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The ultimate guide to pilot training in the US - banner

The ultimate guide to pilot training in the US


If you’ve always dreamed of becoming a pilot, now is the time to take flight. The aviation industry is thriving, with more passengers flying than ever before. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects to see 7.8 billion passengers taking to the air by 2036; nearly double the four billion passengers who flew in 2017. With projected growth of this degree, there’s never been a better time to become a pilot. Pilot training requires dedication, time and money, so it’s best to be sure you want to pursue a career in aviation before you begin. There are different pilot licenses available depending on the career path that interests you most. This guide is designed to help you decide which type of pilot training is right for you, with information on pilot training courses, eligibility, how to apply, costs and more. Whether you hope to fly a private jet or a fighter jet, start your journey here.

Overview of pilot training courses

Single engine training aircrafts parking
Single engine training aircrafts parking

Would you like to fly for a hobby or a career? If you love to fly but aren’t looking for a new profession, you can opt for a Private Pilot License (PPL), which allows you to fly with your friends and family in tow. However, you cannot be financially compensated for flying.

To make an income from your work as a pilot, you must hold an FAA Commercial Pilot Certificate, referred to internationally as a Commercial Pilot License (CPL). Commercial pilots can receive payment for jobs like banner towing, photography and instructing (if you hold a flight instructor certificate), but in order to fly for a commercial airline you’d need to complete the additional hours and training required to gain an Airline Transport Pilot certification (ATP).

The highest level of pilot training comes courtesy of the United States Air Force. In order to be an Air Force pilot, you need to become an officer and undergo rigorous military pilot training.

Private pilot training

If you love to fly for fun or hope to own a private jet one day, a PPL might be the right option for you. Recognized around the world, this license allows you to travel with your friends and family to any destination. You can’t be compensated for your flight, but you can share the operating costs with your passengers.

Do I qualify for PPL training?

Almost anyone can qualify for a PPL. Students must:

  • be at least 16 years old to fly solo balloons and gliders.
  • be at least 17 years old to fly airplanes, helicopters and gyroplanes.
  • be able to read, write, speak and understand English.
  • obtain a third-class medical certificate or higher.
  • be able to perform basic math.

How do I choose a private pilot training program?

There are many places to undergo private pilot training; it’s up to you to choose which course is the best fit. First, take a look through the pilot training programs in your region. Pilot training is available at most airports and many universities and colleges.

It’s often best to choose an FAA-certified training program, as these guarantee high-quality facilities and instructors. FAA-approved schools must meet certain standards regarding staff, curriculum and equipment. Fewer hours are required to earn a pilot certificate when taking classes at a certified school – you need 40 hours at a non-approved school and 35 hours at an FAA-approved school. As most people require more hours to go through the curriculum, the difference is usually irrelevant, but it’s worth considering.

To choose which pilot training program is right for you, make a list of attributes that are most important for you. If you plan to get a more advanced license in the future, you might choose a school that offers higher level certifications. If you work full-time, on the other hand, you might opt for one that offers a flexible schedule. Talk to pilots, read aviation magazines and call the programs or visit in person to see which feels like a good fit.

Pilot training is expensive and, while it can be tempting to go for the least pricey option, ensuring you receive high-quality training should be your top priority. Revisit your checklist to be sure the training program you choose meets your personal standards before committing.

Keep in mind that once you receive your PPL, you’ll need to fly a certain number of hours each year to maintain your skills. The license must be renewed every five years.

How does the course work?

Training for a PPL consists of several of elements:

Ground Training(approx. 35 hours): This section covers a range of topics related to flight theory, including airplane systems, aerodynamic principles, meteorology and federal aviation regulations. Most courses split the curriculum into three stages, with an exam after each stage.

Flight Training(approx. 35-45 hours): Topics covered include pre-flight operations, control of the aircraft, traffic patterns, take-offs and landings, emergency operations and more. Ten flying hours are spent in solo supervised flight and at least five hours must be spent on a cross-country flight with stop landings at two aerodromes that aren’t the aerodrome of departure.

