What Is The Path To Becoming A Commercial Pilot?

So you’re interested in learning the path to becoming a commercial pilot? Awesome! There certainly isn’t one definitive way of becoming a professional aviator, but there are definitely some concrete requirements that every prospective commercial pilot must meet.

The path to becoming a commercial airline pilot involves getting your first class medical, then enrolling in a flight school. You get your certificates and ratings (Private, Commercial, Instrument, Multi-Engine, ATP, etc), and you build flight time. This can be done in a number of ways. Once you possess the minimum hour/experience requirements, you can start applying for jobs.

There are many many decisions that will need to be made between starting from scratch and becoming a commercial pilot. Not the least bit of those is obtaining a way to pay for it. That will be discussed below as well. Let’s start digging into these matters one at a time, but first let’s get on the same page about some things.

Definitions & Disclaimers

What is a “commercial pilot?” For the sake of this article I’m going to refer to a commercial pilot as someone who flies professionally, for an airline.

  • While any pilot who gets paid to fly is technically a commercial pilot, I’m restricting the discussion here to the airlines (Part 121). Many of the requirements I describe here for becoming an airline pilot will more than qualify someone to start a career as a corporate pilot (Part 91) or charter pilot (Part 135).
  • Along your journey you will need to obtain a Commercial Pilot Certificate. This is a certificate issued by the FAA stating that you are legally permitted to fly for hire, but most employers have “minimums” (number of hours & experience) they want met before they would hire you. Don’t let the name of the certificate mislead you into thinking you are ready for the big leagues just yet 😉.
  • In this article I only describe what the requirements are for the United States. Other countries/continents may have different requirements. I’m an American. I was educated in an American university, and only know the United States’ rules and regulations.
  • I am not an airline pilot, but I spent a good amount of money and time preparing to be one. This article will describe the route that I know of to become a commercial airline pilot.
  • The path I describe in this article is the civilian route. The military is an option, but that’s an entirely separate issue altogether.

Should I Join The Military?

Let’s tackle this question. I’ll give the same advice I was given a long time ago when I was considering the military. (I wanted to be a fighter pilot). This may not be warm and fuzzy advice, but it’s the reality.

If you are considering joining the military, make sure that you are joining because you want to be a soldier. Make sure you are fine with being shot at, being in combat, and possibly dying/killing for the cause.

Don’t join the military because you want to be a civilian pilot. Do many military pilots become civilian pilots? Sure! Do airlines like military experience? Of course they do. But signing up for the military is not a decision to take lightly.

I’m not trying to encourage/discourage you from joining. I’m simply asking you to put your big boy/girl pants on before making that decision and make sure you’re doing it because you want to serve your country.

Don’t join the military because you think it’ll land you the perfect commercial job once you get out. It’s a much bigger decision than that. Involve your family and friends in that choice. It may be the right one for you, and it may not. Only you can decide.

Okay, let’s continue with discussing the civilian route to becoming a commercial pilot.

Meeting Medical Requirements (IMPORTANT)

Not meeting the medical requirements for flying can be a deal breaker and dream stealer for pilots wanting to fly for a living (or fly at all). I’m not trying to disappoint anyone, but I can’t sugar coat it either. Pilots lose their wings all the time due to medical issues.

The airlines will require you to hold something called a First Class Medical Certificate, or “medical” as we call them. Study the requirements to see if you have anything holding you back from obtaining First Class Medical certification.

To see the requirements for all medical certificates, you’ll need to study Part 67 of 14 CFR. To obtain your medical, you will need to visit an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). Click here to find an AME.

Finding a Flight School and Instructor(s)

After clearing the medical requirements, and obtaining your medical, the first obvious step is to find a place to learn how to fly. This is another big decision and obviously, you’ll want to take your time with this one. Here are some questions to ask yourself when researching flight schools.

  • Do I want to train in a university atmosphere or am I more comfortable at a smaller airport?
  • Do you want to relocate to obtain your training?
  • How am I going to fund my training?

