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How to become a pilot in the USA


If you ask a group of children what they want to be when they grow up, chances are that plenty of them will say that they want to be a pilot. Yes, being able to fly planes all day seems like a dream come true for many youngsters, but few people end up actually taking the steps needed to become a pilot.

There are four main types of pilot license, 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 could be employed as a commercial pilot or an airline pilot.

If you’ve decided that it’s time to take charge of your future and take to the skies, this guide is for you and covers everything you need to know about becoming a pilot in the USA, including what pilot training qualifications are required, which flight schools you can attend, and finding a job once 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 that can be paid to fly aircraft, as opposed to a private pilot who can only fly their own private plane or charter a private plane that they will fly themselves.

A commercial pilot usually flies planes that have been chartered to transport passengers as an air taxi or cargo charters, 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 luxurious private plane appeals to you more than the routine of an airline transport pilot, then a commercial pilot license is the way to go. It’s true that being a charter 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 up to $77,200, depending on their specialization.

Private pilot

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

As a private pilot, you can fly any aircraft in the certification’s specified category, are able to 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 in any other way for their flying time.

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

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

Airline Transport Pilot

An airline transport pilot license is the highest possible pilot certification and the training and studies are extremely advanced. It is also the most lucrative, with an average annual salary of up to $127,820 a year. As an airline transport pilot, you will be able to work for commercial airlines and fly those huge airplanes you dreamt of as a kid.

Multi-Crew Pilot

The multi-crew pilot license is seen as the entry-level certification for pilot training. Once attained, this basic certification enables you to operate as a co-pilot of a multi-pilot turbine-powered aircraft under visual and instrument conditions.

This license is almost always seen as a stepping stone to furthering piloting studies, as there is no room for growth otherwise and very low earning potential.

Pilot license types

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:

A familiar view for a commercial pilot - an airport in the early morning
A familiar view for a commercial pilot - an airport in the early morning

1. Student Pilot Certificate

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

Requirements: Applicants must be at least 16 years old and be 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.

2. Private Pilot License

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

Requirements: You must be at least 17 years old and able to speak, read and write English.

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, this license is insufficient to fly for an airline.

Requirements: Commercial Pilot License applicants must be at least 18 years old and able to speak, read and write English.

4. Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL)

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

Requirements: Applicants 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.

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 Airline Transport Pilot License. The certificate was created by the Flight Crew Licensing and Training Panel of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and adopts a competency-based approach.

Requirements: Applicants must be at least 18 years old and have at least 250 hours of flight training and 750 hours of theoretical knowledge teaching.

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 America.

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.

Course applications

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. These 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 USA, you need 1,500 hours of flight time as well as an ATPL certificate in order 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. Obtaining a job as a flight instructor can also be a stepping stone to becoming employed by an airline. There are three instructor courses 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 certificate or an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.

Applying for a job

After obtaining the required certificates 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.

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 hours required to be eligible for employment as an airline pilot. But if it has always been your dream, and you know you will be committed to the studies and truly feel fulfilled as a pilot, then the hefty costs and grueling hours will be worth it!

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