Examinations: Students must complete and pass a multiple-choice theoretical exam. The test consists of nine subjects: Basic Aerodynamics, Aircraft Systems, Flight Instruments, Regulations, Procedures and Airport Operations, Weather, Weather Service, Aircraft Performance, Enroute Flight, Navigation and Communication Procedures. A score of 70% or higher is required and students must pass the written exam before they can take the practical exam.

How long does it take to qualify?

It takes between 45 and 65 hours to complete all the requirements and pass the exams. Depending on how intensively you work, this can take anywhere from two weeks to years. Experts advise completing the coursework assignments in relatively quick succession for optimal knowledge retention.

How do I apply?

Applying for a PPL training course is simple. First, make sure you meet the minimum requirements. Then obtain your third-class FAA medical certificate. To get this, you need to undergo a routine medical examination by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME), a FAA-designated doctor.

It’s a good idea to take introductory flying lessons at the center to be sure you want to commit to the training. Be sure the hours will be credited to your license. Finally, complete and submit your application to the chosen program by the due date.

What are my career prospects?

A PPL doesn’t open up any career opportunities. While you’ll be able to split operating costs with the friends and family you carry, your license doesn’t permit you to charge for your services. If you’d like to fly planes for a living, you’ll need to continue your training and obtain a Commercial Pilot Certificate.

How much does it cost?

The cost of pilot training varies depending on the type of flight school, type of airplane and location; however, you can typically get a PPL for about $10,000 to $15,000. Many schools charge hourly, with the rate calculated by adding the hourly airplane rental fee to the hourly instruction fee.

As an example, an airplane rental including gas might cost $140 per hour. Many flight schools only charge when the airplane’s engine is running, so time spent familiarizing yourself with the aircraft might not be billed as aircraft rental. An instructor’s fee might cost about $50 per hour, but this varies greatly based on their experience and the location of the course.

Additional costs include books, manuals and an aviation headset, plus testing fees of approximately $500. Finally, you need to pay insurance fees to the school for the duration of your program.

Commercial Pilot Training

Airplane flying over clouds and the Alps mountain
Airplane flying over clouds and the Alps mountain

Once you’ve earned your PPL, you’re eligible to start training for an FAA Commercial Pilot Certificate, also called a Commercial Pilot License (CPL). A CPL allows a pilot to be paid for their work.

Commercial pilots might become cargo pilots, tour pilots or flight instructors, but they aren’t yet eligible to fly for a commercial airline. This requires additional training for an Airline Transport Pilot certification (ATP).

Do I qualify for commercial pilot training?

Most individuals qualify for the FAA Commercial Pilot Certificate training. Students must:

  • be able to read, write and speak in fluent English.
  • be at least 18 years old.
  • have a current second-class FAA medical certificate. To get this, you need to undergo a routine medical examination by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME), a FAA-designated doctor.
  • hold a PPL.

How do I choose a course?

There are many different pilot training courses available. The course you select will depend on the amount of training you’ve already undergone and the career path you plan to follow.

The most common commercial pilot training is the Commercial Multi-Engine Land (CMEL) course. Some students also opt to take the Commercial Single-Engine Land (CSEL) course. This course uses single-engine aircraft, which may be beneficial depending on your desired career path.

Most people complete their commercial pilot training in the same aircraft that they used for their private pilot certificate, which is typically a small four-seat plane. Students need to complete 10 hours in a high-performance aircraft. Some choose to do the entire training program in a larger plane, but this is more expensive.

Once you decide which course to take, do your research to select the right flight school for you. You should strongly consider choosing an FAA-certified training program, as these offer high-quality facilities and are required to meet certain standards regarding staff, curriculum and equipment.