The answers to these questions will differ whether you are a prospective college student vs someone who is switching careers later in life. You may be fortunate enough to have an aviation school in your home town or nearby. Maybe you want to go somewhere warm and attend a more prestigious academy type of school. This is really a personal preference.

The biggest factor in deciding where to train may be your budget. If you have a larger budget, an academy style, Part 141 school may be an option. There are also several universities that offer degrees in aviation. If you know it’s going to be a tough road financially a smaller Part 61 operation may be best. See my other article on Part 61 vs Part 141 flight schools for more info on that topic, as well as examples of each type.

There are two valuable databases you can use to search for flight schools. One is the FAA’s database, and the other is the AOPA database. AOPA includes Part 61 schools, while the FAA is only for Part 141.

How Much Will This Cost?

I’d love to say you can learn to fly and get all your ratings for cheap…but you can’t 😉. Sorry! My personal journey cost me around $75,000 before I could get in the right seat and start earning money to fly (what a great feeling!) while instructing. That’s flying only, not college tuition. Add in college tuition and you’re well into the six figures. That was back in the early 2000s.

Every school is going to be different but in general you’ll obviously spend more for a university affiliated flight school than if you got your training independently. You would really just have to crunch the numbers based on the outfit where you’ll be flying.

Until you become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), which I highly recommend doing, you are basically going to have to pay for every hour you are in the cockpit. To become an instructor you’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 hours. I had around 300 hours when I became a CFI. If you’re renting by the flight hour, multiply 300 by the hourly rental rate of an aircraft and instruction at the flight school of your choosing and that is your ROUGH ballpark figure.

After a quick glance at my local airport’s FBO (Fixed Base Operator) flight school rental rates, for an 1978 Cessna 152 (not glamorous but gets the job done), I see that it costs $110 for the aircraft and $40 for instruction, per hour. So $150 per hour times 300 is $45K. Not all of your flight hours will be with instructors, but a lot of it will be.

Not all of your training can be in a Cessna 152 either. That’ll take care of your Private Pilot training, but you’ll have to graduate to a more advanced aircraft to get the rest of your training. And of course…that gets more expensive.

BALLPARK GUESS: taking in the entire scope of training for the airlines, I would plan on about $100K for flight training, minimum. That’s at the smallest of flight schools. Universities and Part 141 schools will be more. Sorry if that’s not what you wanted to hear, but it’s the reality folks! I know because I’ve been there!

Obtaining Your Certificates & Ratings

If you determine you can meet the medical requirements for a First Class Medical, and can obtain the funds for your training, that’s awesome!

Hopefully my discussion of medical and financial requirements haven’t scared you off. Now let’s talk about the fun side of the journey…learning how to fly! It all starts with obtaining your Private Pilot Certificate.

Private Pilot Certificate

The Private Pilot certificate is the first major milestone you need to reach in your flight training to become a commercial pilot. You’ll also see this referred to as your “PPL” (Private Pilot License) but it’s actually a “certificate” from the FAA. Many people like to use the word “license” but the FAA issues certificates, not licenses.

The minimum hourly requirement for “the private” is 40 hours under Part 61, and 35 hours under Part 141. However the national average is around 60 to 75 hours to complete private training and be competent in the aircraft for a checkride. There are also other sub requirements buried within the total hours such as solo time, night flying time, and cross country flying time. These must also be met as well.

Private pilots can only fly under VFR (Visual Flight Rules). This literally means flying in conditions in which you can visually navigate, and avoid other aircraft and objects by looking out your window.

Private pilots can fly passengers, fly at night, and fly in good weather. If you want to fly in restricted visibility, in the clouds, or adverse weather, you’ll need to obtain your instrument rating.

My private instructor told me that a Private Pilot certificate is basically a license to go learn. I agree with that. It doesn’t allow you to get into too much trouble. The Instrument Rating on the other hand, is a license to go kill yourself, if you’re not careful.

