What it Takes to Become a Pilot

 It takes more than just flying hours to earn a pilot certificate. 

Pilots not only need to feel confident maneuvering a plane, but they also need leadership skills if they plan to fly with a crew and passengers. Depending on the type of flying you wish to do, there are a number of experiences that can help you prepare to become a pilot.

What it Takes to Become a Pilot

Before Lift-Off

For anyone interested in flying, there are some basic health requirements. These not only ensure that you’re fit to fly, but that you’re not a risk to those who will be on the plane with you. All potential pilots need medical clearance regarding the following:

  • 20/20 vision (with or without corrective lenses)

  • Pass a colorblindness test

  • Pass a hearing test

  • Pass a neurological test

  • Pass a cardiovascular test

These are flight school prerequisites and must be administered by an aeromedical examiner. Depending on the type of pilot license, medical certificates need to be renewed every six to 12 months.

Education for Pilots

Becoming a pilot doesn’t begin in flight school; it starts in high school. Since many commercial airlines require their pilots to have an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree, it’s important to also have a high school diploma or equivalent. Whether or not you’re interested in flying as a teen doesn’t matter much- it’s just important to start laying a strong foundation for further education.

If, once in college, you know you’re going to pursue a career as a pilot, there are a number of degrees that can prepare you for flight school. While not required for admission to flight schools, you may find it beneficial to have a Bachelor’s related to flying:

  • Aircraft Operations

  • Aviation

  • Aeronautical Engineering

Your education path does not necessarily need to be related to the field of flying, though. Some major commercial airlines do require a college degree to help them weed out candidates, but you don’t have to have a degree to fly. Commercial airline applicants who have demonstrated their ability to commit to education may have a leg up, regardless of their field of study. However, it can’t hurt to have an emphasis on math and physics throughout your education, whether you fly privately or commercially.

Types of Pilot Certifications

Don’t let your education, or lack thereof, limit you. If you want to fly, there are a number of certifications available that do not require a degree. You can earn your pilot certificates from private flight schools, military training, or directly via an airline.

Student Pilot Certificate

Independently, or in conjunction with your higher education studies, you can train for a student pilot certificate. If you’re at least 16 years old, with an approved instructor you can earn the first level of training needed to fly a plane on your own. A student pilot certificate allows you to fly alone under certain circumstances, and your flight instructor will determine what types of aircraft you’re allowed to fly based on your experience together.

Recreational Pilot Certificate

A step up from a student pilot is a recreational pilot. This flyer can operate slightly bigger aircraft with up to four seats, but with only one passenger. Recreational pilots are restricted to daylight flying only, and they cannot fly for monetary compensation. You must be at least 17 years old to earn a recreational pilot certificate, and you’ll have to log 30 hours of flight time, which must consist of:

  • 15 hours of flight training

  • 3 hours of solo flying 

  • 2 hours of cross-country flying

Private Pilot Certificate

Did you know you can also earn a private pilot license at the age of 17? As long as you have earned a student pilot certificate, have logged the appropriate training, and pass a test, you can fly a plane around the same age most teens are grounded in cars. Private pilots need at least 40 hours of flight time, with includes the following:

  • 20 hours flying with an instructor

  • 10 hours solo flying

  • 5 hours solo flying cross-country

  • 3 hours of night flying

Private pilots are permitted to fly for leisure or for personal business, without monetary compensation.

Whether or not you want to become a commercial pilot, you should start with a private pilot certificate. This gives you experience with a single-engine airplane and gets you familiar with the instruments of flying. With the supervision of a flight instructor, you’ll gain at least 250 hours of flight time, and at least 40 hours of instrument training.

Commercial Pilot Certificate

Once you’ve completed the training for a student, recreational, and/or private pilot certificate, you can advance to becoming a commercial pilot. At this point, you can fly for monetary compensation. You’ll need at least 250 hours of flight time, with 100 of those hours as the primary pilot, or pilot-in-command. Commercial pilots also need to be at least 18 years old, and pass off flight hours, written tests, and an oral test.

  • 250 hours of flight time, 20 of which are with an instructor

  • 10 of 250 hours should be solo flights

  • 50 nautical miles

  • 250 miles cross-country

  • 100-question written test

Being classified as a commercial pilot does not automatically mean you can fly with passengers for compensation. Typically, regulations allow a commercial pilot to instruct other pilots-in-training, tow banners, dust crops, or fly for aerial photography. 

Airline Transport Pilot Certificate

If your end goal is to be a pilot for a major airline, you’ll need to earn an Airline Transport Pilot certificate (ATP). This classification allows a pilot to move passengers and cargo for monetary compensation. An ATP must be at least 23 years of age.

In addition to the practical application of flying skills, pilots need to pass a written test, which may need to be retaken every two years. Other qualifications include, but are not limited to:

  • 1,500 hours of flight time

  • 500 hours of cross-country flying

  • 100 hours of night flying

  • 75 hours of instrument training and operation

Keep in mind that pilots who fly professionally also need to have people skills. As a pilot, you’ll need to work well with others and be able to keep others calm in the event of a crisis. Pilots need to be able to think and act quickly and have knowledge of the craft they’re flying. If it sounds like the right type of adventure for you, it’s never too late to see if you have what it takes to become a pilot.

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