Advanced International Aviation Training Academy, Sacramento, California: Training packages from $19,850 to $26,850
- Aviation Academy of America: Hondo, Texas: $25,000
- Florida Aviation Academy: Pompano Beach, Florida, $39,715
As you can see, prices vary widely because there are multiple paths to becoming a commercial pilot and varied program structures. Shorter, accelerated programs are more affordable than long-running programs. And in many cases, paying an hourly training rate for a flight instructor is cheaper than attending flight school.
If you’d prefer to earn a bachelor’s degree while learning to fly, check out these top-ranked joint college degree and flight training programs:
- Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University: Daytona Beach, Florida, $45,000-$75,000
- Ohio State University: Columbus, Ohio, $49,508
- University of North Dakota: Grand Forks, North Dakota, $29,296 per year
- Purdue University: West Lafayette, Indiana, $14,683 per semester
- Western Michigan University: Battle Creek, Michigan, $8,020 per semester plus $68,109 total for flight labs
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What You’ll Learn:
Whether you attend flight school, complete a joint college degree program, or receive training from a certified flight instructor, you can expect to learn about the following:
- Flight instrument systems and aircraft controls
- Instrument navigation
- Proper communication and phraseology
- Principles of flight
- Aeromedical knowledge
- Weather conditions
- Flight planning
- Flight maneuvers
- Pilot duties
- How to fly a plane through hands-on training that builds your confidence and capabilities
Certifications and Licensure
There are several certifications and licenses related to becoming a pilot. First, you’ll earn your private pilot certificate. This certification typically requires 40 hrs of training, including 20 hours of flight instruction and 20 hours of solo flight.
Then you’ll pursue your instrument rating, which is required for longer flights and flying in all types of weather. Earning your instrument rating requires training and instruction in meteorology and instrument flying.
Finally, it’s time to earn your commercial pilot license. You’ll need a big chunk of flight time for this one: at least 250 hours total. Within those 250 hours, you must have 100 as the pilot-in-command, 50 flying cross-country, and 10 flying solo, as well as 20 hours of training and test preparation.
If you want to work as a flight instructor, you’ll also need a flight instructor certification. And most major airlines require airline pilots to have an airline transport pilot certification. But if your ultimate goal is working as a commercial pilot (not an instructor or airline pilot), you won’t need these additional certifications.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Commercial Pilot?
If you’re starting with no experience, it takes about two years to become a commercial pilot. You’ll need around seven months to complete the required training, then another 18 months to gain flight time and meet certification requirements.
If you have a lot of free time to fly, however, you can complete the necessary requirements faster.
Career Outlook for Commercial Pilots
If you’re thinking about pursuing a future in aviation, you probably want to know about the career outlook for commercial pilots.
Is it a stable, in-demand job? How much money will you earn? In this section, we’ll answer these questions – and more – to help you decide whether becoming a commercial pilot is the right path for you.
Employment of commercial pilots is expected to grow by 6% over the next 10 years, about as fast as the average for all occupations. There will be about 18,100 openings in the field each year over the next decade.
As travel continues to recover from the pandemic, the employment of pilots is expected to grow. Many of these job openings will result from the need to replace workers who retire or transfer to other occupations.
How Much Does a Commercial Pilot Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for commercial pilots is $99,640. The lowest 10 percent earns less than $50,080, while the highest 10 percent earns more than $205,940.
Airline pilots earn around $207,200, while flight instructors earn about $109,175. If you want to aim for a higher salary later in your career, these roles provide opportunities for advancement. And gaining experience as a commercial pilot first will make you a stronger applicant for these competitive careers.
Of course, even if you continue working as a commercial pilot throughout your career, you’ll earn a solid salary (that increases with experience) while working in an exciting, in-demand job.
On top of a competitive salary, commercial pilots typically enjoy job benefits like:
- Health insurance
- Dental and vision insurance
- Paid time off
- Flexible work schedule and down time between flights
- Retirement plan
- Food allowance
- Hiring bonus
- Paid training
Of course, not all these benefits are guaranteed for every commercial pilot position. But these are some of the benefits you might receive, and you can look for positions that offer most of the benefits on this list (or at least the ones that matter the most to you).
Pros and Cons
It’s important to weigh the pros and cons for any career path you’re considering. Here are some pros and cons that aspiring commercial pilots need to know:
- Competitive pay and benefits
- Relatively in-demand job
- Opportunity for advancement
- Fun, fulfilling career
- Long hours with a varying schedule
- Pricey training costs
- Dealing with stressful situations
- Pilot fatigue
- Working in small quarters for extended lengths of time
Overall Job Satisfaction
Ultimately, your job satisfaction will depend on your personal qualities and preferences. If you enjoy travel, adventure, hands-on work, and–of course–flying, you’ll likely love working as a commercial pilot.
Although many commercial pilots report high levels of job stress, they also say the job doesn’t “feel” like a job. They enjoy the fun and adventurous travel, along with the ability to “leave work at work.”
According to CareerExplorer, commercial pilots rate their career happiness 3.8 out of 5 stars, which puts them in the top 17% of careers for job satisfaction.
How to Become a Commercial Pilot: An Overview
Working as a commercial pilot is a challenging and often stressful job. But it provides you with job stability, a competitive salary, and a variety of excellent benefits. If you’re adventurous and dependable, a leader with excellent teamwork and decision-making skills, and interested in a more hands-on career path, then it could be a great career for you.
So, if all that sounds promising, here’s how to become a commercial pilot:
- Get a private pilot certificate.
- Acquire an instrument rating.
- Gain at least 250 flight hours.
- Pass written and practical tests.
- Obtain a commercial pilot license.
Typically, it takes about two years to complete the necessary training and flight requirements to become a commercial pilot.
If you’re still in high school, take classes related to mathematics, technology, and geography. Seek to improve your communication skills by taking a public speaking class if it’s offered at your school. Participate in extracurricular activities that help you develop leadership and teamwork skills, like sports teams, debate, or Model UN.
It’s good to talk to a commercial pilot if possible, or even begin some basic flight training so you can learn more about the job and gain insight into whether working as an commercial pilot is truly a career you’ll love.