Instrument Rating

After obtaining your private pilot certificate, the next logical step is to obtain your Instrument Rating. This is where you learn to fly strictly by reference to the instruments in the cockpit, and not by looking out the window. It also grants you the ability to fly in the clouds and inclement weather.

The Instrument Rating allows you to fly under IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). As you can imagine this is the opposite of VFR, which restricts you from instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

Under VFR flight, filing a flight plan is optional, but every IFR flight uses a flight plan where you must get clearances for just about everything you do. Air traffic control (ATC) issues these clearances to you as you conduct your flight.

The airlines conduct flights at high altitudes. When you fly above 18,000 ft, you are required to fly under an IFR flight plan. Most passenger aircraft cruise at altitudes in the 20,000-40,000 ft range, so these will all be IFR flights.

Commercial Pilot Certificate

The commercial pilot certificate allows you to fly for hire. In other words, get paid to fly. You can’t do that as a private pilot. A Commercial Pilot Certificate requires 250 flight hours under Part 61. There are also many sub-requirements, one of which involves training in a complex airplane.

Once again, don’t mistake this FAA certificate as a ticket to the airlines just yet. It’s only the beginning!

Multi-Engine Rating

Most pilots start their training using single-engine aircraft, like the Cessna 152, Cessna 172, or Diamond DA40. Although this is great for learning to fly, the airlines place high value on multi-engine flight time. The reasons are obvious. Most airline aircraft have more than one engine.

After completing your single-engine land (SEL) certificates, and achieving your “multi,” you will be issued a new pilot certificate that has the multi-engine land (MEL) designation after the name of the certificate. In other words you’ll go from being a Commercial Pilot- Single Engine Land to Commercial Pilot-Multi Engine Land.

Certified Flight Instructor (CFI, CFII, & MEI)

Becoming a certified flight instructor (CFI) is not required but most aviation professionals will recommend it for two reasons.

Teaching others how to fly further enhances your understanding of aviation and makes you a better pilot.
It helps you build flight time while getting paid!

Not only should you become a CFI, but also a CFII (instrument) and MEI (multi-engine instructor). These allow you to build time teaching students how to get their Instrument Rating and build valuable multi-engine time that the airlines want.

Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate

The ATP certificate is the most valuable to have when it comes to getting hired. It’s sort of the granddaddy of them all.

The process for obtaining your ATP certificate has evolved over the years. Nowadays (in 2020) you are required to enroll in something called an ATP CTP. The CTP stands for Certification Training Program.

These are offered by various schools across the U.S. in the price range of $4,000-6,000. It requires a certain amount of ground school on various topics and some simulator time.

The time requirement for the ATP is 1500 flight hours, with various sub-requirements. There are also ways in which you can achieve your ATP with less than 1500 hours by going through various programs, such as universities and Part 141 schools. Many airlines also have programs that will train you and help you get your ATP as part of their hiring process.

The ATP requirements are fairly strenuous. Check out the FAA’s ATP section of their website to learn more.

Type Ratings

A type rating is required to fly any aircraft that has a maximum gross takeoff weight (MGTOW) of over 12,500 lbs or any turbojet engine. This basically includes all jet aircraft that a commercial airline pilot would fly. The good news is the airlines will help you get the type rating after you are hired.

An example aircraft in which you could get a type rating for would be the Embraer 175 regional jet, which is a workhorse of domestic airlines today.

Embraer 175

Regional Airlines vs. Major Airlines

While it might be a dream to fly for American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, or a one of the freight operators like FedEx, you can’t just get a position at one of those airlines right out of school. Those are the major airlines. The big leagues, if you will.

There are exceptions to every rule of course, but a civilian pilot’s first airline job will be at a regional airline where they passengers are usually under 100 per aircraft. Once you build up your time at a regional, you can start pursuing a career with the majors and flying the “heavy metal.”