Start making a list of the pilot training programs that appeal to you. Make a list of the attributes that are most important and see which schools fit the bill. The majority of reputable programs have open days when you can speak with students, tour the facilities and enquire about post-graduate employment rates.

Commercial pilot training is a very large expense. Some schools offer scholarship programs or payment plans to help defer costs. Make sure you prioritize high-quality training and revisit your checklist before registering to ensure the training program meets your standards.

How does the course work?

Training for a CPL is more indepth than a PPL, but the framework is similar, with ground training, flight training and examinations. Here are the elements found in a typical training course:

Ground Training: Focuses on a range of topics related to flight theory. The course covers topics such as air law and ATC procedures, mass and balance, flight planning and monitoring, meteorology, general navigation, radio navigation and principles of flight.

Flight Training: Flight training in a commercial pilot course is much more robust than in a private pilot course. Students need to gain a total of 250 flight hours, including 50 hours of cross-country flight and 100 hours as a pilot-in-command. Additionally, they must log at least 10 hours’ flying a “complex aircraft” and 10 hours of instrument training. During this time, students have the chance to master complex maneuvers and work on precision. All courses include at least one flight that’s longer than 300 nautical miles.

Examinations: Students must complete a theoretical exam, which is best taken early in the course so they can then use the knowledge to help with the practical portion of flying. The test features 100 multiple choice questions chosen from a list of airplane-related questions in the FAA's commercial pilot test bank. A score of 70% or higher is required.

In addition, students must complete a flight test administered by an FAA inspector or other authorized party. The exam is far more involved than the practical test for a PPL. The instructor will assess the student’s level of precision and professionalism, including conduct before take-off and after landing.

How long does it take to qualify?

While the exact time-frame varies by student, it typically takes about 15 to 18 months to complete commercial pilot training. This schedule can be met if you train five times per week or more. After attaining your CPL, you need to rack up 1,500 hours of flight time to become a commercial airline pilot. This can be accomplished in less than two years if you fly frequently.

How do I apply?

Applying for a training course is simple. First, make sure you meet the minimum requirements. You need to have your PPL and a current second-class FAA medical certificate, which you can obtain by undergoing a routine medical examination by an FAA-designated Aviation Medical Examiner (AME).

Requirements in order, it’s a good idea to sort out your financials first, perhaps by applying for scholarship programs or reaching out to student providers. Then complete and submit your application before the program’s due date. After you’re accepted, you’ll need to select a start date. From that point the course is often non-refundable and non-transferrable, so be sure to choose wisely.

What are my career prospects?

There are many careers available to pilots holding a CPL. One rewarding career path is to become a skydive or jump pilot; an enjoyable career with unique challenges, such as ensuring skydivers jump at exactly the right place at the right altitude and the skill needed to maintain speed and position due to additional the drag caused by jumpers climbing out of the plane. This is a great career path for pilots who love to interact with people and are passionate about skydiving.

Another choice is to become a flight instructor. As an instructor, you’ll have a meaningful impact on the lives of others and plenty of time to improve your knowledge and skill in the air. This is a great choice for pilots who are particularly passionate about the theory and practice of flying.

One of the most lucrative career paths is to become a corporate pilot. Corporate pilots fly business jets domestically and internationally, along with coordinating with FBOs to determine fuel stops and make additional arrangements for the flight.

There are many forums and career pages that announce job openings for commercially licensed pilots and flight students. Additionally, many cities host job fairs and other expositions that allow pilots to network with potential employers and fellow pilots. These opportunities can be instrumental in jump-starting a career in aviation.

How much does it cost?

The cost of training depends on a number of factors, including the type of flight school, type of airplane and location. Most aspiring pilots can get a CPL for about $15,000. However, pilots going on to get their Airline Transport Pilot certification (ATP) must pay thousands more in airplane rental fees and additional charges.

