How Long Does It Take To Become A Pilot


From the time you start your flight training, it will take anywhere from 4 years to 15 or even 20 years before you land that dream pilot job! 

Why does it take so long?

If your dream is to work for an airline, corporate flight department, or any job that flies technically advanced jet airplanes, you will need two things:

  1. A lot of flight time in your logbook 
  2. A college degree (used to not be necessary, but realistically, to be competative this is a must)

Both of these things take a long time to achive, so it’s best to do them simultaneously.  I will talk about this later, but first, let’s look at flight time.

[note: the military route to a pilot job will be discussed in other articles]

The typical path that civilian pilots take to get their flight time goes something like this:

  1. Your First 250-300 hours: Flight training to obtain your basic certificates (Commercial, Multi-Engine, Instrument, Certified Flight Instructor)
  2. Hours 250-1200: Work as a Certified Flight instructor, banner tower, glider tower, scenic flight pilot, etc.
  3. 1200-1500: Work for a part 135 company flying small twins and/or turboprops
  4. 1500 +: Obtain ATP (Airline Transport Pilot certificate)  and start applying for your dream job

Regional airlines used to hire pilots with as little as 500 hours to serve as co-pilots (only captains were required to hold an ATP).  In just another year or so, this will no longer be an option.  In August 2010, Congress passed a law that will force regional airlines to only hire pilots who have an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate and it will take effect by 2013.   

So, if you do the math, getting the minimum of 1,500 hrs required for the ATP certificate can take a long time. 

Once you obtain at least a commercial pilot certificate and can start working as a pilot (either as a Certified Flight Instructor, banner tower, etc.) the time it will take to build up to 1,500 hrs is discussed below in two different Scenarios.

Scenario 1: Work full time in an entry-level pilot job

Approximate time to 1,500 hours after you obtain a commercial pilot certificate: 1 - 3 years
Money saved at the end of this period: probably nothing, or in the negative

During this time, you can expect to make about $1,600/month after taxes.  So, you’re going to be broke and struggling to make ends meet.  I have met pilots who claim to have slept in hangers because they couldn’t afford to pay rent – but they built up their flight time fast.   You need to minimize this phase of flight time building, so always be on the lookout for flying opportunities. 

Once you obtain 1,200 hours, your options get a little better because now you qualify for Part 135 jobs.  These jobs pay a little more and typically offer a lot more multi-engine time, which is like gold in a pilot’s logbook.

Pilot Trick:  As soon as you can start getting paid to fly, try to find more than one job so you can fly with one company on days that you’re not flying for the other company.  Also, work 6 -7 days per week if you can, but make sure you get enough rest to stay safe!

Scenario 2: Work part time in an entry-level job and full time doing something else that pays better

Approximate time to 1,500 hours after you obtain a commercial pilot certificate: 4 -  12 years
Money saved at the end of this period: $0 – $100,000+

If you have a good paying full time job, it allows you to skip the pauper days that a lot of pilots would rather forget about.   The idea here is to try to get a great paying job, but find smart ways of building up your flight time fast. 

To do this, you may need to fly for little or no money.  However, this allows you to start building up your retirement savings earlier, which, due to compound interest, is a key factor in retiring comfortably.  If you think you’re too young to start thinking about retirement – you’re making a big mistake!  Social Security and Pensions are fast becoming a thing of the past.  In the not so distant future, you will be responsible for your own retirement, so you better start thinking about it right now.

Pilot Trick: To get that great paying full time job, you will most likely need a college degree, which you’ll need as a pilot anyway.  Most people think that the best way to do this is to go to a a university such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University or University of North Dakota.  These schools offer 4-year degrees that include all your flight training.  However, these degrees won’t help you find a non flying job, so make sure that the degree you get can help you get a job with a high starting pay.  For instance, get a degree in law, engineering, health, or business management.  Any of these degrees can one day put you at an advantage over someone who is just a pilot.  There are so many more opportunities if you have other skills besides just knowing how to fly an airplane.

Notice that neither of these scenerios is easy.  Both require hard work and determination.  One focuses on getting flight time as soon as possible, but you’re basically living in poverty for the first few years of your career.  The other focuses on living comfortably, but you will be older by the time you get your dream job.  In addition, Scenario 2 may include taking a big pay cut when you try to transition from your great-paying non-flying job to a full-time flying job.  This may not necessarily be the case, but if it is, should only last 1 or 2 years, after which, your salary should match or be more than your previous one.

If you have any thoughts or questions, please share them with me by leaving a comment below.  I hope you enjoyed this article and good luck with achieving your dreams!

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