The decision to become a pilot is an easy one for most. But the process can be confusing. What will you need to do before you can begin flying? How do you choose a flight school? How long will it take? These are questions that every prospective pilot has, but they can be difficult to answer because each student has different needs and goals, and flight training programs are all very different.
In this complete guide to becoming a pilot, you’ll discover exactly what you’ll need to to fulfill your dream of becoming a pilot, including the how to choose a flight school, get a student pilot certificate, apply, build hours and get a job in the aviation industry.
Your Guide to Becoming a Pilot
So you want to become a pilot? Here’s a breakdown of the steps you’ll take to reach your goal of becoming a commercial pilot.
- Are You Eligible? Private Pilot Requirements and Beyond
- Training Options for Ground Training and Flight School
- Choosing a flight school
- Should You Train Under Part 61 or Part 141?
- Getting Your Aviation Medical Certificate and Student Pilot License
- Applying for flight school
- For International Students:
- Apply for a US F-1 or M-1 visa
- Show proof of health or accident insurance while in the U.S.
- Show proof of funds for flight training and living expenses while in the U.S.
- Register and submit background information on flightschoolcandidates.gov.
- Your Private Pilot Certificate and Beyond: What to Expect
- Building Hours and Experience: Advanced Training Options
- Your Professional Pilot Career: Getting a Job
- How much does it cost?
Student Pilots: To be eligible for a student pilot certificate, you must be at least 16 years old and able to read, speak, write and understand English, as required for Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 61.83.
Private Pilots: Private pilot applicants must be at least 17 years old and be able to read, speak, write and understand English, per FAR part 61.103. In addition, you must complete the necessary ground and flight training requirements as required by the federal aviation regulations.
Commercial Pilots and Flight Instructors: Commercial pilot and flight instructor applicants must be at least 18 years old, and as previous certificates require, must also be able to read, speak, write and understand English.
Airline Transport Pilots: Most ATP applicants must be 23 years old, but certain pilots may obtain a restricted ATP certificate at age 21. Read more about the ATP requirements in FAR Part 61.153.
Each pilot certificate or rating typically involves a component of both ground school and flight training. Ground school is any training done on the ground and prepares flight students for the FAA written exam as well as the ground portion of the FAA practical exam.
Ground school can be accomplished by one of any number of different methods. Ground school training at large flight schools like Phoenix East Aviation is often conducted in a classroom setting. Sometimes ground school is completed one-on-one with a flight instructor, through a computer-based course or an online learning program. In the end, a reputable ground school program will cover all of the material necessary to prepare a student for the FAA written exam (included in Part 61.125), and will include the instructor “sign-off” needed to take the written exam.
Flight training options include training with a small flight school or fixed based operator (FBO) or with a larger flight school like PEA. There are many advantages to conducting flight training at an accredited school like PEA. These advantages include access to instructors and aircraft, frequent flights and well-maintained aircraft.
For many prospective flight students, choosing school to attend is a challenge. There are a variety of flight training schools available to get the aeronautical training you need to become an airline pilot. Here are three main types of pilot training programs:
- Fast-Track Airline Programs: Fast-track flight programs like PEA are often the quickest and least expensive route to becoming a commercial pilot. Fast-track programs are flight programs that allow students with zero flight hours to gain the necessary experience to become a commercial pilot in a very short amount of time. These programs typically involve an intense daily training regimen and provide the opportunity to gain aeronautical ratings quickly and safely. Fast-track programs can sometimes be completed in one year, depending on your previous experience, ability to learn and the program you choose, but it can take some time beyond the program to build enough hours and experience to become a competitive candidate for an airline job.
Occasionally, fast-track flight programs are accredited, which means that the academics portion of the flight school must meet specific requirements and is maintained to a specific standard. Additionally, PEA is one of the only flight academies to obtain accreditation, and students who study at PEA are often eligible for college credit at other colleges and universities.
- Colleges and Universities: Collegiate flight training programs usually include flight training and a college degree. These programs are often the most expensive of the flight training programs and take the longest to complete (about four years). If you choose a collegiate flight program, be sure it’s an accredited school.
- The Local Airport FBO: Local fixed base operators, or FBOs, often provide flight training at your own pace. There are multiple advantages and disadvantages to this method of flight training. The ability to fly at a small, local airport without the rigid schedule found at some fast-track or university programs is appealing to some, but this same benefit can also be a detriment, as students in these programs might be less likely to fly regularly and training programs at these schools are less regulated than collegiate and fast track flight schools. Flying at an FBO can also mean frequent instructor changes and scheduling interruptions.
In addition to the specific training methods involved, there are many other factors involved with choosing a flight school. These include cost, aircraft types, instructor availability, location, living conditions, student success rates and graduate job placement.
Above all, the flight school you choose should be one you feel comfortable with. You’ll be spending a lot of time around the airport, aircraft and with your flight instructors, so it’s important that the flight school you choose is an enjoyable place.
There are two different types of FAA flight training programs that are available to prospective pilots: Part 61 and Part 141 training. Both types of training are acceptable, but there are slight differences you’ll want to know before you choose a training program.
