Pilot Career

Pilots perform many different kinds of flying jobs. In general, pilots operate an aircraft for the transportation of passengers, freight, mail, or for other commercial purposes. There are approximately 106,000 civilian air­craft pilots and flight engineers employed in the United States.

Pilot Career History

Pilot CareerThe age of modern aviation is generally considered to have begun with the famous flight of Orville and Wil­bur Wright’s heavier-than-air machine on December 17, 1903. On that day, the Wright brothers flew their machine four times and became the first airplane pilots. In the early days of aviation, the pilot’s job was quite different from that of the pilot of today. As he flew the first plane, for instance, Orville Wright was lying on his stomach in the middle of the bottom wing of the plane. There was a strap across his hips, and to turn the plane, Wright had to tilt his hips from side to side.

Aviation developed rapidly as designers raced to improve upon the Wright brothers’ design. During the early years of flight, many aviators earned a living as “barnstormers,” entertaining people with stunts and by taking passengers on short flights around the coun­tryside. Airplanes were quickly adapted to military use.

Pilots soon became famous for their war exploits and for feats of daring and endurance as improvements in airplane designs allowed them to make transcontinen­tal, transoceanic, or transpolar flights. As airplanes grew more complex and an entire industry developed, pilots were joined by copilots and flight engineers to assist in operating the plane.

The airline industry originated from the United States government-run airmail service. Pilots who flew for this service were praised in newspapers, and their work in this new, advanced industry made their jobs seem glamorous. But during the Great Depression, pilots faced the threat of losing their high pay and status. The Air Line Pilots Association stepped in and won federal protection for the airline pilot’s job. In 1978, when the airline industry was deregulated, many expected the pay and status of pilots to decrease. However, the steady growth of airlines built a demand for good pilots and their value remained high.

Today, pilots perform a vari­ety of services. Many pilots fly for the military services. Pilots with commercial airlines fly millions of passenger and cargo flights each year. Other pilots use air­planes for crop-dusting, pipe­line inspection, skydiving, and advertising. Many pilots provide instruction for flight schools. A great many pilots fly solely for pleasure, and many people own their own small planes.

Pilot Job Description

The best known pilots are the commercial pilots who fly for the airlines. Responsible, skilled professionals, they are among the highest paid workers in the country. The typical pilot flight deck crew includes the captain, who is the pilot in command, and the copilot, or first officer. In larger aircraft, there may be a third member of the crew, called the flight engineer, or second offi­cer. The captain of a flight is in complete command of the crew, the aircraft, and the passengers or cargo while they are in flight. In the air, the captain also has the force of law. The aircraft may hold 30 people or 300 or be com­pletely loaded with freight, depending on the airline and type of operations. The plane may be fitted with either turbojet, turboprop (which are propellers driven by jet engines), or reciprocating propeller engines. An aircraft may operate near the speed of sound and at altitudes as high as 40,000 feet.

In addition to actually flying the aircraft, pilots must perform a variety of safety-related tasks. Before each flight, they must determine weather and flight condi­tions, ensure that sufficient fuel is on board to complete the flight safely, and verify the maintenance status of the aircraft. The captain briefs all crew members, including the flight attendants, about the flight. Pilots must also perform system operation checks to test the proper func­tioning of instrumentation, controls, and electronic and mechanical systems on the flight deck. Pilots coordinate their flight plan with airplane dispatchers and air traffic controllers. Flight plans include information about the airplane, the passenger or cargo load, and the air route the pilot is expected to take.

Once all preflight duties have been performed, the captain taxis the aircraft to the designated runway and prepares for takeoff. Takeoff speeds must be calculated based on the aircraft’s weight. The aircraft systems, levers, and switches must be in proper position for takeoff. After takeoff, the pilots may engage an electrical device known as the autopilot. This device can be programmed to main­tain the desired course and altitude. With or without the aid of the autopilot, pilots must constantly monitor the aircraft’s systems.

Because pilots may encounter turbulence, emergen­cies, and other hazardous situations during a flight, good judgment and quick response are extremely important. Pilots receive periodic training and evaluation on their handling of in-flight abnormalities and emergencies and on their operation of the aircraft during challenging weather conditions. As a further safety measure, airline pilots are expected to adhere to checklist procedures in all areas of flight operations.

During a flight, pilots monitor aircraft systems, keep a watchful eye on local weather conditions, perform check­lists, and maintain constant communication with the air traffic controllers along the flight route. The busiest times for pilots are during takeoff and landing. The weather con­ditions at the aircraft’s destination must be obtained and analyzed. The aircraft must be maneuvered and properly configured to make a landing on the runway. When the cloud cover is low and visibility is poor, pilots rely solely on the instruments on the flight deck. These instruments include an altimeter and an artificial horizon. Pilots select the appropriate radio navigation frequencies and corre­sponding course for the ground-based radio and micro­wave signals that provide horizontal, and in some cases vertical, guidance to the landing runway.

After the pilots have safely landed the aircraft, the captain taxis it to the ramp or gate area where passengers and cargo are off-loaded. Pilots then follow “after landing and shutdown” checklist procedures, and inform main­tenance crews of any discrepancies or other problems noted during the flight.

