Starting a Career as an Airline Pilot
To be a pilot for hire, you need a commercial pilot certificate. You earn your certificate by passing commercial pilot ground school and logging at least 250 flight hours, with allotted time dedicated to certain conditions and maneuvers. After you have logged your hours and passed your written ground school test, you will need to pass a check-ride. A check-ride is something like the driving test we take to get our driver's licenses. A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) examiner asks you to plan a flight, quizzes you on aviation matters and then accompanies you on a flight. As in a driver's license test, the examiner requests that you execute certain maneuvers and directs your flying throughout the entire flight. If everything goes well, the examiner issues you a commercial pilot's certificate.
Additionally, a commercial pilot needs an up-to-date first- or second-class medical certificate, an instrument rating and a multi-engine rating. For you to receive a medical certificate, an Aviation Medical Examiner must verify that you meet the health and fitness requirements to be a pilot. You need to get an instrument rating to fly with low visibility (in adverse weather and in clouds). You receive an instrument rating by passing instrument ground school, logging a specified amount of instrument flight time (flying without visibility) and passing an instrument rating check-ride. To fly planes with multiple engines (most of the planes in commercial use), you need to have some lessons and pass a multi-engine check-ride. At some point, most airline pilots also get an airline transport pilot certificate. This highest pilot certificate allows you to be the pilot in command (the captain) of a large commercial aircraft. It requires that you pass a written test, have a first-class medical certificate, are a high school graduate and have logged 1,500 flight hours including 250 hours as the pilot in command.
To be hired, you need flight experience. Your level of experience is based on the number and complexity of aircraft you have flown, the quantity and complexity of the flying you did (jet or propeller, day or night, local or cross-country, flying with visibility or flying using only instruments, etc.) and which crew positions you've held. Briefly, in the late 1960s, some airlines hired people without certificates or flight time and trained them from the ground up. This was an abnormal practice, and it is unlikely to recur. These days, a major airline hiring a pilot with a freshly minted commercial pilot's certificate (only 250 flight hours) is virtually unheard of. Most successful pilot applicants at major airlines have thousands of flight hours. Secondary airlines (regional or commuter) may have lower requirements.
Timing is everything. You could be the world's most qualified pilot, but if there are no openings for pilots when you enter the job market, a good job will be very hard to find. It's that simple. Unfortunately, timing is something we have almost no control over. There are no guarantees in the airline business. You won't know how your career went until you retire and can look back at it. Boom-to-bust cycles in the economy are magnified in the aviation industry. Bankruptcy, furloughs, airline shutdowns and consolidation have been a big part of the business for years. It can be, and has been for many professional pilots, a rough career ride with many different employers and lots of changes in jobs, towns and seniority. A wise airline instructor at my first airline job told the class, "The future in aviation is the next 30 seconds -- long-term planning is an hour and a half." These are the truest words about the business that I've ever heard.
While there is no college requirement to be a pilot, most airlines look for some college time and prefer an earned degree. College shows that you are trainable and that you can stick to a challenging curriculum and succeed -- qualities an airline would like to know that you have before it spends a lot of money to train you. There are two major career paths to being hired as an airline pilot: civilian or military. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
In the civilian career path, you can attend a college that offers a two- or four-year degree (some universities even offer advanced degrees in aviation) along with flight training toward various pilot certificates. Several universities in the United States and Canada offer courses along with flight training so that you graduate with a bachelor's or associate's degree in aviation along with a commercial pilot certificate and multi-engine and instrument ratings. There are also technical schools that offer flight training toward a certificate, often in less time. In both types of programs, you often graduate with an instructor's rating, and you've built up some flight time teaching others.
An alternative to a professional school or college is to get your flight training piecemeal from a local flight school. It will take longer, and the level of instruction might not be as rich, but all commercial certificates are equal in the eyes of the FAA. The agency doesn't care where or how they were earned.
Civilian training costs a lot of money. Basic flying lessons start at about $80 an hour, and you'll need at least 250 hours before you have your commercial rating. It also costs a lot to rent large, complex airplanes for instruction. I like to think of the expense as an investment in a rewarding career that will pay dividends for years to come. Scholarships (full and partial) do exist, but most pilots will end up investing a lot of money in flight training.
In the military, you commit to many years of service after your one year of pilot training (10 years of commitment in the Air Force). You must also meet other requirements, such as college course work, good health and adequate physical ability. There are no guarantees that you'll pass the military flight training on the service's rigid time schedule, or that you'll get to fly a specific airplane. In exchange for these compromises, the military pays you to train, and you get the best training in the equipment that an airline pilot would fly (complex jets).
A military pilot lives a military life, follows orders, risks bodily harm and uses lethal weapons. These aren't things to take lightly, so if you are considering the military (and that is a wide field that includes the Coast Guard), then explore it thoroughly and see if the timing is right for you and your career needs. It is an excellent experience for many people. Some pilots even make the military their career.
