How Can I Become an Aircraft Pilot?

Explore the career requirements for aircraft pilots. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Aviation Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is an Aircraft Pilot?

Aircraft pilots operate airplanes and helicopters to transport passengers, cargo or for other reasons such as crop dusting, rescue, aerial photography and law enforcement purposes. As a pilot, you carry a large amount of responsibility, as you are in charge of ensuring the safety of the plane, your crew and the passengers or cargo you're transporting. While most of their job takes place in the cockpit, pilots often have duties on the ground before and after flights as well. These duties could include checking that cargo and fuel are loaded correctly, and that the airplane is in good working order.

An aircraft pilot usually works irregular hours and sometimes needs to be available for a flight with little notice. The ability to concentrate over long periods of time, the ability to cope with the mental stress of shouldering responsibility for others' safety, and the desire to work in small teams of people in close proximity are some of the necessary qualities of an aircraft pilot. The following chart gives you an overview about entering this field.

Degree Required High school diploma (for commercial pilots), bachelor's degree (for commercial airline pilots)
Key Responsibilities Check aircraft condition and cargo weight and distribution prior to taking off; communicate with air traffic control about flight path, weather and airport conditions; safely operate aircraft on the ground and in the air; respond to changes in the aircraft, weather and ground conditions
Licensure and/or Certification Commercial pilot's license and airline transport pilot certification is required; instrument rating testing and multi-engine rating is required for multi-engine aircraft operation
Job Growth (2014-2024) 5% (for airline and commercial pilots)*
Median Salary (2015) $117,290 (for all airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does an Aircraft Pilot Do?

A pilot flies aircraft, though there are many different options in the type of craft and the reason for the flight. You can transport people for commercial airlines, fly goods in cargo planes, provide news and aerial visual surveying in a helicopter or offer recreational flights in unusual types of aircraft, such as blimps or balloons.

Your responsibility doesn't start in the sky, though. The tasks you perform on the ground are just as important as the duties you perform during flight. You need to be able to map and file a flight plan, run systems checks, diagnose equipment problems and chart weather patterns across your entire route. You should also know any special considerations necessary for your flight crew, passengers or cargo.

How Can I Get My Education?

A common way of getting training and experience as a pilot is to join the U.S. military. All armed forces branches offer pilot education for many types of aircraft, including fighter jets, helicopters, cargo planes and bombers. With intensive training, you could learn to manage the takeoff of a plane with a short runway from an aircraft carrier or fly reconnaissance missions in a stealth helicopter. With military flight training, you can qualify to fly a number of different aircraft in the private sector.

If you have your high school diploma or a GED, you can enroll in an associate's or bachelor's degree program in aviation science with a focus on professional flight. A typical aviation science program combines coursework with hands-on pilot training. A few topics of study you can expect to take include aviation meteorology, cockpit management and flight physics. You'll usually need to pass a series of written, oral and practical tests to graduate and qualify for licensure.

How Do I Get My License?

After you complete your aircraft pilot training, you are required to earn a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before you can be employed as a pilot. To apply, you must be a minimum of 18 years old and fluent in spoken and written English. You'll need to obtain a license based on the specific type of aircraft you learned to fly, and you'll need to provide proof of your formal education and flight training hours to qualify for testing.

What Is the Job Market Like?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that the demand for aircraft and commercial pilots would increase 5% between 2014-2024 (www.bls.gov). According to BLS salary statistics, the median annual wages for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers was $117,290 in 2015.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you are interested in a career in the commercial transportation industry but prefer to stay on solid ground, you could consider becoming a tractor-trailer truck driver. These professionals must complete a certificate program to qualify to long-haul loads often weighing over 26,000 pounds. Another option, if you'd like to stay within the aviation industry, is to become an air traffic controller. This involves communicating with pilots and airport staff to coordinate safe aircraft movement.

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