Pilots must also keep detailed logs of their flight hours, both for payroll purposes and to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Pilots with major airlines generally have few nonflying duties. Pilots with smaller airlines, charter services, and other air service companies may be responsible for load­ing the aircraft, refueling, keeping records, performing minor repairs and maintenance, and arranging for major repairs.

The chief pilot directs the operation of the airline’s flight department. This individual is in charge of train­ing new pilots, preparing schedules and assigning flight personnel, reviewing their performance, and improv­ing their morale and efficiency. Chief pilots make sure that all legal and government regulations affecting flight operations are observed, advise the airline during con­tract negotiations with the pilots’ union, and handle a multitude of administrative details.

In addition to airline pilots, there are various other types of pilots. Business pilots, or executive pilots, fly for busi­nesses that have their own planes. These pilots transport cargo, products, or people and maintain the company’s planes as well. Test pilots, though there are not many, are very important. Combining knowledge of flying with an engineering background, they test new models of planes and make sure they function properly. Flight instructors are pilots who teach others how to fly. They teach in class­rooms or provide inflight instruction. Other pilots work as examiners, or check pilots. They fly with experienced pilots as part of their periodic review; they may also give examinations to pilots applying for licenses.

Some pilots are employed in specialties, such as photogrammetry pilots, who fly planes or helicopters over designated areas and photograph the earth’s surface for mapping and other purposes. Facilities-flight-check pilots fly specially equipped planes to test air navigational aids, air traffic controls, and communications equipment and to evaluate installation sites for such equipment.

Pilot Career Requirements

High School

All prospective pilots must complete high school. A col­lege-preparatory curriculum is recommended because of the need for pilots to have at least some college education. Science and mathematics are two important subjects and you should also take advantage of any computer courses offered. You can start pursuing your pilot’s license while in high school.

Postsecondary Training

Most companies that employ pilots require at least two years of college training; many require applicants to be college graduates. Courses in engineering, meteorology, physics, and mathematics are helpful in preparing for a pilot’s career. Flying can be learned in either military or civilian flying schools. There are approximately 600 civil­ian flying schools certified by the FAA, including some colleges and universities that offer degree credit for pilot training. Pilots leaving the military are in great demand.

Certification or Licensing

To become a pilot, certain rigid training requirements must be met. Although obtaining a private pilot’s license is not difficult, it may be quite difficult to obtain a com­mercial license. While there is no specific age limit on when you can begin flying instruction, you must be at least 16 to fly solo. Flying instruction consists of class­room education and flight training from a FAA-certified flight instructor.

Before you make your first solo flight, you must get a medical certificate (certifying that you are in good health) and an instructor-endorsed student pilot certifi­cate. In order to get the student pilot certificate, you must pass a test given by the flight instructor. This test will have questions about FAA rules as well as questions about the model and make of the aircraft you will fly. If you pass the test and the instructor feels you are prepared to make a solo flight, the instructor will sign—or endorse—your pilot certificate and logbook.

To apply for a private pilot’s license, you must take a written examination. To qualify for it, you must be at least 17 years of age, successfully fulfill a solo flying requirement of 20 hours or more, and meet instrument flying and cross-country flying requirements.

All pilots and copilots must be licensed by the FAA before they can do any type of commercial flying. An applicant who is 18 years old and has 250 hours of fly­ing time can apply for a commercial airplane pilot’s license. In applying for this license, you must pass a rigid physical examination and a written test given by the FAA covering safe flight operations, federal avia­tion regulations, navigation principles, radio operation, and meteorology. You also must submit proof that the minimum flight-time requirements have been com­pleted and, in a practical test, demonstrate flying skill and technical competence to a check pilot. Before you receive an FAA license, you must also receive a rating for the kind of plane you can fly (single-engine, multi-engine, or seaplane) and for the specific type of plane, such as Boeing 707 or 747.

An instrument rating by the FAA and a restricted radio telephone operator’s permit by the Federal Com­munications Commission are required. All airline cap­tains must have an air transport pilot license. Applicants for this license must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, including night flying and instrument time. All pilots are subject to two-year flight reviews, regular six-month FAA flight checks, simulator tests, and medical exams. The FAA also makes unannounced spot-check inspections of all pilots. Jet pilots, helicopter pilots, and agricultural pilots all have special training in their respective fields.

Other Requirements

Sound physical and emotional health are essential requirements for aspiring pilots. Emotional stability is necessary because the safety of other people depends upon a pilot remaining calm and level-headed, no mat­ter how trying the situation. Physical health is equally important. You must have 20/20 vision with or with­out glasses, good hearing; normal heart rate and blood pressure, and no physical handicaps that could hinder performance.

Exploring Pilot Career

Pilot CareerHigh school students who are interested in flying may join the Explorers (Boy Scouts of America) or a high school aviation club. One of the most valuable experi­ences for high school students who want to be a pilot is to learn to be a ham radio operator, which is one of the qualifications for commercial flying.


