A view of the cockpit in an airplane
A view of the cockpit in an airplaneDo you want to know how to become a pilot in the USA? This guide discusses the four types of pilot licenses, what is involved in the training and studies for each, and what duties are expected from each role.

How to Become a Pilot in the USA

There are four main types of pilot licenses, also known as certificates: Private Pilot License, Commercial Pilot License, Airline Transport Pilot License, and Multi-Crew Pilot License. The type of certificate you need depends on the type of pilot you aspire to be. After qualifying, for example, you might wish to be employed as a commercial pilot, or airline pilot, or you might prefer to be a private jet pilot.

If you’ve decided that it’s time to future-proof your career and take to the skies, this guide is for you! It covers everything you need to know about becoming a pilot in the US, including what pilot training qualifications are required, which flight schools you can attend, and how to find a job once you’ve qualified.

Your first decision

So, you want to know how to become a pilot – that’s great! Putting your dream into action is the first step. But there’s still another important thing to consider before you seek out a flight school that will help you launch your career: What type of pilot do you want to be?

Commercial pilot

A commercial pilot is essentially a pilot who can be paid to fly aircraft, as opposed to a private pilot who can only fly their own private plane or charter one that they will fly themselves.

Commercial pilots usually fly planes that have been chartered to transport passengers as an air taxi or for cargo, but they can also fly airplanes for more unusual uses, such as rescue operations, humanitarian missions, crop spraying, or aerial photography, and filming.

If the idea of flying a private plane rental for others intrigues you, then a commercial pilot license is the way to go. It’s true that being a commercial pilot can be much more glamorous and exciting, because you never know where you are going to have to go, and the experiences you will get to be a part of.

A commercial pilot can expect an annual salary of around $86,080, depending on their specialization.

Private pilot

Statistics show that when people want to know how to become a pilot in the US, it’s usually because they want to obtain a private pilot license (PPL). Many people obtaining a PPL do so to be able to fly their own private plane or to charter a private jet on their own time, which they will then operate as the pilot.

As a private pilot, you can fly any aircraft in the certification’s specified category. You can fly at night and have the freedom of being able to fly into a wider range of controlled airports.

However, private pilots are not allowed to be compensated financially or act as a pilot-in-command of an airplane for hire. On the contrary, they may have to cover a pro rata share or an equal portion (along with any passengers) of the operating private plane costs, including fuel, oil, airport expenditures, and rental fees.

Perhaps you want to know how to become a private jet pilot? A PPL alone won’t be sufficient. If you want to be a charter pilot and get paid for operating aircraft, it’s best to obtain both a PPL as well as a commercial pilot license (CPL).

As a charter pilot, your earnings will depend solely on a per-charter basis.

Airline transport pilot

As an airline transport pilot, you would be able to work for commercial airlines and fly those huge airplanes you dreamt of as a kid. For this, you’d need to obtain an airline transport pilot license (ATPL). This is the highest possible pilot certification, and the training and studies are extremely advanced. This career path is also the most lucrative, offering an average annual salary of up to $147,220.

Pilot license types

An airport in the afternoon
An airport in the afternoon

Knowing all the specific pilot license requirements will help you get on the right track towards obtaining the certification you need for your intended type of flying or job:

1. Student Pilot Certificate

The first thing any pilot-in-training needs is a Student Pilot Certificate, which is required to fly alone in an aircraft. This is essential to train as a pilot.

Requirements: Applicants must be at least 16 years old and able to speak, read and write English in line with Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR). Students must also pass a flight physical (medical exam), and provide an endorsement from a certified flight instructor. You must submit your application through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website or on paper (FAA form 8710-1): it will go to a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) or a certificated flight instructor. The authorized individual will process and submit your application to the Airmen Certification Branch. If successful, you should receive your Student Pilot Certificate by mail in approximately three weeks.

2. Private Pilot License

This is the most elementary pilot’s certificate and requires you to learn basic flight maneuvers. Private Pilot License (PPL) holders can fly a small aircraft for personal use. They are allowed to fly with passengers, but not to charge money for their services.

Requirements: Applicants must be at least 17 years old and able to speak, read and write English, as well as do basic math: adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Prospective students will also need to obtain at least a third-class medical certificate, and hold a US student pilot certificate, sport pilot certificate, or recreational pilot certificate. They will also be required to meet the aeronautical experience requirements for the aircraft rating sought.