What Do Regional Airlines Want In A Prospective Pilot?

The airlines have various minimum requirements (“minimums”) when it comes to flight experience. For a concrete example, I just looked through the minimum qualifications for the regional airline, Envoy. Here are some of the qualifications listed in the description.

  • Current FAA First Class Medical
  • FAA Commercial Pilot Certificate, Multi-Engine with Instrument Rating
  • 21 Year Age Minimum, and finish the ATP written (knowledge test) prior to new hire training.
  • 1,500 hours flight time (unless other conditions are met which I discussed under the ATP section above).
  • 50 hours multi-engine time
  • 200 hours cross-country time
  • 100 hours of night flying
  • 75 hours instrument time (actual or simulated)
  • FCC license
  • Various other time requirements.

That should give you an idea of what you’ll be looking at when you start applying for the regionals.

Building Flight Time

There are several ways to build up your flight time in order to meet the minimums for the airlines. After getting your commercial pilot certificate, you’ll want to get hired in some type of job that will allow you to fly while earning money, instead of paying for it.

Become An Instructor

Becoming a flight instructor is my top recommendation for building your flight time. As mentioned previously in this article it allows you to become a better pilot by teaching. Building flight time is a secondary benefit to teaching. When you have to teach something to someone else it requires a level of understanding much deeper than when it was taught to you by someone else.

Other Flight Jobs

Becoming an instructor is not the only way to build up your flight time. For example, I had an instructor that had a side gig as a corporate pilot flying a small aircraft for a business owner.

Other jobs that you can do is banner towing, surveying and pipeline work, aerial photography, and sightseeing tours. I can’t exactly put my stamp of approval on these jobs as a way to build up valuable flight time because I don’t really know anyone that’s built their time this way. However these jobs do exist and they can be used. Of course this does not mean you still cannot be a flight instructor while doing these jobs part time.

Purchase Your Own Aircraft?

Something that you may want to consider is purchasing your own aircraft. It might sound a little crazy at first, especially if you are younger, but it’s something to consider.

If you crunch the numbers on financing your flight training at an expensive flight school versus purchasing an aircraft of your own, you may end up coming out ahead.

Of course you would have to factor in the costs of fuel and maintenance which is not normally an issue when you rent an aircraft.

I don’t endorse this way of training to become a commercial pilot but I’m simply mentioning it because I’ve heard it discussed before. Bottom line… do your own research.

Get The Job!

After meeting all of the requirements I’ve laid out in this article it’s time to start applying for jobs. Once you get your certificates/ratings, gain some valuable experience, and build up your flight hours, it’s then time to seek the fruits of your labor.

Importance Of Networking

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of building your network early in your flying days. If you’ve been around long enough in this world you’ve probably noticed that it’s not always what you know, but who you know. It’s not really fair, but that’s the reality. Building up a solid network of friends during your flight training is super important.

A former instructor of mine was interviewing to become an Air National Guard fighter pilot. Somewhere during his interview process they made him bring his family in to meet the other families of that guard unit. They wanted to make sure that his family would become a good fit in the broader family of that garden unit.

I know the airlines are not like the military, and the military is more close knit, but that story goes to show you that it’s not all about flight hours and experience. It’s about who you know and how well you know them. I can’t say I really like giving this advice, but the more friends you make in high places, the better off you’re going to be.

Conclusion

The road to becoming a commercial pilot can be long and brutal. You have to get your certificates/ratings, gain valuable experience, ideally instruct other pilots how to do the same, and keep your sanity at the same time.

That does not mean that the journey cannot be a blast because it certainly can be! My journey didn’t take me all the way to the airline pilot stage, but the time that I was on that journey was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I can guarantee you that becoming a pilot, while not always stress-free, can be one of the best decisions in your life.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article and learning what it takes to become a commercial pilot. Tell me your thoughts in the comments below. Are you currently training to become a pilot? Are there any tips or things you’d like to share?

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