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School Counselors

How to Become a Pilot, School Counselor’s Edition

By Tim Genc
September 28, 2020

Here’s a scenario for you teachers and high school guidance counselors: one of your students approaches you and says they want to be a pilot. What do you do? What do you tell them? How versed are you in this area?

If a student who is 5’1” were to tell you that their dream is to play center for the NBA, you might smile and encourage them, but you might be wrestling with thinking about how to steer them in a different direction. So, is it similar for a student who wears glasses, struggles with math, and tells you they want to fly airplanes because, you know, those are the requirements for all pilots?

Being a pilot is a fantastically rewarding career. You can start it later in life as a career change, or it can be your plan A in high school. There are things that a pilot hopeful can do – even in their first years of high school – to help them get a jump start on this career. The goal of this article is to arm you to deal with this student, so you can give them sound advice right away, just before having them reach out to FAPA.aero to speak with one of our Pilot Advisors. For that pilot-aspirant under your care, keep these 7 simple ideas in mind:

1. Becoming a pilot is still a great career!
Aviation is a very cyclical industry, heavily depending on a symbiotic relationship of economy-sensitive resources like oil, manufacturing and people. 9/11, the 2008 Recession and, now, COVID-19 all showed sharp dips in hiring numbers; the first two showed sharp increases following. Recovery from COVID will be no different and, by the time your student is eligible to be interviewed and hired for their first airline job, COVID will be part of a “harder times” discussion of days past.

2. Professional pilots wear glasses, contacts, and have had corrective eye surgery.
When I started my aviation journey in the 90s, the “uncorrected perfect vision” requirement for airline pilots was already a thing of the past, yet it continues to hang in there, topping the charts as one of the most popular misconceptions about becoming a pilot. (Others are height limitations and perfect bills of health.) As long as someone’s vision can become 20/20, they can be a professional civilian pilot.

3. Pilots do NOT have to be math geniuses.
If your student is, quite literally, shooting for the stars and wants to become an astronaut, then the myth of the math whiz might be confirmed. But for the suborbital aspiring pilot, basic math skills are all it takes. Is there math involved in aviation? Of course. Is there math involved in being an English teacher? Yes, too! Is there math involved in driving a car? Yes, again. The required understanding of math is basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and the more difficult of these issues are often calculated on the ground, or solved with the use of technology. Pilots don’t have to be able to do complicated calculus in their heads in mere moments.

4. The military is not the ONLY option for career pilots.
In fact, it is no longer the most common option for those wishing to make aviation their profession. At one point, more than 80% of all airline pilots were military trained. That number has reversed itself, as 80% of airline pilots were NOT military trained. The military is certainly still an option and chosen pilot candidates can complete their pilot training without the large cost currently involved in earning one’s pilot credentials, but in a much larger amount of time than currently possible through many of the vocational non-college routes out there. Like so much of aviation, it is one of many options out there.

5. Pilots can start their training in their freshman year of high school.
There really is no minimum age for a student to start learning to fly, but the minimum age for someone obtain their first pilot certificate – their student pilot certificate – is 16y/o. That means that one could start the process a year or so before. A 9th grader who tells you about their dreams to fly one day for a living should seriously start looking into flights schools – maybe even colleges – as soon as possible. There are ground school and simulator training courses one can pursue early on to get a leg up on their pilot training, before starting to spend copious dollars on aircraft rental. And the training schedule for pilot training can easily be shaped around their school, homework, and even extra-curricular activities schedules.

6. Pilots can complete the most difficult part of their pilot training BEFORE college!
As a continuation of the previous point … the Private Pilot certificate – aviation 101 – is akin to one’s first Driver License. It’s a license to learn and get better at it before further complicating things. This certificate is one of the most difficult – and ambiguous as far as duration – because it is the only certificate in your pilot career that teaches you to fly an airplane. (For that reason, it is also one of the most fun parts of your pilot training!) From that point on, every other training course just gives you a slightly different set of rules to fly by. As this process can begin when someone first enters high school, recommend that they start that process as soon as possible. Most college aviation courses will give a student credit for already having this step completed, but it starts getting complicated if they have completed subsequent training courses and certificates/ratings.

7. An Aviation College/University does NOT have to be the next step after high school.
While a college degree is not currently required by all airlines to become a pilot, it is still a good idea for the student’s growth and a way to set them apart during times when the airlines can be nit-picky about their hiring. That in mind, a future pilot’s college plans can fall into a few categories:
• A 2 or 4-year aviation college where they major in professional flight
• A 2 or 4-year aviation college where they major in another aviation discipline (Aviation Management, Aerospace Engineering, Aviation Human Factors)
• A vocational school where they study another aviation discipline (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones), Air Traffic Control, Aircraft Dispatch)
• A 2 or 4-year college where they major in nothing to do with aviation
• College on hold for now, and enroll in a vocational school to earn their pilot certificates right out of – if not during – high school

Lots of options and, while each has their pros and cons, there aren’t huge career advantages between one and the other. Similar to going to a sporting event and there being multiple doors permitting access to the stadium, there are multiple points of entry into the world of professional aviation. A student has to pick the one that works best for them and their situation.

This list is not meant to turn any school counselor into an expert, but to give you a safe and accurate place from which to start. Chances are – we’re hoping – that this information generates more questions and interest on the part of the student. That’s where FAPA comes in! Please ask your student to call FAPA at (800) JET-JOBS or email a pilot advisor at tim@fapa.aero for more information on the next steps for their career.

We appreciate your ideas and input. Please email your comments or questions about this article to: support@fapa.aero.