Pilot Career Waypoints
Facts, Quips, Quotes, Tips and Touts for Flight Inspired Individuals
Waypoints are prominent topographical features (airports, towns, etc.) along a proposed route of flight selected by aviators to insure that they are on course to their final destination. As used in this document, the concept has been adopted to help aspiring pilots navigate through the often confusing career preparation process where their “destination” or goal is certification as a professional pilot.
Pilots fly for a lot of reasons: for fun (recreational or sport pilots), to get quickly from point A to point B for whatever reason (private pilots), and in a paid full- or part-time employment capacity (commercial and military pilots). Aviators that make a career of flying civilian or military aircraft will be referred to hereafter as professional (or pro) pilots--the occupational focus of this writing. Untold numbers of aviation enthusiasts envision themselves sitting in the captain’s seat of an airliner or in the cockpit of a military jet. If these dreams become a reality, they will have earned the “pro-pilot” title, but . . .
You must hammer and forge yourself into one.
--Henry D. Thoreau
In the following pages we’ll employ cross-country flight phase point terminology as a conceptual tool in addressing the major preparatory steps leading to the attainment of pro-pilot status. Achieving this career goal could entail the expenditure of more time and money than you ever imagined. It’s important, therefore, to stay focused, and not be discouraged by what might appear as an overwhelming array of requirements and shocking flight training costs. However, take heart as time is on your side and financial support is available.
In order to avoid a lot of “coulda’s” and “shoulda’s” later in life, the career-wrecking demons of apathy, complacency, delusion and procrastination must be continuously confronted! As an airline pilot acquaintance once put it, “If doing what you’re doing isn’t getting you what you want, doing more of what you’re doing is only going to get you more of what you don’t want!” This anecdotal advice also applies to doing nothing, or putting off starting. At play here is what psychologists call intrinsic (self) versus extrinsic (parental, mentor, etc.) motivation. All too often, failure is the result of the absence of the intrinsic motivational factor.
Consider attending a FAPA Future Pilot Forum, free career seminars providing future professional pilots of all ages with objective and independent information about a flying career. FAPA focuses on career changers, students of all ages, parents, teachers and school counselors interested in learning about pathways to a career as a professional pilot.
Waypoint # 1 – Pre-FlightBack to top of page
High School(Note: If you are high school graduate you might wish to skip to the below “Medical Qualification” subsection)
One’s high school years frequently go unappreciated until well into adulthood. If you have yet to graduate you might have wondered why so many adults look back on them so fondly, or get so excited about their class reunions.
As you’ve probably noticed, there are a lot of physical, emotional and intellectual changes occurring during this crucial developmental period. It might also have been your first close encounter with persons with vastly different backgrounds, interests, morals and perspectives. This peer group interaction can have both positive and negative outcomes. Among the undesirable consequences are a loss of focus and the reordering of one’s priorities in the hope of being socially accepted.
Recalling what was said previously about intrinsic motivation, let’s take a look at where your sights should be focused if your goal is to become a pro-pilot.
Academics (Hit the books!)
There’s no getting around the fact that a high school diploma is needed to just survive in today’s high-tech world. For a better, more rewarding life a college degree is rapidly becoming a necessity. Although you probably don’t like to be reminded, a good predictor of success in college is your academic performance in high school. If you aren’t an A or B student, you need to “hammer and forge” yourself into one.
Although Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry can be challenging to many, these disciplines are routinely employed by pilots in flight planning and navigation. Interestingly, mathematical concepts that might have been difficult to grasp in the high school classroom are often easier to understand when applied to real world aeronautical situations.
The Physical Sciences
While pilots aren’t likely to use Biology, Chemistry or Physics on a daily basis, these subjects underlie the fields of aerodynamics and flight physiology. One day your job, if not your life, could depend on your understanding and application of scientific subject matter.
English Grammar and Composition
Pilot employers usually assume that cockpit position applicants can demonstrate acceptable conversational and writing skills. Not only might you risk humiliation if you cannot meet these expectations, but you could also be putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage when the day arrives that you must prepare a resume or make a good impression during a job interview. Oh, and did you know that English is the international language of aviation?
Athletics (Get moving!)