As this is a very large expense, many students opt to take out a loan or apply for scholarships. If you plan on continuing your training to become an airline pilot, many airlines offer sponsored programs – contact the airlines to see which companies offer funding and how the programs are structured. Of course, these programs are designed to filter pilots into their own airline, so there are many elements to consider.

Military Pilot Training

Control panel in military helicopter cockpit
Control panel in military helicopter cockpit

The highest aspiration for many aviation fannatics is to become a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Pilots in the Air Force are deployed on missions worldwide to defend the United States of America and fly on the most technologically advanced planes in the world. Thanks to the highest level of training available, cadets become the best pilots they can possibly be.

In addition to shaping expert pilots, the Air Force works to build role models and strong leaders. Career prospects are plentiful for former Air Force pilots. If you think you have what it takes, the Air Force could be the place for you.

What does it take to be a pilot in the Air Force?

The U.S. Air Force is an elite group and making its ranks is a demanding task. Here are the basic requirements. Students must:

  • be a U.S. citizen.
  • hold a Bachelor’s Degree from a civilian institution or the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
  • have begun pilot training between the ages of 18 and 29.
  • have knowledge of theory of flight, navigation, flying directives, meteorology, aircraft operating procedures and mission tactics.
  • have completed the Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training.
  • have completed a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI).
  • have completed Officer Training School (OTS), Air Force Academy (AFA) or Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC).

A direct route to becoming an Air Force pilot is to complete an undergraduate education at the Air Force Academy. This prestigious program is incredibly competitive – of approximately 12,000 applicants, just over 1,000 are accepted each year. All applicants must be nominated by a congressman and pass rigorous medical and fitness exams.

To be a pilot in the Air Force, candidates must be between 5ft 4in and 6ft 5in tall. Their seated height must fall between 34 and 40 inches. Vision must meet a certain standard and be corrected to 20/20 through glasses or contact lenses. Those who are colorblind or suffer with asthma or certain allergies are ineligible.

Prospective pilots must pass the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test, attaining a score of at least 25 on the pilot exam and a combined score of 50 on the pilot and navigator portions of the exam. This aptitude test takes approximately 3.5 hours and tests applicants on the categories of academics, verbal, math and personality.

How does the training work?

For those who make it into the elite Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, pilot training begins with introductory flight training. ROTC and Officer Training School graduates who don’t have a Private Pilot License must complete 25 hours of flying lessons with an instructor. Courses are often taught by civilian instructors in a single-engine prop plane. Cadets must fly solo at least once before reaching their 17th hour of flying. In addition, there’s at least 25 hours of classroom instruction on flight theory and techniques.

Once cadets have passed introductory flight training, they go on to take specialized pilot training. This intensive program consists of long days of classroom instruction and training in a simulator and an aircraft. Cadets learn basic flying skills at either the Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, the Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma or the Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas.

From there, cadets advance to more specialized training based on skill and class standing. This is when they learn to master a specific aircraft.

How long does it take to qualify?

As cadets must be officers before they can complete pilot training, it usually takes at least four years to become pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

How do I apply?

Begin the application process by reaching out to a recruiter for the U.S. Air Force, who can help you decide which path is right for you by answering your questions and guiding you through the admissions process. You can either go down the route of officer training or start as an enlisted Airman and work your way up.

What are my career prospects?

After graduating, contracted cadets make a commitment for active duty. Many commit for four years of service as a second lieutenant, while others stay longer and build their career as an Air Force pilot.

After leaving the Air Force, many veterans go on to work as pilots at major airlines. Some go on to work for NASA – the vast majority of astronauts have an Air Force background. Other veterans go on to have lucrative careers as corporate pilots, as high-powered CEOs are eager to have the most skilled pilots manning their jets.

How much does it cost?

If you make it into the Air Force Academy, you’ll be treated to fully-paid tuition valued at $400,000, which includes your room and board, medical care, a monthly stipend, interest-free loans to cover emergencies and access to a low-cost life insurance plan.

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