When deciding on a new or first-time career path, all of us have faced a moment of truth, when our dreams need to be tethered to some tough questions: How many years will it take to build my career? What will it cost me? And in the end, is there a job waiting for me?
For those considering a commercial airline pilot career, the answer to that last question is reassuring, given the long-term pilot shortage the industry faces. As we’ve reported in more detail here, the Boeing: Pilot and Technician Outlook report shows a 20-year gap of 763,000 jobs on a global basis, making this career path exceptionally attractive for anyone seeking a combination of a great lifestyle, a lucrative salary, and long-term stability.
But my job today is to help you answer the first question -- how long it takes to become a pilot -- and point you to resources for your questions about cost. To answer the question, let’s break it down into smaller questions, each representing a phase in a typical commercial pilot career path.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Private Pilot?
A Private Pilot License (PPL) is the first step for anyone wanting to fly a plane, regardless of whether your long-term ambition is to become a commercial airline pilot or if you just want to fly small planes for fun. To put this in perspective, the FAA issues about 44,000 Student Pilot Certificates per year, but only about 12,000 Commercial Certificates -- so only about one in four student pilots pursuing their PPL is doing so as part of commercial airline pilot training.
If you’re aiming at a commercial career, you’ll no doubt choose to do your Private Pilot License at an FAA Part 141 pilot training school, because these schools are set up to meet the higher standards of a commercial training path. (You can learn more about the difference between Part 61 and Part 141 here). But it’s not just about the quality: following a Part 141 route can also help reduce the cost of your training and allow you to complete your full program more quickly.
Why? Because the overall hour requirements for Part 141 are lower, thanks to the FAA’s certification of the full program, i.e., not just the flight time, but also the training course outlines (TCOs), which also govern your individual and group ground training. Those TCOs represent decades of experience on the part of the flight training academy, which in turn allows for a more efficient program.
Part 141 flight schools are also held to a higher standard of student performance, so they have a built-in incentive to ensure you receive the best possible education. We must maintain an 80% check ride/written pass rate to maintain 141 approval.
We’ve covered the components of private pilot training in detail here, but to summarize briefly: from day one in the cockpit, the PPL rating introduces to you to basic aircraft maneuvers, navigation, and take-offs and landing. Everything you learn at this rating level with the fight instructor by your side is preparing you for the ultimate test: a solo single-engine aircraft flight to an airport at least 52 nautical miles away. This means you’ll also learn about tower-controlled airport operations and emergency procedures so that you’re well-equipped for your solo.
The PPL training culminates in an FAA practical examination, also known as a check ride. You’ll also complete an oral and practical exam with an FAA-designated pilot examination. When you complete it successfully, you will be issued your Private Pilot Certificate. The FAA minimum hour requirement for a Part 141 Private Pilot Certificate is 30 hours of ground training and 35 hours of flight training, although the average completion time is 50-60 hours.
How does that translate into months? Students can complete their PPL in about three months if they can commit themselves to full-time, six-days-per-week availability for flying -- what we refer to as our Accelerated track. Students who need more schedule flexibility will take 4-5 months, on average.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Commercial Pilot?
On this topic, we have to separate the technical from the practical. Technically, you are a commercial pilot once you successfully complete your Commercial Pilot Rating (CPL), though most programs, including ours, also require an Instrument Rating (IR). For your Instrument Rating, you’ll focus on learning to fly in conditions that require the use of your Instruments, i.e., low visibility conditions, including night flying and cloudy weather. During your Commercial pilot license training, you’re working up toward another big event: your first solo cross-country flight. In planning for that milestone, you’ll also be preparing to put to use your instrument training skills as you anticipate the varied weather and terrain you’ll encounter on your flight.
During the second phase of the Commercial course, you will begin practicing advanced single-engine airplane maneuvers and also start flying our multi-engine aircraft: the Piper Seminole. You will work on building your skills in both single-engine and multi-engine aircraft in preparation for the check ride and your commercial pilot certification.
