How To Become A Pilot | Salary and Programs 2024

Published on April 2, 2023 · Updated on May 15, 2023

How To Become A Pilot | Salary and Programs 2024

Published on April 2, 2023 · Updated on May 15, 2023

What Is Pilot School?

Pilot schools offer flight training programs for those who want to become a pilot for professional aviation goals or those who want to fly for recreation. For those interested in a career as a pilot, FAA-approved courses and nationally accredited training programs feature curricula that can lead to a lucrative and exciting future as a commercial pilot, a flight instructor, or a cargo pilot. 

With airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers earning a median annual salary of $202,180 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the demand for pilots expected to grow by 6% over the next several years, now is an excellent time to explore whether pilot school is right for you.

What to Expect in Pilot School?

Education For Pilot School

Though most people - and particularly passengers - assume that you need a college degree to become a commercial airline pilot, at this point there are no major airlines that require pilots to have a four-year degree in order to qualify for a position in the cockpit. A college degree is considered “preferred,” yet there is no specific degree that is viewed as preparatory for flight.  The one benefit that having a college degree gives a pilot applicant is a reduction in the number of hours of flight time required for eligibility.

Types of Pilot Classes

If you’re wondering how to become a pilot, you should complete a series of steps that build upon one another. Students start with these 3 steps:

  1. Earning a Private Pilot Certificate
  2. Adding an instrument rating that allows you to fly under Instrument Flight Rules
  3. Earning a commercial pilot’s certificate, a flight instructor certificate, and finally a multi-engine rating

The courses you can expect to take in pilot school will vary depending upon your specific goals. Some programs provide the training necessary to become a commercial pilot while others prepare for roles as Flight Instructor or First Officer.

Pilot School includes both ground training and flight training. In ground school you can expect to study and learn the following:

  • Aerodynamics
  • Flight systems
  • Navigation
  • Airplane instruments
  • Weather principles
  • Airport policies, operations, and runways

The flight training aspect of pilot school begins with earning a single-engine private pilot certificate, which is also known as the “license to learn.” Other courses will include

  • Instrument rating
  • Federal aviation regulations
  • Getting to know the aircraft
  • Principles of Flight
  • Aeromedical knowledge
  • Flight maneuvers and pilot duties

Skills Learned in a Pilot School

Pilot school begins with addressing what pilots need to know to control and fly a private plane. As students continue their journey, additional knowledge and experience gets added on. Among the important skills learned are:

  • Using aeronautical charges for navigation
  • Dead reckoning
  • Understanding navigation systems
  • Safe and efficient operation of aircraft, including collision avoidance and recognition and avoidance of wake turbulence
  • Obtaining information on runway lengths, data on takeoff and landing distances, weather reports and forecasts, and fuel requirements
  • Accident and incident reporting
  • Radio communication
  • Spin entry and recovery techniques
  • Planning for alternatives to planned flights
  • Takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds
  • Ground reference maneuvers
  • Basic instrument maneuvers
  • Postflight procedures
  • Slow flights and stalls
  • Recognition of critical weather situations from the ground and in flight
  • Wind shear avoidance
  • Weight and balance computations
  • Emergency operations
  • Night operations

How Long Does it Take to Become a Pilot?

The amount of time that it takes to become a pilot depends on your specific goals, as the different professional opportunities for pilots require different certifications and numbers of flight hours. Generally speaking, if you start with no experience and your goal is to become a Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor, you can complete pilot school in one year or less.

And with every major airline having eliminated its college degree requirement, you can dedicate your time to putting in the hours in the cockpit to reach the 1,500 hour total to reach this high level. If, however, you choose to pursue a college degree (which cuts 500 hours from your required flight time), the timeline provided below can be completed during that four year period. You can also begin flying before you have completed your degree.

