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How To Become An Airline Pilot

So you want to become an airline pilot?

Like many before, you have dreamed of climbing into your shiny Boeing 747 Jumbo and flying the world all from the relative comforts of your cockpit. You have also likely dreamed of exotic locales and attractive flight attendants. If this forms part of your dream of becoming a commercial pilot you may be severely disappointed.

Due to the recent shake up in the airline industry the golden age of senior captains earning 200k plus per year and working 12 days per month have practically disappeared. The abhorrent reality is that now most Captains earn in the sub 100k range and are working and flying more duty hours than ever before. They also live on par poverty wages accumulating the appropriate experience level to even reach that lofty point of their career. The unfortunate truth is the path to the becoming a professional pilot is now a rough one.

The good news is that there are still many opportunities for the people that have the drive and determination to forge a career in this difficult field. I am therefore writing this article to give you the basics of what you should know before making a decision on an aviation career.

Firstly, this article is primarily being aimed at the person interested in going into the Part 121 – Airline environment. It is not within the purview of this primer to cover other equally lucrative areas of aviation.

What First?

Ok, you have obviously just made the well intentioned decision to forge ahead with your commercial pilot training and you’re not exactly sure where to start. The first piece of advice that I will give you is to attend a college and study a degree in something other than aviation.

The reason I advise this is that, in the future, you may need to fall upon that skill set when times become tough in aviation and you need to seek work elsewhere. You will find that you regret the fact that you lack a non-aviation related degree if you choose to eventually seek work outside of aviation.

Now, if you absolutely can not stay away from aviation and must eat, sleep, and breathe it, I then recommend that you choose an aviation related college such as the University Of North Dakota (UND). There are other aviation schools around that bill themselves as the `Harvard of the skies’. Do not buy into this marketing hoopla, the plain truth is that all the Major airlines just want to see a degree from somewhere. It is irrelevant which university that you went to. So save yourself some money and seek the cheapest degree you can get (this will be a common theme in your aviation career).

Many people will tell you to skip school and go straight to a small regional airline where no degree is required. This can be an advantage in that you would be senior to someone who waited to finish school but the reality is that to move on to any Major airline you will need a four year degree. So suck it up and finish college before moving on to pilot training.

Flight Training

So you have your 4 year degree and now you’re ready to take the first step in your career. The first thing you need to do is slow down and make the following choices VERY carefully. There are literally hundreds of flight schools out there that cater to training budding commercial pilots all with their pros and cons.

You need to be aware that these schools will basically tell you anything to get you in the door and to empty your pockets. Flight training is extremely expensive and the signing up of new students is competitive so spend your money wisely. The bottom line is don't believe the marketing hoopla.

It’s important you understand that yet again it is completely irrelevant where you gain your ratings and endorsements. It makes no difference to the people doing the hiring as to what flight school you attended. Having said that some of the larger academy type operations do enjoy a close relationship with the hiring airlines but I do not believe that this accounts for their large differences in prices.

As a new pilot you should really consider your local FBO (Fixed base Operator) for your private pilot’s license. This gives you the cheapest option for training whilst giving you the time to find out if you REALLY like flying.

Whichever direction you choose to head you will need the following basic ratings to make you hirable:

PPL – Private Pilots License
Instrument Rating
ComASEL – Commercial Aircraft Single Engine Land
ME – Multi Engine Rating

You should also consider getting your CFI’s which allows you to fly as a flight instructor and to build the hours you need to make your next move.

CFI – Certificated Flight Instructor
CFII – Certificated Flight Instructor Instrument
MEI – Multi Engine Instructor

Now that you have completed the above ratings at the minimum cost, hopefully, you will be ready to be hired as a CFI. This gives you the option to earn a little bit of money whilst gaining some experience and flight time.

Most schools will generally hire from the pool of CFI’s that they have trained on property but this is not always a given. The best advice I can give you is to treat your flight training as a 90 day interview if you hope to work there afterwards.

You will need to accumulate approximately 1000 hours TT (Total Time) and 100 ME (Multi Engine Time) to be competitive to the make the next step to a regional airline. Although, currently the regional airlines are hiring people with as little as 600 hrs TT.

The important thing to understand is that you will NOT be working for Delta or United at this point. Your first step in the chain is as a First Officer for a regional/commuter airline. To make your next move you will need to stay at your current regional and upgrade to Captain and start logging PIC (Pilot in Command) time.

To be competitive for a major airline you will need to accumulate 1000hrs of Turbine (JET) PIC. This is the very minimum level of experience that most major airlines require currently. In fact there are so many pilots applying to the majors that to be competitive you would need approximately 2000hrs PIC. At that point you can start trying your luck with the NWA, Delta, AA, United, and US Airways.

Reality Check

Okay so we have covered the basics of what you need to start and progress in your airline career. Unfortunately, all of this is much easier said than done. Learning to fly is an extremely expensive proposition and you can expect to spend in excess of 30k on your flight ratings and endorsements. There are indeed finance options available to help put you through training but you will find that CFI and FO wages are almost not enough to cover the monthly payments.

It’s important to realize at this point that the average pay currently for a 1st year first office at a regional airline is around the 20k mark. That’s right people; one of the guys sitting up front is almost being paid minimum wage. These dedicated professionals struggle to survive on those wages and you can expect to be no different. Until you upgrade to captain you will barely be making subsistence wages. This is really something to consider before entering the regional airlines. Can you survive on those wages for 2 or 3 years until you upgrade to captain?

Having given you the bleak conditions of the industry it’s also fair to say that some people do extremely well from flying. Pilots represent about the top 3% of wage earners nationally and some still earn in excess of 150k. Do remember though that this is a cyclical industry and you need to be prepared for the worst happening and you being forced to leave aviation, hence the degree in another skill set.

All in all this is a great job but a terrible career. The majority of us fly because we love it and wouldn’t give it up in a second. I hope that this has given you a little peak at the hardships and rewards that commercial pilots face.


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