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Getting started with pilot training

Men and women who are intrigued by the possibility of flying an airplane for a living should consider attending a pilot school and becoming a professional pilot. Here is a guide for aspiring pilots, which includes some key considerations when evaluating this career option.

The Talent and Training Necessary to Become a Pilot

Pilot educators and professional pilots say that a flight-based career path isn’t right for everyone, because flying a plane requires a high degree of courage, competence and confidence.

A well-trained pilot can quickly and calmly react to an emergency situation that arises, aviation experts say.

Pilots must be able to address and overcome breakdowns in airplane machinery at a moment’s notice, experts explain, and they also need to be able to safely navigate unanticipated storms. The lives of every passenger on an airplane rely upon the plane’s pilot, so he or she has to be both highly skilled and very trustworthy.

READ: Flight Training: A Guide to Aviation Education. ]

Patrick Smith, an internationally renowned pilot who runs the Ask the Pilot advice blog and website, says that a person who intends to work for a major airline should understand that achieving this career goal will require them to obtain many flight hours.

“In the United States, the typical major airline applicant already possesses thousands of hours of flight time (including various FAA licenses and supplemental ratings) and a college degree to boot,” Smith wrote in an email. “Accumulating that prior experience requires that a pilot choose one of two paths early on: civilian or military.”

He notes that there are pros and cons to both military training and civilian training. “Advantages to the military route include having your training costs covered by the government,” Smith explains. “Drawbacks include intense competition and mandatory service time lasting several years. The civilian route, which is the one I took, is long, unpredictable, and extremely expensive. You’ll need to accrue a series of FAA licenses and ratings, plus hundreds or even thousands of flight hours before your resume becomes competitive.”

The FAA has reduced flight time requirements for graduates of certain flight schools that it has deemed to be of exceptionally high quality, and they are listed on its website.

How Much Does Pilot School Cost?

The price of civilian pilot school depends upon the school. Anyone who hopes to fly for a major airline should understand that those employers typically require pilots to have bachelor’s degrees, which means that four years of tuition dollars are generally necessary in order to reach the pinnacle of the flight field, flight sector experts say.

READ: Aviation Scholarships Help College Degrees Take Flight. ]

Parker Northrup, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who is now the flight department chair at the Arizona campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – a renowned flight school with multiple campuses – suggests that aspiring pilots “recognize that flight training is an expensive endeavor.”

“It varies obviously by school, and there’s a difference between a private university and a public school,” he adds. “They need to approach it as an investment in their future careers.”

Northrup says that because pilot salaries are frequently generous, the return on investment for a pilot education tends to be solid. He estimates that flight fees at a private aviation undergraduate institution usually range from $60,000 to $80,000, a cost that is added on top of whatever tuition a nonflight aviation student might pay.

Pilot Earning Potential and Job Prospects

The median annual salary among U.S. airline pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers was $147,220 in May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, it’s important to note that not every professional pilot works for an airline, and salaries for commercial pilots – whom the BLS defines as pilots who are “involved in unscheduled flight activities, such as aerial application, charter flights, and aerial tours” – are considerably lower than for airline pilots. The median yearly pay among commercial pilots, as of May 2019, was $86,080, according to BLS figures.

Regional airlines typically pay significantly less than major airlines such as Delta Airlines Inc., American Airlines and United Airlines, according to aviation industry experts, who note that it isn’t always feasible to switch from a regional airline to a major one. Moreover, an airline pilot’s salary is highly dependent on his or her level of seniority within a particular airline. That seniority status doesn’t transfer over from one airline to another, which discourages pilots from switching between major airlines, according to experts.

READ: U.S. News Best Jobs: Pilot – Career Rankings, Salary Reviews and Advice. ]

Flight sector experts note that the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the aviation industry, so the short-term job prospects for pilots aren’t quite as usual. “The often-discussed pilot shortage is, for the time being, a thing of the past,” Smith says. “Looking long term, however, the situation brightens, and it’s likely the world’s airlines will be hiring tens of thousands of pilots over the next decade or two. As gloomy as the current environment is, now could be the ideal time to embark on an aviation career.”

How Long Is Pilot School and What Are the Admission Requirements?

The length of an aspiring pilot’s education depends on whether or not he or she pursues a bachelor’s degree, since it is possible to work as either a commercial pilot or a regional airline pilot without a four-year undergrad degree, aviation experts say. However, a four-year college degree is mandatory for aspiring major airline pilots, according to experts.

Northrup notes that flight school applicants are not expected to have any type of flight experience in order to gain admission. He notes that he had no flight experience and had never even been on a plane prior to his admission into the U.S. Air Force Academy. The first time Northrup boarded a plane, he says, is when he headed to college.

The true test for whether someone would make a good pilot arrives when he or she takes a test flight, Northrup says, noting that this sort of immersive learning experience usually happens early in an aviation undergraduate’s college journey, so students can gauge whether they’d like to fly planes or do something else related to planes.

How to Apply to Pilot School or Flight School

According to Northrup, the process of applying to an aviation undergrad program isn’t so different from applying to another type of college. However, he says it is prudent for prospective aviation students to speak with individuals actively working within the aviation industry to gauge whether this sector is one in which they wish to work.

One common misconception, Northrup says, is the idea that an aspiring pilot needs to be solely focused on science, technology, engineering or math – STEM subjects – as opposed to humanities-related academic disciplines in order to qualify for an aviation undergraduate institution. Though individuals who “enjoy working within machines and technology” tend to thrive in aviation, someone who excels in a liberal arts field such as music can be a viable candidate for an aviation college, and people with artistic inclinations can become pilots, Northrup emphasizes.

The primary quality necessary to be a great pilot is to be determined to excel within the field, “because it is a challenging career field, for sure,” Northrup explains.

What Is it Like to Be a Pilot?

Experienced pilots say there is something absolutely thrilling about being in the cockpit of a plane. The legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean, once stated that “the lure of flying is the lure of beauty” and that “the reason flyers fly, whether they know it or not, is the esthetic appeal of flying.”

“It’s just pure joy,” says Northrup, who has been piloting for more than 30 years. “It’s just fun, but the reality is that it is a disciplined, thoughtful path to be a pilot because you’re going to be trusted or entrusted with several hundred people who want to get from New York to LA.”

Northrup notes that a pilot needs to have the type of “professionalism” that makes people comfortable putting their lives in his or her hands. He suggests that aviation is a very important form of transportation.

“Every day there is a requirement to transport more people, more objects, more packages,” he says. “The great thing about it is it’s an unending industry. Somebody is always flying in the United States for some reason or another.”

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