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Step 6: How to become an airline pilot: The Civilian Route

You can become an airline pilot via the civilian route by attending a local flight school or college/university with a flight training program, in which you can earn all your pilot certificates and ratings. If you choose the civilian route to become an airline pilot, the following steps will guide you in the right direction:

Step 1: Obtain a First Class Medical Certificate
Since your career goal is to become a professional pilot, it is recommended that you apply for a First-Class Medical before you start flight training to ensure that you meet the medical standards.

Step 2: Earn the required Pilot Certificates and Rating
To fly as a professional pilot for any job, you must have the following certificates & ratings:
Commercial Pilot Certificate
Instrument Rating
Multi-Engine Rating

You can earn your pilot certificates and ratings from various types of flight schools. The type of flight school you chose will depend on your aviation career goals and other factors that meet your individual needs. Steps 2 and 3 can be interchanged or combined.

Step 3: Education - College Degree

Major airlines prefer job applicants to have a four-year bachelor’s degree. It would be in your best interest to earn a bachelor's degree, since you will be competing against other applicants who will have either an Associate's, Bachelor's, and/or Advanced degrees. You can always apply for airline jobs without a degree, but your application may be overlooked or placed at the bottom of the pile. There major airline pilots without college degrees, but the overall percentage is low.

Some students attend a 4-year college or university with a flight training program Students can earn their commercial pilot certificate, multi-engine and instrument ratings, and flight instructor certificate/ratings, and a bachelor's or associate's degree in the field of aviation/aerospace, or other career field upon completion of the program’s requirements.

Note: You do not have to major in an aviation/aerospace program to become a professional airline pilot. There are thousands of major airline pilots with college degrees in other career fields such as medicine, law, accounting, engineering, and more. Actually, it’s a good idea to have an educational background in another career field, just in case the aviation industry is in a slow down due to the economy, if you are grounded due to medical reasons, or other circumstances.

Step 4: Building Flight Time
Building flight time is a challenge for many pilots. The method in which you build flight time will be different than your fellow pilots. Many pilot hold several flying jobs to help them build the flight experiences required by the airlines and corporations. You should expect to spend four to six years building the required flight hours and experience to qualify for a position at a major airline or large corporation. Most pilots flying for major airlines have thousands of flight hours. There are various ways to build flight time. Visit How to Build Flight Time section to learn about various time building ideas.

AvScholars divided the typical flight time building process into the following phases:
Phase 1
Many pilots earn their flight instructor certificate and ratings (i.e. CFI, CFII, and/or MEI) to teach others how to fly, earn money, and build flight time. Flight instructing is the most common, easiest, and cheapest method to build flight time. Flight instructors typically teach at a flight school for two-three years until they’ve logged between 750 – 1200 hours of total flight time (time frame is dependent on the flight school and geographic location). Flight instructors earn approximately $10 an hour for each ground and flight lesson with a student. If your students cancel a lesson, you don’t get paid. Some flight schools pay their instructors a minimum amount per week or place them on a salary.
Phase 2
Some pilots fly for small cargo and charter companies that have various multi-engine airplanes in order to build multi-engine flight time (multi-time). Building multi-time may be one of your biggest challenges. Once you find a job flying a multi-engine airplane, it may take several months to build between 200 – 500 hours of multi-time. After building approximately 1200 – 1500 hours of total flight time, which includes 200 – 500 hours of multi-time, most pilots apply to the regional airlines to start building Part 121 experience and ultimately multi-engine turbine time as Pilot-in-Command (Captain).
Phase 3
Many pilots use the regional airlines as a “stepping stone” to accumulate the necessary flight hours and experience to apply to the major airlines. Regional airlines fly short/mid-range routes to small/mid-sized cities to transport passengers to the major cities for the major airlines to continue their trip. They operate various airplanes ranging from turboprop to small jet airplanes such as the Jetstream 32 and 41, Beech 1900, Saab 340, ATR, Dash-8, Regional Jet, and others. These airplanes carry between 19 and 70 passengers. There are numerous regional airlines throughout the United States and Canada, visit the Airlines Address Directory for a list of regional airlines.