  1. 8-12 weeks to obtain your single-engine Private Pilot Certificate
  2. 6-12 weeks to earn Instrument Rating
  3. 6-12 weeks to build the amount of time (110 hours) required to qualify to train to become a commercial pilot
  4. 5 weeks to build to 190-250 total flight hours and learn the additional skills required to become a commercial pilot

Following completion of Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor training, those who are interested in adding on multiple-engine training can do so in another 5 weeks.

If you are interested in becoming an airline pilot and flying regularly scheduled passenger flights, you will need an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. This is the highest pilot license that the FAA issues and requires 1,500 flight hours. This can generally be accomplished within another two years.

Note: Aspiring pilots who flew in the military, or through a collegiate flight program, could be required to have a reduced number of required hours in order to achieve certification. Military pilots are able to qualify for a restricted ATP with just 750 hours of experience, while graduates of four-year aviation colleges can obtain a restricted ATP certification with 1,000 hours. Graduates of two-year aviation colleges must log at least 1,250 hours of flight.

Pilot Specializations and Certifications

Pilot school offers a world of opportunities and choices for those interested in flying. As you gain more experience, you may choose to continue pursuing additional pilot licenses to expand upon your career options. Though every aspiring pilot begins with a Private Pilot’s License (PPL), there are other levels and licenses that can be earned. They are:

This is for pilots in training. Requires a minimum age of 16, a student pilot application, and a medical examination from a qualified aviation medical examiner.

This is for daytime operation of lightweight and ultra-lightweight aircraft. Requires 20 hours of flight time as a student pilot. Can’t fly above 10,000 feet and can’t fly in Class B, C, or D airspace
This is for daytime operations of slightly larger aircraft than those under a Sport pilot certificate, but not at controlled airports. Requires 30 hours of flight time on a student pilot’s license. Must stay within 50 nautical minutes of departure airport, can’t fly in B, C, or D airspace.

This is for pilots who want to fly multiple aircraft both during daylight hours and at night, at controlled airports. Requires a 3rd class medical exam from a licensed aviation medical examiner, must be 17 years of age and have 35 to 40 hours of flight time.

This is for pilots who are paid for their services. Requires a second-class medical exam from a licensed aviation medical examiner, must be 18 years of age, a PPL holder, and must have between 190 and 250 total hours of flight time.

This is for pilots who fly for commercial airlines. Requires first class medical exam from an aviation medical examiner, both a PPL and CPL license, an Instrument Rating on their CPL license, and completion of an FAA Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training program.

This is for pilots who are paid to train other aspiring pilots. Requires a minimum age of 18, must hold a CPL, and be Instrument Rated. Must submit to a 3rd class medical exam from an aviation medical examiner, 15 hours of “pilot in command” training, and proficiency in instruction.

What Can You Do with Pilot Training?

While many people attend pilot school for the ability to fly recreationally, the real value of the programs offered is the ability to be paid for the ability to fly safely. From flying charter planes, corporate jets, tour planes, or freight planes to a career piloting passengers on commercial airlines around the world, it all starts with attending pilot school.


How to Become a Commercial Pilot

Becoming a commercial pilot requires both flight training and meeting FAA requirements. Here are the steps:

  1. Earn a Private Pilot’s License
  2. Undergo a second-class medical exam from a licensed aviation medical examiner
  3. Accrue between 190 and 250 total flight hours

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual pay for commercial pilots is $99,640, with a significant range of salaries offered by different industries. Commercial piloting describes almost every type of work in which a person is paid to fly an aircraft on an unscheduled basis, including charter flights and aerial tours, flying corporate jets, and cargo or mail carriers. Commercial pilots can also use their training and knowledge for work on the ground. Typical positions include avionics technicians and air traffic controllers.

The need for commercial pilots is expected to grow by approximately 5% over the next several years as demand grows and professionals retire from the field or seek other employment opportunities.

