Qualifying For the Job of a Pilot

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You've decided you want to go ahead and pursue an airline or other aviation career. How do you proceed? What qualifications do you need to meet? How should you go about meeting qualifications and acquiring the necessary experience for the kind of job you are seeking?

FAPA has done qualifications studies of FAPA-member pilots who are hired by major airlines. Since about 50 percent of pilots hired by the major airlines are FAPA members, the results of these studies will withstand scrutiny.

In one study, FAPA sought to determine the actual qualifications of pilots being hired by the major, national, turbojet and regional air carriers. The categories surveyed ranged from flight ratings and certificates, flight experience, and aviation background to education and physical data. The comprehensive chart on page 14 of this book shows details of that survey.

Generally, most airlines look for qualified applicants between the ages of 21 and 50 (this varies among companies) in top physical condition and good health, with a college education and flying background. A person must be an experienced licensed pilot before he or she can be considered for an airline pilot's position. Most people who become major or national airline pilots will first do either military, corporate or regional airline flying. Once hired, the pilot is trained by the airline to fly its aircraft, as either a co-pilot or a flight engineer. Specific qualifications vary among airlines and are heavily influenced by the supply of pilots as measured against the number of jobs available. When the airlines were rapidly expanding in the mid-1960s, new-pilot needs were overwhelming, and some people were hired as soon as they met the bare minimum requirements: a commercial pilot's license and about 200 hours of flying time. In recent years, requirements have been much higher since there has been a supply of experienced pilots in the right age range. Current hiring trends reveal an emphasis on a well-rounded education, suitable temperament for the job, and specific personality traits, as well as the ability to fly.

The average qualifications of major/national airline new-hires:
  • Height in proportion to weight.

  • Vision correctable to 20/20, but not worse than 20/200. Eighty percent of pilots in 1988 had 20/20 uncorrected. Depending on the airline, from 10 to 30 percent of pilots had less than 20/20 uncorrected vision.

  • Minimum height, 5'2" for men and women at most airlines.

  • High school graduate or better. Eighty percent had a four-year degree in 1988; 98 percent had two years or more of college.

  • Twenty-one years or older; average 32.9 years old. Airlines are hiring older pilots than formerly. Fifteen percent of those hired in 1988 were over age 40.

  • ATP rating (84 percent of pilots had it) and FE written (91 percent).
  • Flight time in proportion to age:

  • 21 years - 1,200 hours

  • 31 years - 3,000 hours

  • 41 years - 5,000 hours

  • 51 years - 8,000 hours

  • Less than 64 percent with military background.
There are three main areas of qualifications to be met if an applicant wishes to be competitive today.

  1. Flying experience. The airlines like to hire people who have as much flying experience as possible, especially pilot-in-command, multi-engine, turboprop and jet. Since it is quite expensive to rent or buy an airplane just to build up flying hours, most people look for work as a pilot, starting out in small airplanes. A commercial flying background is more impressive than recreational when you are trying to convince an airline to hire you. Depending on the preparatory job or jobs you get, in a full-time civilian flying occupation you may accumulate up to 800 or 1,000 flight hours per year (average 300 to 600 hours). The average new-hire airline pilot of the late 1980s had approximately 3,000 hours of flying experience and over 1,200 hours of turboprop or jet time, but at many airlines these figures were on the decline. Some majors had reduced total flying hours required of candidates to as low as 1,200, although the pilot who is hired with so few hours is the rare exception.

  2. Pilot licenses and ratings. The usual minimum licensing requirement is a commercial pilot certificate with instrument and multi-engine ratings. The Air Transport Pilot (ATP) rating and FE written certificates are the most important qualifications you can obtain if you are seeking major/national airline employment. With regional carriers, the ATP is the important rating (62 percent hired in 1988 had the ATP). With the major/national airlines, the FE written exam may carry equal weight with the ATP (90.6 percent hired in 1980 had the flight engineer rating or written). Your preference as to carrier type will help determine which ratings to pursue, but consulting the "New-Hire Qualifications" survey chart on page 16 will yield a quick overview of what the carriers actually prefer when they hire pilots. The full ATP certificate and Flight Engineer (FE) written exam are a "must" with most major carriers.

  3. If you cannot afford or do not have time to pursue these ratings or written exams, you should at least consider getting the written portions completed. As for the "full" ratings, the FE will have to be in a large turbojet aircraft, such as information from specific time periods. Logbooks of this type, if well kept, can come in handy when a prospective employer decides to grill you about your flying record.

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