Regional airline pilots generally fly as a First Officer (FO) for one to three years (note: upgrade time varies for each airline), and then upgrade to Captain according to seniority. Upgrading to Captain allows you to start building the important Part 121 turbine, pilot-in-command (PIC) time. After building approximately 1000 – 1500 hours of PIC time (which takes roughly 1½ – 2 years), most pilots have built the necessary total flight time and PIC time to meet the major airlines minimum hiring requirements to be considered for an interview. Most major airlines look favorably upon regional airline pilots whose flight experience consist of flying under FAR Part 121, turbine powered airplanes, modern equipment and avionics into high traffic airports.

Note: Some students that attend a flight school that has formed partnerships with various regional airlines can bypass Phases 1 and/or 2, and proceed directly to Phase 3 upon completion of the school’s flight training program or college graduation. Working for a regional airline directly after graduating from school or earning all your pilot certificates and ratings will save you a lot of time (years). Flying for a regional airline and upgrading to Captain will help you meet the major airlines’ minimum hiring requirements.


Step 5: Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP)
Most pilots obtain their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate before applying to the major/national airlines, since it is a requirement. Regional airlines typically hire pilots without this certificate. The ATP certificate is considered the "PhD" of pilot certificates! This certificate allows you to act as Pilot-in-Command (Captain) of a commercial aircraft weighing more than 12,500lbs. To obtain your ATP, you'll need to be 23 years old with a minimum of at least 1,500 total flight hours including 250 hours as the pilot in command, and other flight requirements documented in your logbook. To exercise the privileges of an airline transport pilot certificate, you must also hold a current First-Class Medical Certificate.

Note: Regional airlines and large corporations pay for their pilots to obtain the ATP certificate when they upgrade to Captain.

Step 6: Start Applying
AvScholars recommend that you start applying to all the major airlines upon reaching 1,000 hours of total flight time. Although, you will not meet the major airlines’ minimum hiring requirements, your application will be in their database. Having your application in their databases builds a file with the airlines and allows you to update your applications anytime. We recommend updating your application: every 500 hours, when you’ve earned your ATP, Type Rating, or Flight Engineer Certificate, and/or when you’ve upgraded to Captain and built some PIC time. Once you have reached the major airlines’ minimum hiring requirements, your application will be consider for review and you may receive a call for an interview.

In the aviation industry, it’s not a good idea to put “all your eggs in one basket.” Putting all your hopes into working for one particular airline can be a big disappointment. Some pilots never work for their ideal major airline. Always give yourself more than one opportunity to get hired by a major airline; you’ll be happy that you did. AvScholars’ recommend applying to all the major airlines.

What happens after applying?
After you’ve met the major airlines minimum hiring requirements and submitted your application, it may take a few months or years before you are considered a competitive applicant. There are many pilots that have thousands of flight hours competing for the same jobs. Each airline has its own set of rules for considering someone a competitive applicant. Airlines typically take an average of the applicants’ qualifications in their database, and then consider competitive applicants as those who meet the average qualifications. Applicants that meet their competitive qualifications are then selected for an interview.

At the present time, some major airlines are not hiring due to bankruptcies, furloughs, cutbacks, etc. However, there are other airlines expanding their company and hiring pilots. There are still opportunities to get hired by a major airline.
Completing an internship with an airline will give you a greater chance of getting an interview and possibly receiving an offer of employment. Visit our Employment Opportunities channel to learn more about internships and cooperative education programs.

Network with other pilots.

Networking and timing is important in the aviation industry, in which there are no guarantees that you will get hired by a major airline. You could be the world's most qualified pilot, but if there are few job openings with thousands of competitive applicants applying for the same jobs, it may take a few years before you are offered an interview by a major airline.

In this industry, you will hear the following phrase a lot, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” As you build flight time, you should start making contacts with other pilots who may fly for various airlines, corporations, and charter companies. Networking with other pilots is very important. Many pilot have gotten jobs or job leads due to someone they met, who knew someone that needed a pilot or who was an employee of a company hiring pilots. Unfortunately, timing is something we have almost no control over.

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The Military Route

Written by: Sedgwick Hines Copyright 2004-2011 AvScholars Publishing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.



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Learn to Fly: Become a Pilot is your one-stop source to information on flight training, flying lessons, flight schools, and helicopter schools. Learn about the entire flight training process to help you earn your pilot certificates or ratings such as student pilot certificate, commercial pilot certificate, instrument rating, and others.

Copyright © 2003 - 2011 AvScholars Publishing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.