How to Become an Airline Pilot

Airline pilots are responsible for the safety of hundreds of passengers at a time, and therefore the requirements for an Airline Pilot’s License are more stringent and demanding than those of commercial pilots. Here are the steps to become an airline pilot:

  1. After earning both a Private Pilot’s License and Commercial Pilot’s License, candidates must also earn an Instrument Rating on their Commercial Pilot License
  2. Complete an FAA Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program
  3. Pass a first class medical examination conducted by an aviation medical examiner

Commercial airline pilots are paid generous salaries in exchange for their expertise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average median pay for an airline pilot is $202,180, and the demand for these professionals is expected to grow by 6% over the next ten years.

Other Careers with Pilot School, and How Much Do Pilots Make?

Air Traffic Controllers
  • Median Salary: $129,750 
  • Career Outlook: +1% (2020-2030)

Air traffic controllers are in charge of how aircrafts fly in and out of airports and how they travel within the grounds of the airport. Their job is to ensure safety and efficiency.

Flight Instructor
  • Median Salary: $109,421 
  • Career Outlook: +6% (2020-2030)

Flight instructors teach pilot candidates to fly aircrafts, as well as all aspects of ground flight training.

Air Ambulance Pilot
  • Median Salary: $81,500 
  • Career Outlook: +6% (2020-2030)

Fixed-wing air ambulance pilots fly small plains to assist with emergency rescue and medical transport.

Source: BLS

Outstanding Pilot Schools in the U.S.

Purdue University School of Aviation and Transportation Technology – West Lafayette, Indiana

Purdue University's School of Aviation and Transportation Technology offers both undergraduate degrees and graduate programs for aspiring pilots and aviation professionals. Undergraduate majors include: 

  • Aeronautical Engineering Technology
  • Aerospace Financial Analysis
  • Airline Management and Operations
  • Airport Management and Operations
  • Aviation Management
  • Professional Flight
  • Unmanned Aerial Systems
  • Five-year Combined BS-MS degree program

The school also offers certificates, online and in-person Master’s programs in Aviation and Aerospace Management, and PhD programs in Aviation Technology and Management.

Purdue’s programs focus on safety, quality, and sustainability with the goal of creating leaders who can meet the needs of the transportation industry as it evolves. The school also offers students the opportunity to partner with aviation industry leaders.

Bowling Green State University – Bowling Green, Ohio

Bowling Green State University offers a Bachelor of Science in Aviation through its College of Technology, Architecture, and Applied Engineering. The Aviation Studies major will prepare graduates for a variety of positions in general and commercial aviation by educating in three specialization areas: aviation management and operations, aviation engineering technology, and flight technology and operations.

The school operates in accordance with FAA flight certification regulations. The curriculum includes science and mathematics requirements as well as business classes. Students who have already accrued flight and ground training hours will be limited in the amount of credit they receive for this experience: all subsequent flight and ground training must be completed in residence at Bowling Green. 

Graduates receive a bachelor’s degree that reflects their ability to solve aviation-related problems. Those who choose the flight technology specialization are also expected to plan, organize, conduct, and complete a safe and efficient flight in a single-engine aircraft. This specialization prepares the student for a career as a commercial pilot.

Oklahoma State University – Stillwater, Oklahoma

Oklahoma State University offers an undergraduate degree program that prepares graduates for a range or careers within the aerospace industry. Degree options include Aerospace Security, Aviation Management, Professional Pilot, and Technical Service Management. The Professional Pilot program endows students with both flight skills and classroom knowledge and is authorized by the FAA as a Part 141 institution capable of preparing graduates to fly in the private sector, work as certified flight instructors, or to succeed in non-commercial flight jobs.

OSU also offers a Master’s degree in Aviation and Space and a Doctor of Education degree in Aviation and Space Education.

Aviator College of Aeronautical Science & Technology – Fort Pierce, Florida

Aviator College of Aeronautical Science & Technology is certified under FAA Part 141 regulations and offers an associate degree program, a bachelor’s degree program, a commercial pilot program, and an aviation maintenance program. 