- Part 61 flight training programs are the most common type, and the kind that most small flight schools offer. Part 61 training is flexible and allows for you to go at your own pace and allows the program to be adjusted to suit the needs of the students.
With a Part 61 program, instructors are free to use any type of training materials they’d like to use, and can train the student in a variety of different ways. Because Part 61 flight instruction is less structured, it can often take longer to complete.
- Part 141 flight training programs can often be found at larger institutions, including fast-track programs and universities with flight programs. Part 141 flight training is conducted to the same standards as Part 61, but is done under a more structured training outline and more efficiently.
For flight training to be conducted under Part 141 regulations, an FAA-approved training curriculum is required, including detailed lesson plans. In addition, the FAA monitors the performance of Part 141 training, so too many failures or poor performance will be managed.
Because Part 141 flight training is much more structured, the FAA allows students to complete the same training in less required flight time. For example, a private pilot certificate requires at least 40 hours of flight time under Part 61 rules, and only 35 hours under Part 141 regulations.
Part 141 programs can be intense and fast-moving for students, and there’s not always a lot of time to catch up when a student gets behind.
The FAA requires students to obtain a student pilot certificate and aviation medical certificate before they are allowed to fly solo in an aircraft. As such, most flight schools require students to get their student pilot certificate and medical certificate before they arrive for training.
Most of the time, the student pilot certificate and medical certificate are the same document. You’ll be issued a student pilot certificate together with a medical certificate when you pass your aviation medical exam. Rarely, a student might possible a student pilot certificate separately from the medical certificate by visiting a FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).
- Scheduling Your Aviation Medical Exam: You’ll schedule your aviation medical exam with a local aviation medical examiner. A list of local aviation medical examiners can be found on the FAA website, by conducting an internet search, or by asking your flight school which examiner is recommended. Aviation medical examiners are typically medical doctors who perform aviation medical exams in addition to another type of medical practice. These doctors are knowledgeable about specific physiological factors involved in flight and can offer guidance on certain medical conditions as they pertain to flying.
- Types of Aviation Medical Exams: As a student pilot, you have the choice of getting a first class, second class or third class medical certificate. First class medical certificates are required for airline pilots and are the most restrictive of the medical certificates. Second class medical certificates are required for most commercial pilots. Third class medical certificates are the least restrictive and easiest to obtain, and are required for student pilots. All prospective students are required to obtain at least a third-class certificate, but professional pilot hopefuls should consider obtaining a first-class medical certificate to make sure that their health is in satisfactory condition before investing time and money in flight training.
- What to Expect at Your Aviation Medical Exam: The aviation medical exam is simple. The doctor will ask you questions regarding current and previous health issues, and then will perform hearing and vision tests. Other tests may be performed depending on each person’s personal health condition and the type of medical certificate being requested. For most, the aviation medical exam is quite easy.
- What Happens if I’m Denied an Aviation Medical Certificate? First, it’s important to know that most people pass the aviation medical exam without issue. Some medical conditions, however, can require further testing and analysis and will require a review by the FAA. In this case, your doctor will work with the FAA to gather necessary paperwork and help you find a way to fly safely. When the FAA is satisfied that you won’t pose a risk to yourself or others, they may issue a “special issuance” medical certificate. In extreme cases, it’s possible that an application for a medical certificate could be denied, and you’ll be allowed to reapply after a certain period of time (if the medical condition improves, for example).
Once you find a flight school that suits your needs, the next step is to apply. The application process itself varies by flight school. Some application processes are as simple as filling out a form and providing photo identification. Other application processes are more in-depth, requiring waivers, insurance and various other documents. In addition, non-US citizens will find that the process is lengthier, since acquiring a visa and background check can take some time.
At the very least, you’ll probably be asked for a copy of a government-issued identification card like a passport, driver’s license or ID card, as well as any pilot certificates or pilot training documents you may already have. There is often an application fee for flight schools.
Students who are not residents of the United States have a few additional tasks to complete in order to begin flight training in the United States.
- Apply for a US F-1 or M-1 visa: Phoenix East Aviation is approved for the F-1 I-20 form for flight training students in F-1 approved programs, and also approved for the M-1 I-20 form for students who enroll in M-1 approved courses. Flight training cannot be conducted under tourist visa privileges.
- Show proof of health/accident insurance: Most flight schools will require you to obtain insurance while you’re attending flight school in the United States. It’s a good idea to have insurance for health reasons, anyway.
- Show proof of funds for flight training and living expenses while in the U.S.
- Register and submit background information on flightschoolcandidates.gov.
Most prospective pilots have dreams of going beyond the initial private pilot certificate to become a professional pilot. There are a number of professional pilot job options available to students that graduate from an academy like PEA.
But before you begin flight training, you should have an idea of what’s required in order to reach your goal of becoming a commercial pilot. Specifically, to become a professional pilot, in most cases you’ll obtain the following pilot certificates and ratings:
- Private Pilot Certificate: The first step toward becoming a pilot is obtaining a private pilot certificate, which involves learning basic flight maneuvers.
- Instrument Rating: During instrument training, you’ll learn how to navigate by using your instruments in the cockpit alone. You’ll learn how to fly through clouds and in marginal weather conditions safely and efficiently.
