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Plane Answers: So you want to be a pilot? Here's how.

Michael asks:

I am an aspiring airline pilot and I was wondering what were the steps you took to get hired with the airlines. So far I am 15 and starting my flight training with the Civil Air Patrol.

So you want to be a pilot? You've probably read the stories of the expensive flight training, years of instructing followed by long working hours at a regional with shockingly low pay rates. Perhaps you aspire to eventually make it to the 'majors' or a secure corporate jet job, where you might find some stability and decent pay if the airline doesn't restructure in bankruptcy or the corporate flight department doesn't shut down during a cutback.

There's plenty of turbulence in any flying career. That fact hasn't changed since the '70s, to be honest. But pilots are still attracted to the job for a variety of reasons. It's hard to beat the view or the flexibility in your schedule, and some carriers will take you to places you probably wouldn't have flown to on your own. And for anyone who loves to fly airplanes, you'd be hard pressed to land another career where you can still afford to fly a jet and still be able to accrue enough flight time in to be competent. So even with all the possible hardships, you've decided to chart a course to becoming a pilot. But where do you start?

By far, this is the most frequently asked question we get for Gadling's Plane Answers column. Since it's been twenty years since I was acquiring my ratings and looking for a job, I'll do my best to offer some suggestions to help you along in your career path, and I'll save the story of my climb through the civilian process for another post.

I'd also like to see some suggestions from those who are learning to fly now, as well. So if that applies to you, leave a comment or two about your path.

This post will deal with the more common paths to an airline pilot job in the United States. I hope to tackle some of the steps needed in the U.K., which is representative of the process in Europe, in a future post.

Let me warn you, not only is the process to becoming a pilot a long one, but because of the different choices available to you, this post may be almost as protracted as your career track. But don't get discouraged. Having a variety of options is a good thing.

So let's begin.

In the United States, there are two categories of pilots hired at airlines, and they both involve a few different choices.

Military

If you're young enough and you have close to perfect vision with no other disqualifying medical issues, the military route offers flight training in high performance aircraft at no monetary cost to you. It will, however, mean a commitment to fly in the Air Force, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard for a number of years after you get your wings.

You are smart to get a head start by joining your local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol. The CAP offers a taste of the military way of doing things and, most more importantly, offers you a way to get some flight time, often taking you to your first solo flight and perhaps even more. You'll be required to put in time at meetings and even volunteer for search and rescue missions, but you will also have the opportunity to fly some of their aircraft, such as a Cessna 172 at significantly lower rates than you could through a flight school.

If the CAP isn't in your area, go to www.beapilot.org and sign up for a $100 into flight at a local flight school. It may be all you need to get hooked on flying.

Military flying almost always requires a bachelor's degree and you may prefer to attend a university under the ROTC program, which may pay for a portion of your schooling as well. After school, you'll start your flight training with whatever branch you chose. If you're qualified, you can also aim for the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard Academy where you'll have a good shot at a flying position upon graduation, and you'll get an amazing education at their University.


Landing an academy position isn't easy. You'll need a recommendation from a member of Congress at the very least. But it's worth a try if you have the grades.

If you already have a college degree, you can also try the National Guard in your state. Once your training is finished, your commitment to the Guard is usually limited to a weekend or two a month for a few years. But you should be prepared to find yourself activated with short notice for a much longer tour or tours should your services be required.

Guard pilots often fly F-16s and military transports such as the C-130, C-141 and the C-5. The Army Guard also has helicopter units and airlines have been known in the past to hire these pilots as well, since many of them have fixed wing (airplane) experience as well.

Regardless of your military path, active duty or reserves, make sure you'll be able to secure a flying spot in the military before agreeing to a long term commitment. I'd also look into the odds of becoming a drone pilot, something airlines aren't likely interested in anytime soon.

Since I went the civilian route, I'm hopeful we'll get some comments here with even more helpful advice on the best way to land a military flying position.

Civilian

My civilian route involved going to college while flying and scrambling for ratings at a nearby airport that was not associated with the university.

Today, a college degree in just about any subject is usually required by the major airlines. Mine was in management, but l'd encourage you to major in something that you could use for an alternate career if you can't find a flying job right away or if you are ever furloughed. Many pilots have side businesses or interests, so think about some of these options when you consider your degree.

You may want to accomplish your solo flight and your private pilot license as soon as possible. The minimum age to solo is 16, but you must be 17 for a private license (PPL in Europe), which will allow you to take passengers up in the air.

Getting from the 60 or so hours you'll have at the end of your private to the 190 to 250 hours needed to get a Commercial license can be challenging. I borrowed some money and bought a very inexpensive ($5,500 in the '80s) 1946 two-seat Luscombe airplane that burned less than five gallons an hour. The same airplane today would sell for around $20,000, but you'll likely get your money out of it when you're ready to sell it, provided it was in decent shape when you bought the plane.