Pilots don’t have to possess Olympian physiques or athletic talents, but how often have you seen an obese military aviator or newly hired airline pilot? Most pro-pilots are keenly aware of the importance of physical fitness, diet, and weight control--and for a very good reason: their required annual or semi-annual medical exams will quickly reveal if they are seriously out-of-shape or at risk for a number of common flying career terminators such as diabetes and uncontrollable hypertension (high blood pressure).
You might consider trying out for a high school varsity or intramural team. But if you aren’t athletic by nature, there will never be a better time to at least cultivate an appreciation for physical fitness and acquire healthful living habits that are likely to carry over well into your adult years.
Extra-curricular Involvements (Broaden your horizons!)
In addition to academic achievement, college admission staff, employers and military recruiters will be looking for evidence of character-building co-curricular involvement. What they seek are indicators of altruism (a focus on others), commitment, maturity, and leadership potential. These traits are often revealed by one’s participation in school-, church-, and charitable organization-sponsored activities.
Leadership development opportunities aren’t hard to find. Among those of possible appeal to future pro-pilots are high school class offices, student council positions, and programs offered by Air Explorer posts, Civil Air Patrol squadrons, Young Eagle Program-sponsoring EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) chapters, and Naval Sea Cadet units. These organizations offer an array of aviation career exposure activities such as orientation flights and pilot ground schools.
Non-profit flying organizations such as Angel Flight and the Hope Flight Foundation can be found in many cities and towns across the country. These aviation-oriented charities perform a number of worthwhile community services including flying medical patients to care facilities and introducing handicapped youth to the wonders of aviation.
Medical Qualification (Determine your medical status as soon as possible)
Most civilian pro-pilot employers prefer that their new hires hold at least the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Class II Medical Certificate, often with no waivers (allowable exceptions). However, the more rigorous FAA Class I Medical Certificate is required by many airlines. Therefore, before investing time and money in flight training, aspiring pro-pilots should schedule a flight physical with an FAA Aviation Medical Examiner (AME).
Armed Forces flight training applicants must pass a military Class I Flying Physical. This examination is usually performed at Department of Defense (DOD) installations and induction centers around the country. Local military recruiters should be able to refer you to the appropriate DOD contacts for scheduling or additional information.
Vision requirements are the cause a lot of pilot career aspirant anxiety. If you have concerns in this regard you should know that many commercial pilots wear glasses or contact lenses. FAA vision standards can be obtained online or by contacting a local AME. Although the wearing of glasses or contact lenses is often disqualifying for military flight training, most of the services allow corrective lenses if a pilot’s visual acuity worsens after pinning on his or her wings.
Waypoint # 2 – Power UpBack to top of page
Without at least a two-year or associate degree from an accredited college or university you are apt to have a difficult time competing in today’s pilot job market--and a four-year or Bachelor’s degree is preferred if not required by most of the major/international airlines and the military services.
Pilot employers seldom view a college degree as an indicator of intelligence, but rather as evidence of self discipline and one’s ability to see a long-term task through to completion. Nor do most pro-pilot recruiters care about your major or minor fields of study. With this as an admittedly oversimplified introduction, let’s take a look at today’s higher education arena and some college selection and academic concentration (major) considerations.
Armed Services Academies
The Air Force, Army, Coast Guard and Navy conduct fully accredited four-year degree programs at their campuses in Colorado Springs, CO; West Point, NY; New London, CT; and Annapolis, MD respectively. Appointment is usually contingent on a congressional referral, and enrollment is predicated on stringent selection criteria including: high school grades, leadership potential, athletic ability, and medical qualification.
Academy cadets enjoy a government stipend from the outset of a four-year enrollment period; and tuition, room, and board are not charged. Upon graduation, cadets receive a regular commission in the grade of Second Lieutenant (Ensign in the Navy). Flight training slot allocations for qualified cadets usually occur in their senior year.
The first year can be particularly grueling. If you have any doubts as to your ability to endure a rigorous academic, physical fitness and military training regimen, you should consider a non-military college education.
Civilian Colleges and Universities
Institutions of higher learning or “IHLs” are commonly classified as: (1) public or private; (2) two-year, four-year or university; and (3) residential or commuting. Various combinations of these defining characteristics are employed to determine an IHL’s type (e.g., public, 4-year, residential; or private, 2-year, commuting, etc.).