- Commercial Pilot Certificate: Commercial pilot training requires a higher level of precision and includes training geared toward passenger safety and comfort, and high altitude operations. A commercial pilot certificate allows you to get paid to fly as a pilot, but to be an airline pilot you’ll still need to get an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate.
- Multi-Engine Rating: Multi-engine aircraft have very different handling and performance characteristics than single-engine aircraft do. Obtaining a multi-engine rating required for most commercial pilot job applicants.
- Certified Flight Instructor (CFI): A CFI isn’t usually a requirement for a professional pilot job, but those who have a CFI will be able to gain more flight hours by instructing.
- Certified Flight Instructor- Instrument (CFII): A CFII is also not usually a requirement to be hired at an airline, but commercial pilot jobs typically require a certain amount of instrument flight hours, and flight instructors who add the instrument rating to their CFI certificate are able to gain valuable instrument flight time. In addition, a CFII rating can mean higher pay for the instructor.
- Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI): As with the CFI and CFII, an MEI is not a requirement, but can help pilots gain hours and valuable multi-engine experience as an instructor.
- Airline Transport Pilot: The ATP is the holy grail of flying certificates. It requires 1500 hours of flight time, and is a requirement for potential airline pilots.
- Specialty Courses: Specialty flight training like Glass Cockpit Training or Aerobatic Training can help build your flight hours and expand upon your experience as a pilot, but isn’t usually required to be hired as a professional pilot.
- Jet Training: Jet training courses, like PEA’s Citation 500 Type Rating Course, will prepare you for the transition from propeller aircraft to jet aircraft. These courses, while completely optional, can help you get a job in a specific aircraft type and will teach you procedures involved with flying jets so that you’re more employable as a professional pilot at an airline, corporation or charter company.
Obtaining pilot certificates is rarely enough for a person to be hired as a commercial pilot. Most commercial pilot jobs, including airline and corporate pilot jobs, require a minimum number of hours just to apply. It’s not uncommon for a person to earn a commercial pilot certificate and still not have enough qualifications to apply for an airline job.
Most pilots who want to become an airline pilot, must obtain many more flight hours than they received during training. For this reason, many new commercial pilots will also obtain a CFI certificate and work for a couple of years to gain experience before they’re eligible for employment at an airline, charter or corporate company. Once enough hours are obtained, a pilot can apply for a job at a regional airline, where they’ll continue to build flight hours and experience in larger turbine aircraft. After a few years at a regional airline, pilots will usually qualify for a first officer position at a major airline.
Those that choose not to flight instruct often gain employment as a banner-towing pilot, a sightseeing pilot, or possibly flying skydivers or photographers around before moving on to regional airlines, cargo or charter flying jobs.
Flying as much as possible is the key to getting an airline job quickly. Becoming a flight instructor is the most common way to earn money and build flight hours toward a professional pilot career.
For many, training is the easy part. Finding a job after you’ve accomplished a pilot training program can be a challenge. There is good news, though: The airline industry is facing an apparent pilot shortage, and it’s expected to continue for some time
Phoenix East Aviation students are invited to interview to become flight instructors at PEA upon completion of their certified flight instructor certificates. PEA instructors fly often and can quickly gain the hours necessary for employment as a regional airline pilot.
There are many types of commercial pilot jobs available to graduates of a flight training program like PEA’s. Here are just a few options:
- Regional Airline Pilot
- Major or International Airline Pilot
- Corporate Pilot
- Charter Pilot
- Contract Pilot (for a private owner)
- Freight/Cargo Pilot
- Flight Instructor
- Ferry Pilot
- Banner towing Pilot
- Sight-Seeing/Tour Pilot
- Agricultural Pilot/Crop Duster
- Skydiver Pilot
- Photographer Pilot
- Airshow Pilot
- Demo Pilot (aircraft sales)
- Medical Evacuation Pilot
- Humanitarian/Charity Pilot
- News/Traffic Pilot
- Pipeline Patrol Pilot
- National Defense or Border Patrol Pilot
- Firefighting or Forestry Pilot
Each of these jobs has its own specific set of requirements and different pilot jobs will require more or less hours and experience. If you’re focused on getting a particular pilot job, you should make sure you know the requirements and qualifications needed to obtain that job.
This question about cost is a tricky one, because there are a lot of variables to flight training, including the type of school, the type of aircraft and avionics used, how long it takes you to complete training, whether you’ll need to pay for housing or training materials, and various extras that may or may not be included in the projected cost.
At PEA, we offer our Professional Program I for $46,496, plus the cost of private pilot training if needed,which is about $11,457. This is a cost for a minimum amount of instructional hours, and some students may not finish in the allotted time. It’s always smart to plan on spending slightly more than the projected amount in case you need extra time to complete a topic or a lesson.
Many students take out loans for flight training, and PEA offers financial assistance and lending agreements through a third party for students enrolled in the flight program.
Flight training might seem like a lot of work, but for those that love flying, the path to becoming an airline pilot is also a lot of fun. Flying is challenging, but most pilots will tell you that it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.
Have more questions? Visit our Frequently Asked Questions page!