3. Commercial Pilot License

This certificate is more advanced, and includes training in high-altitude operations and passenger safety. Holders can charge for flying as a pilot. However, the commercial pilot license (CPL) is insufficient to fly for an airline.

Requirements: CPL applicants must be at least 18 years old and able to speak, read and write English. You’ll need to hold at least a PPL to be eligible, and hold a second-class medical certificate. You’ll also need the following logbook endorsements from an instructor: the aeronautical knowledge test and the practical test.

4. Airline Transport Pilot License

This is the highest level of pilot certificate and is required if you wish to be employed as a pilot by an airline in the US.

Requirements: Applicants for the Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) must be at least 23 years old and pass the relevant medical checks, which are more stringent than for the other types of license. Students must accrue at least 1,500 hours of flight time before training can be undertaken. In addition, applicants will need to already have obtained a CPL and an instrument rating. Finally, you’ll need to pass the ATP written and practical tests to be able to achieve your ATPL.

5. Multi-Crew Pilot License

This type of license enables holders to act as co-pilot for commercial air transport and is a less popular choice than the ATPL. The certificate was created by the Flight Crew Licensing and Training Panel of the International Civil Aviation Organization, and adopts a competency-based approach.

Requirements: Applicants for the Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL) must be at least 18 years old and have clocked up at least 250 hours of flight training and 750 hours of theoretical knowledge teaching. They must also meet medical requirements.

Flight schools

Two men in flight school in modern flight simulator for pilot training
Two men in flight school in modern flight simulator for pilot training

Students should always attend a nationally accredited, FAA-approved flight school. If the school is not FAA-approved, you will not be allowed to fly a plane in the US.

You can search for FAA-accredited schools here.

Most courses are made up of a combination of ground school and flight training. Ground-school training equips students with the knowledge and skills required to pass the FAA written exams and land-based practical tests. Ground-school lessons can occur in a classroom or online, while flight training takes place either in a flight simulator or an airplane provided by the school.

Entry requirements

Schools usually test applicants on several skills before considering their applications. This can include mathematics and spatial awareness tests, along with group exercises, simulator-based assessments, and tests on knowledge of the aviation industry. An interview also accompanies exams to ensure candidates are of sound body and mind.

ATPL license training

For the ATPL certificate, students can take one of two routes: integrated training (full-time study) or modular training (modules taken over a longer period at the student’s own pace). Full-time courses usually take 12-18 months to complete. Here are some of the best universities and colleges to study aviation degrees in the US.

Flight instructor courses

Some people choose to become flight instructors and enjoy the idea of teaching other people to become pilots. In the US, you need at least 1,500 hours of flight time as well as an ATPL certificate to work as an airline pilot. Many students complete instructor courses to increase their total number of flight hours. An added bonus is that you can earn money as a flight instructor. The FAA has reduced the flight-time requirements for graduates of certain flight schools who they regard to be of exceptionally high quality, and has provided a list of the schools authorised to do this. Obtaining a job as a flight instructor can also be a stepping stone to becoming employed by an airline. The job can pay anywhere from $28,000 to $65,000 per year. There are three instructor courses that students can take to help them gain more flight hours:

1. Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)

2. Certified Flight Instructor Instrument (CFII)

3. Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI)

Requirements: Flight instructor applicants must be at least 18 years old and hold either a Commercial Pilot License or an Airline Transport Pilot License, plus an instrument rating. They’ll also need to hold a valid FAA third-class medical certificate and receive a logbook endorsement from an authorized instructor on the fundamentals of instructing.

Applying for a job

After obtaining the required certificates/licenses and number of flight hours, the first step is to apply for a job as a pilot at a regional airline. After completing a few years in this role, the next step is to apply for a First Officer opening at an international airline. Alternatively, you can apply at a private charter company, if you prefer the more luxurious in-flight experience.

How much does it cost to train to be a pilot?

It can cost anything between $15,000 and $125,000 to gain a certificate and the 1,500 flying hours required to be eligible for employment as an airline pilot. However, it will largely depend on the school you attend. But if it has always been your dream, and you know you will be committed to your studies and truly feel fulfilled as a pilot, then the hefty costs and grueling hours will be more than worth it!

How ACS can help you become a licensed pilot

Air Charter Service (ACS) is an industry leader in private jet charter, group charter and cargo charter, with offices all around the world. We are dedicated to investing in the future of the aviation industry, and we run an aviation scholarship program for students in the US who are enrolled on a relevant full-time course. Contact us to find out more about our program or for the latest private jet prices.


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