There are approximately 106,000 commercial pilots in the United States. The commercial airlines, including both passenger and cargo transport companies, are the primary employers of pilots. Pilots also work in gen­eral aviation, and many are trained and employed by the military.

Starting Out

A large percentage of commercial pilots have received their training in the armed forces. A military pilot who wants to apply for a commercial airplane pilot’s license is required to pass only the Federal Aviation Regulations examination if application is made within a year after leaving the service.

Pilots possessing the necessary qualifications and license may apply directly to a commercial airline for a job. If accepted, they will go through a company orienta­tion course, usually including both classroom instruction and practical training in company planes.

Those who are interested in becoming business pilots will do well to start their careers in mechanics. They may also have military flying experience, but the strongest recommendation for a business pilot’s job is an airframe and power plant (A and P) rating. They should also have at least 500 hours of flying time and have both commercial and instrument ratings on their license. They apply directly to the firm for which they would like to work.


Many beginning pilots start out as copilots. Seniority is the pilot’s most important asset. If pilots leave one employer and go to another, they must start from the bot­tom again, no matter how much experience was gained with the first employer. The position of captain on a large airline is a high-seniority, high-prestige, and high-pay­ing job. Pilots may also advance to the position of check pilot, testing other pilots for advanced ratings; chief pilot, supervising the work of other pilots; or to administrative or executive positions with a commercial airline (ground operations). They may also become self-employed, open­ing a flying business, such as a flight instruction, agricul­tural aviation, air-taxi, or charter service.


Airline pilots are among the highest paid workers in the country. Salaries vary widely depending on a number of factors, including the specific airline, type of aircraft flown, number of years with a company, and level of experience. Airline pilots are also paid more for interna­tional and nighttime flights.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median annual earnings of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers were $138,170 in 2005. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $51,540; the highest paid 10 percent earned $145,600 or more. Those employed in scheduled air transportation had median earnings of $144,280. Commercial pilots had median annual earnings of $55,810 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $28,420 to more than $114,040.

Pilots with commercial airlines receive life and health insurance and retirement benefits; if they fail their FAA physical exam during their career, they are eligible to receive disability benefits. Some airlines give pilots allow­ances for buying and cleaning their uniforms. Pilots and their families may usually fly free or at reduced fares on their own or other airlines.

Work Environment

Airline pilots work with the best possible equipment and under highly favorable circumstances. They command a great deal of respect. Although many pilots regularly fly the same routes, no two flights are ever the same. FAA regulations limit airline pilots to no more than 100 flying hours per month. Most airline pilots fly approxi­mately 75 hours per month and spend another 75 hours a month on nonflying duties.

While being an airline pilot can be a rewarding career, it can also be extremely stressful. During flights, they must maintain constant concentration on a variety of factors. They must always be alert to changes in conditions and to any problems that may occur. They are often responsible for hundreds of lives besides their own, and they are always aware that fly­ing contains an element of risk. During emergencies, they must react quickly, logically, and decisively. Pilots often work irregular hours, may be away from home a lot, and are subject to jet lag and other conditions associated with flying. Pilots employed with smaller airlines may also be required to perform other, nonflying duties, which increase the number of hours they work each month.

For other pilots who handle small planes, emergency equipment, and supply delivery or routes to remote and isolated areas, the hazards may be more evident. Drop­ping medical supplies in Central Africa, flying relief supplies into war zones, or delivering mail to northern Alaska are more difficult tasks than most pilots face. Business pilot schedules may be highly irregular and they must be on call for a great portion of their off-duty time. Business pilots and most private and small plane pilots are also frequently called upon to perform maintenance and repairs.

Today, even commercial pilots face dangers that rival those encountered by small-plane pilots in war-torn or hard-to-reach areas. Airplanes have been a favorite target for terrorist activity for a number of years because they provide easy access to large numbers of hostages and transportation anywhere in the world. Terrorists found it easy to board commercial flights in September 2001, take command, and kill pilots, air crew, passengers, and huge numbers of work­ers at New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Since then, all kinds of safety and security measures have been implemented at airports and on board aircraft. Engineers are designing ways to secure cockpits to protect pilots and crew, as well as ways to communicate dangers to ground crew. Even so, flying an aircraft carries risks that are on the minds of all pilots today.

Pilot Career Outlook

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment for pilots will grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. The entire airline industry has slowed. More than 100,000 airline employees were laid off after the 2001 terrorist attacks. To keep from going bankrupt, many airlines are undergoing restruc­turing that involves more layoffs and hiring freezes.

The airline industry expects a slow recovery process. It will take some time for crew and passengers to become accustomed to heightened security procedures and for traveler confidence to return. To compound problems, the airline industry is extremely sensitive to changes in the economy. When the economy suffers a downturn, every­one is less likely to spend money on air travel.

Opportunities will be best at regional airlines and low-fare carriers, which have experienced faster growth than the major airlines. Pilots who fly for air cargo carriers will also have good opportunities as these companies receive more shipping business as a result of security restrictions on the shipping of freight via passenger airlines. Employ­ment for flight engineers is expected to decline as more planes are built that require only two-person crews.

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