Public IHLs derive most of their funding from state or local taxes. Private IHLs, on the other hand, are primarily dependent on student tuition to cover the majority of their operating expenses. Public IHLs are usually more affordable than those in the private sector, especially for students that are residents of the state or municipality in which the IHL is located. Thanks to the GI Bill, enrollment costs can be significantly reduced for military personnel and veterans at public IHLs. Reduced tuition charges are also offered by private IHLs that are Yellow Ribbon Program1 participants.
Two-year or associate degree-granting IHLs are often designated as community or junior colleges. Four-year or Bachelor’s degree-granting IHLs typically include “college” or “university” in their name. Universities can be either publically or privately supported, and offer both undergraduate (Bachelor’s) and graduate (master’s, doctorate and professional) degree programs. Two- and four-year IHL’s that provide student dormitories or married student housing are referred to as “residential” campuses. IHLs without student lodging facilities are called “commuting” campuses.
Academic major or field-of-study decisions for future pilots include the following three IHL degree options:
Flight-focused (pro-pilot) degrees
You might be surprised to learn that over 100 U.S. IHLs conduct two- or four-year pro-pilot degree programs. These offerings are a natural for flight-inspired college-bound youth in search of a way to simultaneously fulfill both degree and pilot certification requirements. Learn more about choosing an aviation college.
Unfortunately, degree-required flight training component costs are often an enrollment deterrent. Charges for the aeronautical certificates and ratings that most pilot recruiters require currently range from about $30,500 to $73,000, and six-figure rotary-wing (helicopter) flight training costs are not uncommon.
Although collegiate flight training expenses are normally spread out over a two- or four-year period, when added to tuition, meals, lodging, and books and supply costs, the budgetary impact can be staggering. However, many pro-pilot program-sponsoring IHLs offer an array of financial impact-mitigating opportunities including institutional scholarships, student loans, and paid internship/work-study programs. Some colleges also offer paid part-time flight and ground school instruction job opportunities for qualified students.
Non-flying aviation degrees
Most pro-pilot program-conducting IHLs also offer non-flying aeronautical degrees including: aerospace engineering, air traffic control, aircraft maintenance, aviation administration/management, avionics and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations.
In addition to being a less costly academic major option, students might choose to enroll in one of these degree programs for a number of other reasons such as college proximity and post-graduation employment prospects. Military pilot aspirants and college ROTC students might opt for a non-flying aviation degree in the hope that “Uncle Sam” will cover their flight training costs after graduation.
Many pilot career hopefuls elect to pursue a degree in a field other than aviation and take their pilot training independently at a commercial flight school. A frequently mentioned reason for doing so is the dreaded possibility that a pilot’s career could be abruptly terminated for medical or other reasons. Were this to occur, and if the pilot held a degree in, say, accounting or business, their employer might be able to justify keeping him or her on the payroll in a non-flying capacity. Non-aviation majors also offer a greater variety of locally available degree options.
A compelling down side of a non-aviation degree, however, is the absence of an aeronautical curricular focus. Attending to seemingly irrelevant academic major, minor and general studies curriculum requirements could be a killer for students that eat, sleep and breathe aviation.
Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)
On-campus Air Force, Army and Navy/Marine Corps ROTC programs are offered at most public and many private IHLs. A number of two- and four-year colleges also conduct off-campus or “cross-town” programs with local ROTC-offering institutions.
ROTC cadets attend on-campus classes and weekly uniformed drills. Cadet enrollment in the first two years of the program is usually open to all physically qualified students; however, acceptance into the program’s advanced or final two-years is often restricted to selected majors.
Cadets in the advanced or final two years of a collegiate ROTC program receive a nominal monetary stipend, and medically qualified participants can compete for a post-graduation flight training slot. A reserve commission and the rank of Second Lieutenant (or Ensign) is conferred on ROTC cadets during graduation ceremonies.
Waypoint # 3 – TakeoffBack to top of page
The minimum aeronautical credentials required by airline recruiters typically include an FAA Commercial Pilot Certificate, and an Instrument and Multi-engine rating. Each of these pilot certification requirements are discussed in greater detail below. Although not an airline pilot employment requirement, flight instructor certificates and their importance as a flight time builder is also discussed. Not treated herein (but worth mentioning) is the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate and aircraft-specific type ratings (e.g., B737, Learjet, etc.). These advanced credentials are frequently required by many if not most U.S. major/international airlines2 and fractional ownership carriers3.
