What It Takes to Be a Pilot

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The average new-hire major or national airline pilot has a four-year college degree, an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate and Flight Engineer written exam, approximately 3,000 hours of flying experience, and over 1,200 hours of turboprop or jet time.

The minimum licensing requirement to get an airline flying job is a Commercial Pilot Certificate with instrument and multi-engine ratings. Some airlines, especially smaller regional carriers that start pilots out right away as first officers, prefer the Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP) as a matter of company policy. You must have the ATP to become an airline captain.

A few airlines have a flight engineer corps separate from the pilot corps, and they recruit only those flight engineers who have earned not only a Flight Engineer (FE) Certificate but a mechanic license, which is called an Airframe and Powerplant (A&I | Certificate. In other words, they hire Professional Flight Engineers (PFEs). PFEs, as opposed to FEs, do not upgrade to the pilot seats, and they have their own esprit de corps and own unions.

In the past, the military aviator has had a tremendous advantage over most civilian pilots in the amount of knowledge, training and experience that he or she was able to bring to the major airline job search. The civilian pilot need not suffer any shortfall of credentials, however, because today opportunities exist for parity with the military pilot.

A civilian pilot's chances can be improved by having any of the following:
  • A Flight Engineer Certificate. This involves formal schooling, and the student must go deeply into aircraft systems and principles of operation.

  • A Formal Checkout Program in a High-Performance Aircraft. This step will involve attending a school that includes extensive classroom training in systems and performance data, not just enough training to get your type rating.

  • An Associate or Bachelor's Degree in Aviation. This kind of curriculum includes courses in aircraft systems, theories of flight, meteorology, aerodynamics, performance data, etc.

  • An Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic's License. The A&P carries more weight if it is received from a nationally recognized school than if it is obtained from on-the-job experience or self-study. Again, acquiring the A&P entails formal training in systems and theory. Some carriers require the license. The A&P license also provides an edge in flying jobs other than airline piloting, e.g., many smaller corporations looking for pilot-mechanics. These pilots often will start out in the right seat and work on the plane when not flying. As they move to the left seat, their mechanic duties may or may not be dropped.
Home study courses or books on the previously mentioned subjects also can be helpful as an add-on to the formal training.

The schooling is far more important than many pilots realize. So are ratings and other factors. Too many pilots overstress the importance of total time as they compete for jobs. Usually, once a pilot has between 2,000 and 3,000 hours, competitiveness is not greatly increased by adding flight time. The most important factors then become additional ratings, inside contacts, education, the kind of equipment flown, and the time spent in the job search.

The other thing to remember about flight time is the value of the right kind of flying experience. The best experience background you can have is to fly equipment comparable to that flown by the airline at which you are applying, and over a wide route structure. While it is not essential, experience carrying passengers is preferred by passenger airlines. The closer your background is to the actual airline operation, the better your chances of being hired.

Initially, however, building flight time is critical: Among time builders are working and flying as a flight instructor; flying for pipeline and power line patrols, for small freight companies, or for FBOs in forestry duty or other contract work; ferrying aircraft, banner towing, charter flying and crop dusting; and corporate piloting or co-piloting.

The suggested minimum licenses, ratings and flight experience to work as a regional airline or corporate pilot are (1) Commercial Pilot License with multi-engine land rating and instrument rating; (2) Class II medical certificate (Class I preferred); (3) 1,500 hours of total flight time (more or less, varying with pilot demand) with 250 hours of multi-engine flight time (500 hours preferred) and as much turbine time, jet or turboprop, as you can obtain.

The average recent qualifications of major airline new-hire pilots are excellent health and physical condition, with height in proportion to weight; vision correctable lo 20/20 and not worse than 20/200 uncorrected (around 80 percent of the pilots have 20/20 uncorrected vision); a four-year degree, although about 20 percent have fewer than fo.ir years of college; 30 to 35 years of age (the requirement is 21 years old and up), with a few new-hires being over 50.

The technical and experience qualifications are the ATP certificate, the FE turbojet written exam, and flight time proportional to age, to wit: 1,200 hours if you are 21; 3,0( 0 hours at 31; 5,000 hours at 41; and 8,000 hours at 51.

Many schools base their curricula not an Part 61, but on Part 141. Others train under both sets of regulations. In most cases, Part 141 schools use a more sharply defined flight curriculum and more comprehensive ground school program than do strictly Part 61 schools. As a result, the FAA allows students to obtain licenses with less flight time at Part 141-approved schools. Thus, training at one of these schools may be less expensive than at a Part 61 school, but not necessarily: Many students fail to complete their ratings, especially their private licenj- E , in the minimum flight time, and, if the school is charging by the hour for flight time, the additional hours necessary for achieving ratings can run the bill up to equal what y
Where costs are concerned, consider the course length, travel expenses, lodging, meals, local transportation, and the charges for books/manuals, check rides, additional ground/flight training, and written exams needed to complete the course.

Obtaining the needed licenses in the order listed below will prevent you from wasting time and money pursuing unnecessary qualifications.
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