Become an Airline Pilot

Being an airline pilot is a glamorous, exciting, and highly rewarding job. But how exactly do you become one? You can't just submit a resume and expect someone to call you back with a job offer. The actual process takes a long time and much dedication; it also means meeting precise requirements and can be a fairly expensive pathway to getting a career. For some positions, it can take up to 10 years of flying experience to even qualify. Needless to say, you need to be serious and committed. Work hard and follow the steps below and one day you might become an airline pilot!


Preliminary Requirements

  1. Get a four-year college degree. While a college degree is not required to fly for any of the regional airlines in the United States, a four year degree is required to fly for a major US airline. It's preferable to get a Bachelor of Science degree with an emphasis in aviation (but your degree doesn't necessarily have to be aviation related). Airline pilot training is intense and expensive. A college degree helps to demonstrate to the airline that you will be capable of completing their education program.
  2. Look around your local area for a good flight school and flight instructor to begin working on your private pilot certificate. The FAA minimum flight time is 40 hours, but the average is around 60. Schools with FAA oversight can be more desirable if you want a highly regimented training program.
  3. Get a First Class medical certificate from a Federal Aviation Administration medical examiner. It is better to apply for a first class medical the first time you apply for a medical certificate to be sure you will qualify for one before you have invested too much time and money into your new career choice.

Advanced Requirements

  1. After you earn your private pilot license, begin working on your instrument rating and commercial certificate. An instrument rating requires 50 hours of cross country Pilot-in-Command (PIC) and 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument conditions. For the commercial certificate, you will need 250 hours total time, 100 hours PIC, 50 hours cross country, and 10 hours of dual instruction in a complex aircraft.
    • All pilots who are paid to transport passengers or cargo must get a commercial pilot’s license with an instrument rating issued by the FAA. Helicopter pilots also must hold a commercial pilot’s license with a helicopter rating.
  2. Complete your certified flight instructor (CFI) rating and begin working at your flight school. Some flight schools offer you flight hours in exchange for instructing for them. This can be useful when you go on to your multi-engine rating.
    • Pilots need flight experience to qualify for a license. Completing classes at a flight school approved by the FAA can reduce the amount of flight experience required for a pilot’s license. In 2006, the FAA certified about 600 civilian flying schools, including some colleges and universities that offer degree credit for pilot training.
    • Initial training for airline pilots typically includes a week of company indoctrination; three to six weeks of ground school and simulator training; and 25 hours of initial operating experience, including a check-ride with an FAA aviation safety inspector. Once trained, pilots are required to attend recurrent training and simulator checks once or twice a year throughout their career.
    • To qualify for FAA licensure, applicants must be at least 18 years old and have at least 250 hours of flight experience.
  3. Work on your multi-engine, certified flight instructor instrument (CFII), and multi-engine instructor (MEI) ratings.

Getting Experience

  1. With the proper ratings and 1500 hours of flight time, you could get hired by any number of regional airlines flying turboprop and regional-jet aircraft.
    • To work for a major airline, you will typically need 3,000 hours total flight time including at least 1,500 hours multi-engine, and at least 1000 hours as pilot in command (PIC) of turbine (jet) powered aircraft, preferably in scheduled airline flying and in type of aircraft. These numbers are estimates and will vary depending on the airline. Also, while these may be the minimums required to apply for a job at a major airline, they may be far from the actual competitive numbers and the actual experience of successful applicants may be considerably higher than the minimums.
    • Airline pilots must fulfill additional requirements. Both Captains and First Officers must have an airline transport pilot’s license. Applicants for this license must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience, including night and instrument flying, and must pass FAA written and flight examinations. Usually, they also have one or more advanced ratings depending on the requirements of their particular job. Because pilots must be able to make quick decisions and accurate judgments under pressure, many airline companies reject applicants who do not pass required psychological and aptitude tests. All licenses are valid so long as a pilot can pass the periodic physical and eye examinations and tests of flying skills required by the FAA and company regulations.
    • Companies other than airlines usually require less flying experience. However, a commercial pilot’s license is a minimum requirement, and employers prefer applicants who have experience in the type of craft they will be flying. New employees usually start as first officers, or fly less sophisticated equipment.
    • Depending on the type of aircraft, new airline pilots start as first officers or flight engineers. Although some airlines favor applicants who already have a flight engineer’s license, they may provide flight engineer training for those who have only the commercial license. Many pilots begin with smaller regional or commuter airlines, where they obtain experience flying passengers on scheduled flights into busy airports in all weather conditions. These jobs often lead to higher paying jobs with bigger, national or major airlines.
  2. Consider military flight training. The Air Force, Navy (includes Marine pilots), Army, and Coast Guard offer flight training. In the case of the Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard, after initial training (a little over a year) you can go back to civilian life and, once you have enough hours, qualify to fly with an airline. Remember that US companies must allow their reservists and guard members to do their active duty drills without repercussion.
    • Other options would be to go to a 4-year college such as the University of North Dakota or a flight academy, such as Embry-Riddle. Both offer flight training in concurrence with academic classes, but make sure to research tuition and fees. Another is the Delta Connection Academy, which is quite costly, but upon completing the course, you may be offered an entry-level interview as a pilot instructor, which may later lead to a job with Delta connection.
    • There are no schools in the US that guarantee a position as a pilot for any company, and especially not a major airline.
  3. Seek a variety of flying jobs. To advance to the pinnacle of your profession, you'll need to gain experience in any number of creative ways. For example:
    • Try teaching. Many pilots start their careers as flight instructors.
    • Take assignments with charter planes or air-taxi companies.
    • Go private. Don't forget about opportunities flying corporate planes.
    • And some pilots take jobs as flight engineers with the airlines.