Commercial Pilot Certificate
This license is required in order to serve as pilot-in-command of aircraft carrying persons or property for compensation or hire. Commercial Pilot training providers often presume/require that trainees hold a Private Pilot Certificate. If lacking, Private Pilot training can sometimes be blended into the Commercial Pilot training syllabus. Such instructional add-ons, however, are likely to entail additional time and costs.
Commercial Pilot trainees must meet the FAA requirements spelled out in FAR Parts 61 or 141. There are significant minimum flight time differences between these two regulatory pathways. Under Part 61 it is 250 hours. Training conducted under Part 141, or an “Approved School” program, can reduce this time to 190 hours. Learn more about choosing a flight training school.
A comparison of these regulatory options will reveal some noteworthy advantages and disadvantages between them. A frequently cited advantage of Part 141 training is the above-mentioned 60-hour aeronautical experience requirement reduction. However, as Part 141 programs are frequently more costly, they might not be advisable were a student to take longer than usual to master the required flight maneuvers or related ground school subject matter.
This certificate is required for flight in restricted airspace or in reduced visibility conditions. Pilots lacking an instrument rating must fly in accordance with the FAA’s visual flight rules (VFR). A VFR-only restriction could adversely impact a pilot’s employment prospects. In order to meet the FAA-required aeronautical knowledge, proficiency and experience requirements, instrument rating trainees must complete the requirements spelled out in FAR Part 61.65. Although instrument training is intensive, much of the 40-hour minimum requirement can be fulfilled less expensively in an approved flight simulator.
A number of safety and passenger-/load-carrying advantages accrue to aircraft with two or more engines. Largely for these reasons, multi-engine aircraft predominate in the commercial aviation arena. Consequently, pilots lacking a multi-engine rating are apt to have limited job-finding opportunities. The FAA training requirements for this rating can be found in FAR 61.63(b).
Flight Instructor Certification
The first actual flying job for many newly certificated pilots is flight instruction. Certificated Flight Instructors or “CFIs” may charge for their services, plus they can log all instructional flight time even though it is charged to their students.
CFIs need not possess an instrument or multi-engine rating if providing Private Pilot flight instruction in single-engine aircraft in VFR conditions. CFI-I (Instrument) certification is required before instrument flight training can be given in single-engine aircraft. If instruction is provided in aircraft with two or more engines, a CFI-ME (Multi-engine) certificate is required. A CFI-MEI (Multi-engine plus Instrument) certificate is required to provide instrument training in multi-engine aircraft. The aeronautical knowledge, proficiency and experience requirements for these credentials are listed in FARs 61.181 through 61.199.
Waypoint # 4 – EnrouteBack to top of page
“It’s an employer’s market.” These words are often heard in pilot hiring discussions. Simply put, company recruiters call the shots. Airline personnel staff frequently engage in a process called “cherry picking,” or selecting the best and easiest to reach fruit. In the air carrier industry this translates to a preference for pilots that are fully credentialed, aeronautically experienced, and medically qualified. And, of these three hiring criteria, flight experience often takes precedence. Aeronautical experience assessments are based primarily on pilot log book entries. Airline recruiters rely heavily on these FAA-required records to verify a pilot position applicant’s actual and simulated flight times.
Airline pilot accession trends vacillate over time from grim to great depending on the air carrier industry’s financial situation. At the time of this writing pilot hiring is on the upswing, especially in the regional airline segment4.
Due largely to higher cockpit personnel turnover and lower pay scales, regional airline pilot hiring requirements are usually more flexible than those of the major/international air carriers. For example, if an applicant for a first officer position obtained his or her pilot credentials while enrolled in an FAA-approved four-year pro-pilot college degree program, a number of regional carriers will accept applicants with flight experience as low as the FAA mandated minimum. Some regional airlines also offer a number of innovative pilot hiring provisions including accelerated first officer-to-captain transition times, and guaranteed pilot flow-through to the carrier’s wholly-owned or affiliated major airline.