Building flight time is something you can do while working at a job, preferably at the airport or in some way involved in aviation. Your CAP work is very helpful when you want to rent one of their airplanes to build time.

Now you'll need to be focused on getting the trifecta of ratings you'll need-the commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings-to fly for a living.

You can start with the instrument rating after you have 50 hours of pilot-in-command cross country time.

Upon reaching about 220 hours, you can work on your training for a commercial license. By the time you finish the training at a Part 61 school (more on that later) you will have reached the 250 hours needed. The multi-engine rating can be added on at this time, as well as a Certified Flight Instructor rating.

Part 141

The FAA allows pilots to get a commercial license at 190 hours if they train at what is called a part 141 school. These schools are audited and certified by the FAA and are required to provide a structured course of training that meets certain minimum hours of ground school instruction, its instructors follow an approved syllabus and the school must follow a specific set of requirements defined by the FAA.

Part 141 schools are good at leading you through the process, but if you are training with a freelance instructor or you want to fly at your own pace, a part 61 school may be preferable. I earned my private license through a part 61 school and picked up my advanced ratings with a 141 school. Do a little shopping around when you're ready to decide.

It might surprise you to learn that most instructors have recently secured their ratings and are instructing as a way to build flight time while being paid. They're not getting rich, but at least they're no longer paying $100+ an hour for flight time.

Most pilots would then find themselves flight instructing for a while, before possibly moving on to another odd flying job such as light twin-engine charter flying or even traffic duty for local T.V. and radio stations.

There have been times-as recently as last year-when regional airlines were hiring pilots with the FAA minimum requirements to get their commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings. However, there's a congressional push since the Colgan Air accident to require 1,000 or 1,500 hours for anyone flying passengers for a regional airline. If this were to happen, the pool of candidates would dry up quickly once the hiring begins again.



Your seat?

Universities and Academies

Many have heard of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a school with campuses in Florida and Arizona that offers a college education while also providing an immersive flight training environment.

But there are others as well, such as the University of North Dakota, Western Michigan University, Purdue, Daniel Webster College, and Parks College in St. Louis. There's a great aviation university discussion thread from ten years ago at Airliners.net that is rather enlightening.

You may have also seen ads for the Delta Connection Academy (formerly the Comair Aviation Academy), Gulfstream International, Mesa Airlines Pilot Development and ATP. These outfits will take you from zero time all the way through your ratings and even up to an ATP in some cases. A few are affiliated with regional airlines and promise an interview at the carrier after a period of flight instructing with the company.

Be sure to do a search on these companies before jumping in. I wouldn't, for example, recommend Gulfstream International or Mesa after doing a bit of research. The others had some positive reviews, however.

This is a really tough time to be looking for any type of job. In December of 2012 airlines will again see a number of job openings after retirements dropped to almost zero after the mandatory retirement age was raised by five years from sixty to sixty-five in 2007. I'm hopeful that we'll start to see an uptick in the economy and movement that will make all your efforts now worthwhile.

It's not the job for everyone, and there will certainly be speed bumps along the way, but unlike Sully Sullenberger, I would still recommend an airline pilot job to my kids or anyone who's addicted to flying.

I stumbled across a post from Varrin Swearingen, a pilot who worked his way through the Comair Academy, flew for Comair as a co-pilot and captain on turboprops and jets and then went to work for World Airways. Varrin, like myself, knew he wanted to fly for a living. He was well aware of the challenges that goal presented, including the potential for less than stellar schedules and anemic pay rates.

If you have realistic expectations going in, you'll be able to see the job for what it is later-a great opportunity to fly to places you wouldn't have otherwise seen, in an airplane you enjoy flying, and with people you consider good friends. Oh, and the view exceeds that of any CEO's corner office.


If you made it this far into the post, and you're seriously considering a flying career, I have one last bit of advice. When you get the job, don't get too spun up over contract negotiations or the latest rumors and rants posted to online pilot forums. Always try to remember just how much you wanted the job when you went in for your interview. And take a moment when you're flying a visual approach at night over Boston or New York to glance out the window for just a second and think about just how amazing it is to fly.


If you've recently been through some of the above process, please comment below. I'd love to hear about your experiences. And if you'd like to hear about others who have 'caught the flying bug' and where they are now, take a listen to episode 24 of Joe d'Eon's incredibly well produced and entertaining free podcast, "Come fly with me." [itunes link]

So good luck Michael and let us know in the comments how your CAP experience is going.


Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he'll use it for the next Plane Answer's Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Or follow on Twitter: @VeryJr

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