The Associate of Science degree program centers on Commercial Pilot training and prepares students for FAA certification and ratings. It is well suited to students looking to maximize flight time while earning a college degree and takes two years to complete. The Bachelor of Science degree program offers the same core foundation courses as the associate degree program and is also centered on the commercial pilot certification. This program also permits students to attain greater subject matter expertise through upper-level courses.

The school also offers a 12-month Commercial Pilot program that prepares students for flight certification. It includes a minimum of 200 hours of flight training, 31 of which will be accumulated in multi-engine airplanes and 33 of which are in a flight simulator. The Aviation Maintenance program is a 15-month program that combines classroom activities with hands-on experience to prepare students to perform engine maintenance and inspections, repairs, and more.

Blue Skies Flying Services – Lake in the Hills, Illinois

Blue Skies Flying Services has repeatedly been recognized as one of the country’s best aviation educational training facilities. It offers full-service flight school programs and instruction leading to the Private Pilot License, Instrument Rating, Commercial Pilot License, and Certified Flight Instructor I and II certifications.

Next Steps to Get Started in a Pilot School Program

Your next steps in attending a pilot school program depend upon your long-term goals. If you are seeking an undergraduate or graduate degree, you will need to identify, apply to, and be accepted to the university or college of your choice. Though the Federal Aeronautics Administration does not require an accredited degree to become a pilot, many commercial airlines require their pilots to have a four-year undergraduate degree or two-year associate degree. Although they do not require a specific course of study, airlines prefer that students earn degrees in aviation, aeronautical science, or air traffic management and have a strong background in mathematics and science.

If you wish to become a recreational, commercial, or airline transport pilot, you will need to meet the age and health requirements for each level of certification and accumulate the number of ground training and flying training hours associated with each.

Admissions Requirements for Pilot Training Programs

Though pilot schools do not require a high school degree to pursue a private pilot’s license, they do require that students are at least 16 years old in order to take flying lessons. The admissions requirements for those seeking a career as an airline pilot include having an undergraduate or associate degree, and thus are significantly different from those required for pursuing a career as a commercial pilot.

  1. Submit application for student pilot certificate. No matter which career path you choose, to become a pilot you will begin by obtaining a student pilot certificate, which requires completion of an application through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application website
  2. Submit certificate to a Part 141 flight school, certified flight instructor, or FAA-designated pilot examiner
  3. Obtain medical clearance from an FAA-approved aviation medical examiner, who will check your vision and hearing and conduct a neurological and cardiovascular test
  4. Attend pilot school geared towards the type of training and outcome you seek

Pilot FAQs

  • How much do pilots make?
    • Pilots earn an average salary of $134,630 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with airline pilots earning significantly more than commercial pilots.
  • Is being a pilot a good career?
    • Pilots enjoy the responsibility and sense of competence that comes with flying a plane and doing something that few others are able to do. However, they also are subject to long hours, irregular schedules, and significant stress.
  • How long does it take to become an airline pilot?
    • The Airline Pilot License is one of the highest levels of certification available to a pilot, and this certification demands the greatest number of flight hours. To qualify for an Airline Pilot License, you must accrue a minimum of 1,500 flight hours, which generally takes two years. Additionally, most commercial airlines require their pilots to have earned a four-year undergraduate degree.
  • How much does it cost to become a pilot?
    • Though every pilot school program has its own costs and curriculum, the Aircraft and Pilot Owners Association reports that earning a Private Pilot License will cost about $20,000, and going on to earn a Commercial Pilot License or Airline Pilot License will add to those costs significantly, with the latter totalling approximately $100,000.
  • Is there a demand for commercial pilots?
    • Yes, there is a large and growing demand for commercial pilots. According to Boeing’s 2022 Pilot and Technician Outlook (PTO), there is a continuing and growing need for aviation personnel expected to last for at least the next twenty years. The company’s forecast shows a need for 602,000 pilots to support global commercial needs.