Unfortunately, few newly licensed civilian airline pilot job seekers will have logged more than 250 total flight hours over the course of their flight training. Additionally, their multi-engine flight time breakouts seldom exceed 50 hours, and rare is the civilian flight school that can offer affordable flight training in turbo-prop or jet aircraft.
As a result of steadily increasing DOD active-duty pilot service obligations (currently 10 years), airline recruiters are re-focusing their pilot hiring sights from the once dominant military wellspring to civilian sources. Although benefitting somewhat from an employment market with fewer military competitors, the hopes of many civilian-trained airline pilot career aspirants are apt to be stymied by the prevailing 1,000-1,500 hour ATP certification requirement. Three time-proven ways of addressing this employment constraint include:
Flight training is the experience-building option of choice for many if not most civilian pilot job-seekers. Depending on their student load, training aircraft availability and local weather conditions, hard-working CFIs could conceivably log up to 1,000 PIC hours per year. After 12-18 months as a full-time CFI, graduates of an FAA-approved pro-pilot degree program would come close to meeting the FAA’s Restricted ATP certification requirements--and, thereby, become a viable candidate for a regional airline first officer position.
General Aviation Pilot Positions
Flight time-building pilot job opportunities in addition to flight instruction exist at airports of all sizes across the country. Examples include: air taxi operations, aircraft delivery, banner or glider towing, border patrol, disaster relief, forest fire surveillance, parachute jumping and sight-seeing operations to mention just a few. Although the minimum hiring requirement for most of these piloting positions is a Commercial Pilot Certificate, some might also call for an Instrument/Multi-engine rating, or currency in aircraft of a specified category and type.
Increasing numbers of IHLs have established mutually beneficial learning/earning partnerships with air carriers, aviation businesses and aeronautically involved government entities. The IHLs benefit by expanding their professional outreach and providing academic credit-carrying practical learning opportunities to students that are willing to absent themselves from the campus for one or more academic terms. Students benefit by obtaining on-the-job experience in career-related areas and acquiring “face time” with potential employers. Internship sponsors benefit by gaining access to motivated temporary help, and the establishment of a conduit of seasoned future employment candidates.
Flight/flight support internships offer pro-pilot degree-seeking students an exposure to contemporary air transportation industry operations including: crew training, dispatch, flight service, safety, regulatory compliance, and public relations. Some internships also offer flight simulator experiences and jump seat authorization providing insights and exposure to real-world cockpit procedures and resource management, next-generation navigation aids and air traffic control radio communication protocols. Being known quantities, pro-pilot students with company internship backgrounds often enjoy a competitive hiring advantage.
Waypoint # 5 – LandingBack to top of page
The odds of a newly-minted pilot getting an airline cockpit job offer are low to nil as few if any would be able to meet the above-discussed hiring criteria. It’s not too early, however, to lay out some goal attainment benchmarks. Toward this end your priorities should be to:
1. Strive for an A or B high school grade point average with high math and science ACT/SAT scores
2. Complete requirements for a two- or four-year college degree; aim for academic honors
3. Acquire at least a Commercial Pilot Certificate with an Instrument and Multi-engine Rating
4. Prepare a professional resume detailing your aeronautical and academic credentials, logbook-verifiable actual and simulated flight times, employment history, and co-curricular involvements, and
5. Schedule an interview with a commuter or regional airline pilot recruiter.
Waypoint # 6 – Button UpBack to top of page
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
'Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go. . .
- - Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Regardless of where one enters the above career preparatory pathway, success is ultimately dependent on a well-prepared pilot’s patience, persistence and resolve. Although these personal attributes will be called upon to some degree at each step of the way, once your initial job search is launched “resolve” is arguably the criterion of foremost importance. Stay engaged, keep your goal and intermediate objectives in focus, and be willing to revise your game plan as necessary to take advantage of newly arising employment opportunities.
1 - A Yellow Ribbon Program description and IHL sponsor listing is available on the Veterans Administration website. Return
2 - Air carriers reporting more than $1 billion in operating revenue during a fiscal year. Return
3 - Externally managed co-ownership operations wherein shares of selected cabin-class aircraft are purchased. Return
4 - Air carriers reporting fiscal year operating revenues below $100 million. Return