This is probably the question that I get asked the most by friends and others. If not the most it’s probably only behind the “What’s it like?” and “Is it really hard?” questions. I can almost assure you that if you were to ask five different pilots you’d get, you guessed it five different answers. Reason being although there are a specific set of requirements to become a pilot it is really is based upon the individuals goals. Believe it or not, not every pilot wants to become and airline pilot or fly commercially in any capacity at all. Cost is usually the biggest deterrent but there are scenarios out there where that doesn’t have to necessarily be the case. More on that in a moment. For the purposes of this post I will assume that you want to be a commercial pilot, meaning paid to fly, in some capacity or another.
For starters you will need at least a 3rd class medical certificate from an FAA designated Aviation Medical Examiner which can be located here. I suggest this step first, even though it’s not required until your first solo flight, because it’s better to find out about a disqualifying medical condition before spending a substantial about of money on flight training and can’t fly. Personally if your goal is become a commercial pilot I’d recommend a 1st class medical anyway. If you are under 40 years old it is valid for 12 months and after for an additional 48 calendar months. For more details on medicals see this page via the electronic Code of Federal Regulations.
How to train?
To borrow an old saying, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” and it is certainly true when it comes to flight training. Truly it depends on your circumstances when it comes to finances and whether or not you already have a four-year college degree. The bachelor’s degree requirement applies mainly to those aspiring to the likes of American Airlines and other major/legacy carriers. It does not have to be aviation related and its good practice to get a degree in a field you can use should aviation not work for some reason or another. Also, as we continue, please keep in mind there is truly no right or wrong way and this is purely informational so some of you may find a combination of the methods to come works best and that’s ok too.
Paying for Training
First let me start with the funds available crowd. Meaning those who are able to come up with the large sum of money upfront to finance their flight training and also possess a Bachelor’s degree. A fast track program like the Airline Career Pilot Program offered by ATP flight school and others with similar programs would certainly be worth a look. It’s a dedicated program that will get you from zero flight time to flight instructor in 9 months. I myself did not attend ATP, but I imagine with a timeline like that you would need to be ready to fully dedicate yourself to flying and flying only over the course of the program. They also offer self paced options for those who need a little bit more flexibility and work life balance.
For those of us who don’t have that ATP type option we need to decide whether we want to train part 61 or part 141. Part 61 is a little less formal compared to part 141 training but both are professional, safe, and efficient. Part 61 training is also very self-paced and flexible as well. The good folks over at Flying Magazine offer a more comprehensive breakdown of the subject here.
However, for those aiming to be professional pilot’s I’d recommend part 141 training. Why? Because part 141 schools follow an FAA approved curriculum that is geared toward the career orientated flight student and more structured and formal. For example the 141 students at my location, myself included, wear pilot uniforms complete with wings, epaulettes and ties. In addition to the added structure, depending on the program, some part 141 schools are able to have the 1500 hour rule reduced to 1,000 or 1250 hours which will save a bit of time and money.
For those needing a four year degree, and even those who need help with the financing, a college with an aviation department may be right for you. Colleges and Universities all over the country provide flight training through their aviation departments under part 141 regulations and since a degree is awarded most, if not all of these programs are eligible for federal financial aid. I’m sure you can read between the lines there, but that means yes you can afford to fly. Embry Riddle, Purdue and the University of North Dakota are some of the more popular programs but I’d like to recommend that you take a look at Liberty University’s flight program.
On the surface Liberty’s program seems similar to all the rest but there are two differences that I would like to highlight. Liberty offer’s it’s bachelor’s degree of aeronautics in two years for one and two you have the option of taking courses online and training at a remote location close to home called an FTA (flight training affiliate) and still be eligible for either the 1000 or 1250 hour R-ATP. Tuition is very reasonable as well and they are very military friendly. I chose them for these very reasons myself and so far it’s been a great experience, but take that with a grain of salt I am by no means trying to influence a decision just providing information.
Join the Military
For those still young enough, military pilots generally must be under 30 by completion of training, the military is still a very good option. Although it is highly competitive if you have what it takes to make it into one of the academy’s I’d highly recommend giving it a shot. You’ll receive top notch training, and get to fly some pretty cool aircraft all while serving your country and making a difference in the world. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a Thunderbird or Blue Angel then this route is certainly for you. For the Air Force please click here, and for the United States Navy follow this link. Pilot opportunities are available in the reserves and Air National Guard as well.
Your instructor, no matter what path you pursue, is the most important piece of the puzzle outside of yourself. If able I recommend interviewing several and choosing one that is not only knowledgeable but that you feel comfortable with. At any point in your training should you feel you aren’t getting what you need, don’t be afraid to speak up and or ask for a different instructor. You’re making quite the investment by undergoing flight training, so you want to be sure that you are getting your return on that investment as best as possible.
For my fellow veterans out there I’m sure most of you are aware of the two options available that will cover the cost of your flight training. The Montgomery G.I. Bill and the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. I’d recommend taking advantage of the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, if able, because it covers the cost of your flight training after Private if you attend a degree awarding college program as outlined above with participating yellow ribbon schools. That alleviates one of the major burdens for those pursuing a career in aviation. The G.I. Bill gives access to phenomenal training without the associated mountain of debt while working low wage initial flying jobs.
As you can see there are quite a few ways to get started down the path to becoming a professional pilot, and I hope this post has been helpful and informative to you. However these are just general guidelines and a brief overview on getting started. Should you have any specific questions about something I did not cover here please don’t hesitate to head on over to the contact section and send me a message.
The Flyn Panther