Apply and Interview

  1. Apply to airlines you would like to fly for as soon as you have the minimum requirements.
    • Prepare a one page, professional pilot resume. The resume should be broken down into sections with your contact information, ratings and flight hours, experience and chronological job history and any awards or accomplishments.
    • Get recommendations. Have other pilots who have direct knowledge of your flying skills write letters of recommendation.
    • Fill out applications and update regularly. A search of the company website is a good place to look for minimum requirements and how to apply.
  2. Prepare for the Interview
    • Make sure your logbook is complete and you have an accurate record of your flight time.
    • Collect records such as College Transcripts, Military Records, Licenses, Medical, Passport, Criminal Background Check and Driver's Records.
    • Prepare early for the interview. The interview can be stressful. There will usually be a story telling section with "Tell us about a time when...." questions, and technical questions. Check professional pilot websites where pilots share airline specific interview experiences.
    • Pay for a practice mock interview. There are several companies that offer resume review services and conduct mock interviews. The chance to practice in front of an audience and get unbiased feedback can be invaluable.
    • Simulator preparation. Get some practice time if the airline conducts a simulator check. Some companies offer airline specific interview simulator preparation.
    • Dress appropriately. Generally, a dark navy suit, black dress shoes and a conservative power tie.
    • Don't forget the "Thank You Letter". It's a professional courtesy to write a thank you letter addressed to your interviewers. Get their names before you leave, and make sure to take the time to write one.

Airline Advancement

  1. In the airlines, advancement is usually predetermined by seniority provisions stated in union contracts. Expect a timetable like this:
    • After 1 -5 years, flight engineers advance according to seniority to first officer.
    • After 5 -15 years, a first officer will advance to captain.
    • Note: In non-airline jobs, a first officer may advance to captain and, in large companies, to chief pilot or director of aviation in charge of aircraft scheduling, maintenance, and flight procedures.
  2. Gaining seniority will also help you acquire preferred flight assignments. Your time with the airline will determine when you fly, if you fly on weekends, or if you'll be in the air during Christmas or other holidays.

Airline Pilot Resume

Doc:Airline Pilot Resume


  • Your career will always depend on your maintaining your medical certificate.
  • Flying as a career is a stressful job. A pilot's ultimate responsibility, the safety of his/her passengers and/or cargo means making a lot of personal sacrifices - constant training and evaluation, constant drug and alcohol testing, background checks, difficult hours, long days, and huge liability. Think long and hard before taking on this career.
  • Anytime you change jobs, by choice or because you've been laid off or your airline has gone out of business, you will be starting at the bottom again at your new airline in terms of your position, schedule, and pay, regardless of experience.
  • Not only will a new airline pilot start out at barely $20,000/year, due to new legislation, they are also required to have the same minimum requirements as a Captain (1500 hours of flight time, Airline Transport Pilot License). You will now be required to spend more time to earn these minimums, make the same amount of pay as when the minimums were 500-1000 hours, and invest more of your life leaving less time to make more down the road. Passion will be a must because the logistics of these changes don't make sense.
  • You could have long absences from home and family. You will never be able to stop that. No matter what is going wrong at home, you will be going back into the sky.
  • You will always be taking written exams, oral exams, and check rides multiple times in a year for the rest of your career. Yes, you will still be performing stalls and steep turns on check rides as a 747 captain. Failing these checks can be an end to your airline pilot career. Failure of any airline training or checking event becomes part of your permanent airman record which is required, by law, to follow you to any new employer for your entire career.
  • Most of the steps and tips on this page apply primarily to people eligible to work in the USA and planning to train, fly, and become an airline pilot in the USA. While some of them may be applicable to other countries and job markets, it is best to ask for more advice in your home country about becoming an airline pilot.
  • This used to be a very glamorous profession, but not anymore. Pilot's pay has been slashed and they have to stay in the airport to board the next flight. If they want to relax they can sleep on operation desk pads. Often they also have to go for screening and pass the security check just like all of the passengers.
  • In recent years, airlines have made cuts to pilot pay, days off, hotel quality and location, uniform expenses, medical and dental plans, and vacation time. Unless the regional carriers radically increase the starting pay ($45,000 or more), it may not be worth your time and money for training. Flight experience has been devalued and many pilots have opted to change careers altogether. Others pursue alternative airline positions that don't involve "flying the line."

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