After a pilot is certified, he or she will have to get more experience and flight hours before an airline will hire him or her. Because of the military's service commitment, a military pilot will probably get a lot of flying experience before he or she leaves to join an airline. A civilian pilot, or a military pilot who needs more flight hours, may work as a flight instructor, then perhaps move to a charter company. From there, he or she might move to a regional airline and then on to a major airline.
Once hired, regardless of your background, the airline will train you based on its procedures and its FAA-approved training curriculum. Even though all airlines fly the same kinds of airplanes, each airline has slightly different methods and procedures. The goal of an airline is to train you to be qualified in your position and to be standard. Standardization is one of the pillars of a safe airline. The concept is that, within the airline, cockpit behavior and procedure will be the same in every flight, no matter which pilots are at the controls, to prevent confusion and misunderstanding.
The initial training at an airline takes about 10 weeks. Basic indoctrination lasts a week or so. Training on general subjects, which include regulations and company-specific procedures, takes another week. You will spend two weeks on aircraft systems specific to the equipment you'll operate. Pilots will usually specialize in one type of airplane, such as 727s or MD-80s, until they move to a seat on a different airplane. After systems, you'll pair off with a training partner and have two or more weeks of simulator training. In the simulator, you'll experience just about every emergency and anomaly imaginable. You'll focus particularly on crew coordination and successful landing. All maneuvers are practiced until they are satisfactorily completed.
Once the pre-checks, oral examinations and final check-rides are over, you will have completed the airplane training. But you're not ready just yet. Next you'll fly with a special instructor pilot and get initial operating experience. This experience, which includes at least 25 hours of flight time, will teach you to integrate your newfound technical skills with the daily requirements of the job.
After initial operating experience, you face another flight test, called a line check. After you pass the line check, you are released to operate scheduled flights as a crew member. Airlines are now required to set up 100 hours of flying for you after a line check, so you can get immediate experience. After all that, you'll want a vacation.
On an airliner, the captain is the pilot in the left seat. He or she flies the airplane, makes all the command decisions and is responsible for the flight's safety. The captain's job is a big responsibility. It calls for tough decisions and requires more than just the technical skill involved in flying the airplane. The captain is a team leader and must establish an effective crew atmosphere, with good communication and resource management. A captain must pass many written and practical tests and have his or her performance evaluated regularly. A pilot must have high seniority (time in service) to hold the position of captain and, as a general rule, captains are the most senior (and therefore most experienced) of the pilots at an airline. As we will see in the next section, seniority plays a major role in the career of an airline pilot. The cornerstone of aviation safety is redundancy. So, in addition to two (or more) engines, radios, sets of flight instruments, etc., there are always at least two flying pilots. The first officer sits in the right seat and acts as a co-pilot. He or she has an independent set of controls and instruments to operate the aircraft and flies the plane about half the time, usually swapping duties with the captain each flight leg. The first officer assists the captain in preflight duties by reviewing paperwork and performing aircraft preflight checks. The first officer must pass many practical and written exams and must have a certain amount of seniority. As a rule, first officers have less seniority than their captains.
Some planes have a third position in the cockpit for a flight engineer, also called a second officer. The flight engineer is a usually a pilot but doesn't actually fly the airplane. He or she performs the bulk of aircraft preflight checks, operates and monitors the aircraft's systems during flight and makes aircraft performance calculations, such as determining takeoff and landing speeds, engine power settings and fuel management. The flight engineer position is also an apprenticeship of sorts, as it is the best position for observing the flying pilots. This job is now a rarity in the business: The positions are mostly in airplanes built before the mid-1980s. As older airplanes are retired, they are replaced with planes in which more advanced or automated systems perform the flight engineer's duties. The position will someday be "extinct," like the navigator and radio operator positions of airplanes from the 1930s and 1940s.
The three most important things in the airline piloting profession are seniority, seniority and seniority. All domestic airlines use a seniority system to dictate your position, which plane you fly (which determines your pay) and what schedules you keep (which determines whether you'll be home weekends, or far from your family, ankle deep in slush during the holidays). For pilots, seniority dictates everything!
In a seniority-based system, all pilots are considered equally qualified, provided they pass the required training and check rides. A seniority system prevents favoritism and other undemocratic practices from interfering with the career of a pilot. The drawback of a seniority system is that even if you're ranked No. 20 out of 5,000 pilots at airline A, with 25 years of seniority and scads of overseas experience in large jets, you will be placed at the bottom of airline B's seniority list if you have to switch airlines for any reason, including your airline going out of business. This means you would likely begin as a reserve flight engineer or co-pilot. Your experience travels with you, should you leave, which might help you get the new job, but your seniority does not. Hence, most pilots stay with an airline rather than lose the seniority they've acquired.
There are two major things that move you up on the seniority list: new hires starting under you and senior pilots retiring above you. Airline pilots have a mandatory retirement age of 60, so, as long as you are younger than the senior pilots when you are hired, you will rise in seniority over the years. You will rise more quickly if your airline significantly expands and many new hires are placed under you. Seniority is like a game of musical chairs. As long as there is movement (new hires and retirements), folks happily rise in seniority. Sometimes the seniority stagnation can last for decades, depending on the specifics of an airline.
Answered By: Melissa - 6/1/2006