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Maya Kachroo-Levine
Updated December 25, 2018

You might fly regularly and still have no idea what a pilot actually does, and you’d be in good company. So in one sentence, here’s what a pilot does: They operate the engine and navigational controls to fly an aircraft. But of course, a pilot’s job extends far beyond that and doesn’t just start at take off and end at landing. Being a pilot means doing pre-flight safety checks and monitoring the engine, fuel, and interior systems before, after, and during the flight. And the skies aren’t always so friendly—pilots need to be able to maneuver in unfortunate weather conditions, even while sleep-deprived on a long flight.

Whether becoming a pilot is a bucket-list goal for you, or you’re already a licensed pilot looking to work commercially, consider this an introduction on how to become a pilot:

What Kind of Pilot Do You Want to Become?

Getting your pilot’s license is a much more ambiguous goal than you would think. Consider your end goal before you start studying and looking up flight schools so you can hone your focus. Do you want to fly for a major airline? Or are you looking for a private pilot’s license? As the FAA reminds future applicants, “There are several different types of pilot's licenses, from student pilot all the way up to airline transport pilot.” You’ll want to think seriously about which kind of license and training you want to pursue.

Do You Need a College Degree to Become a Pilot?

You do not need a bachelor’s degree to get your pilot’s license. However, you need a four-year college education to become a pilot for a major U.S.-based airline. If you are more interested in flying for a smaller, regional airline, you may not need a college degree. But if you’re specifically looking into how to become an airline pilot, it certainly helps if you have a college degree.

How Do You Get a Student Pilot’s License?

Let’s start with the most elementary pilot’s license. A student pilot’s license is necessary to fly a plane on your own. So it’s something you need to obtain well before you get your private pilot’s license, but it isn’t necessary to take flying lessons. The student pilot’s license doesn’t cost money, but you may need your instructor to vouch for your flight ability. There are certain restrictions on your student pilot’s license—for example, you’re not allowed to fly cross-country. And you need to undergo a medical exam before applying for the student pilot’s license.

How to Become a Pilot: Obtaining Your Private Pilot’s License

After getting a medical exam and receiving your student pilot’s license, your next step is to get a private pilot’s license. That requires taking the FAA Written Exam, which you can pass before or during flight training. However, The Balance points out that it’s easier to train for your pilot’s license if you’ve already taken the written exam because you have more foundational knowledge. Next comes flying experience: You’ll start with the basics like take off, landing, radio communication, and emergency procedures. You have to complete at least 40 hours of flight time during your training, including at least 10 hours of solo flying (and five of those hours need to be for a solo cross-country flight) and 20 hours with an instructor. According to The Balance, you'll also need “at least three hours of cross-country training with your instructor, including three hours of night flying, one cross-country that is over 100 nautical miles, 10 takeoffs and landings, and three hours of basic instrument training.”

And finally, after your written exam and flight hours, it’s time for the FAA Practical Exam. There are three components: A verbal exam, a flight exam, and predictably, a hefty amount of paperwork. The flight portion is one to two hours long, and the entire exam can take anywhere from two to six hours. Once you pass, you’re officially a licensed private pilot (your examiner will give you a temporary license until your official FAA certificate arrives).

How to Become a Commercial Pilot

Becoming a commercial pilot does not necessarily mean you are an airline pilot. On the contrary, to become an airline pilot, you have to have your commercial pilot’s license and an Airline Transport Certificate. A commercial pilot is anyone who is approved by the FAA to charge money to fly an air vessel, which includes airline pilots, cargo pilots, backcountry pilots, tour pilots, flight instructors, ferry pilots, or glider tow pilots.

For those looking into how to become a commercial pilot, you should know that you must attend FAA-approved flight school. You might even consider getting a private flying instructor. Beyond demonstrating your flight ability, you have to take a written test and an instrument rating exam.

You’ll have to complete at least 250 hours of flight time to obtain a commercial pilot’s license. That must include 100 pilot-in-command hours and 50 hours of cross-country flight, including one flight that is at least 300 nautical miles. You also need “at least 10 hours of instrument training and 10 hours in a complex aircraft,” according to The Balance.

The Physical and Medical Examination

Putting in the flight time and the study time is only part of the pilot’s license equation. You must also be deemed physically and mentally fit to fly. Part of the physical exam, for example, is showing that you have good hearing and 20/20 vision, or vision that can be corrected to 20/20. If you’re figuring out how to become an airline pilot, know that there may be additional airline-specific psychological or physical evaluations beyond the regulation exams. Some airlines will also require that you to take a drug test.

The FAA recommends that you go through your medical exam before flight training. They say a medical certificate is needed in order to fly alone in any of the following aircrafts: airplane, helicopter, gyroplane, or airship. And don’t forget that your medical exam needs to be administered by an FAA-authorized aviation medical examiner.

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