And as I mentioned, you are then technically certified to fly passengers for hire, and you will have reached this stage after just eight months on the Accelerated track, or about 12 months on the Standard track.
But from a practical standpoint, you still have a long way to go. As with so many other professions, from teaching to firefighting to medicine, you must gain additional experience in order to be considered expert enough to take on the important work you aspire to do. In our industry, this is also an insurance matter: insurers want US airlines -- and this standard is also widely adopted worldwide -- to hire pilots with a minimum of 1500 hours of flight time. If you complete all of your required and recommended flight ratings in the typical 200 to 250 hours, that means you still have a gap of 1250-1300 hours. To close this gap, a pilot usually takes the next step to become a Certified Flight Instructor.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)?
On average, becoming a CFI will take about four months on the Accelerated path and six months on the Standard path. In both cases, this assumes that you complete all three of your CFI ratings: Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), CFI Instrument (CFII), and Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI). While you are certified to teach after completing just the CFI rating, we strongly recommend to our students that they complete all three: the additional 4-6 weeks to become “triple-rated” is well worth the career and skills boost, as we explain in more detail here.
As you might expect, you must, at minimum, have the CFI Certificate in order to be able to instruct other pilots. The course educates you on not just how to instruct and evaluate new student pilots, but also how to keep them motivated to advance in their airplane pilot training. You’ll learn how to provide both flight and ground training while honing the skills you’ve built over the previous ratings.
Your additional CFI ratings, CFII and MEI, are quite short compared to the previous phases of your training, but they’re critical to becoming a well-rounded instructor. As you may have guessed from the titles, your CFII rating enables you to instruct students on flying in instrument conditions, and the MEI rating allows you to instruct students on the multi-engine component of their Commercial course. These are critical ratings for getting to your 1500 hour minimum quickly, as you’ll see below, because they mean that you’re able to instruct more students in more circumstances, giving you more time in the air.
So then if you’re keeping score: making it all the way from zero flight hours to becoming a triple-rated flight instructor will take you about 12 months on the Accelerated path and 16-18 months on the Standard path. Again, the main difference between those two paths lies in your ability to commit yourself to full-time flying. You won’t simply be accumulating flight hours faster; you will likely also be able to complete your ratings in fewer hours because you’ll gain the advantage of consistency. You will absorb concepts more quickly when you’re able to apply them in a real flight environment on a daily basis.
You might ask: why would I want to complete my training in fewer hours if I have to earn 1500 flight hours to make it to the airlines in the first place? Because flight training is expensive, and you’ll find that you’d much rather earn those hours while being paid to fly. And that’s where the next stage, hours-building as a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) comes in.
How Long Does it Take to Go from Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) to an Airline?
On average, pilots build hours at the CFI stage for 1-2 years. Why such a big range? As a CFI, especially a triple-rated one, you’ll be able to exercise a great deal of control over how quickly you build hours, simply by making yourself available for instruction as much as possible. Of course, a readily available instructor needs readily available students, which is why it’s important to be affiliated with a large school with a steady stream of new students.
Working as a CFI is usually the most reliable way to build flight hours, because it’s where supply meets demand: you need the time in the air, and so do your students. But it’s not just about working toward that big number; being a CFI is, for most pilots, a deeply rewarding phase of their careers. Why?
The most obvious reason is that you’re getting your first taste of what set you on this career path in the first place: getting paid to do what you love. You’re spending all your time in the company of those who share your passions and aspirations: your fellow CFIs, and your excited and motivated students.
You’re also deepening your skills in a way that’s going to be very important to your future airline employer, through the concept of “learning by teaching.” Also known as “The Protege Effect” and supported by decades of educational research, this concept holds that we learn better when we have to explain what we know to others — it deepens our own understanding of why we follow certain steps and procedures, and it will unquestionably make you a better pilot.
We always make sure that our flight program applicants understand that while we give priority to our own graduates in hiring CFIs, completing your flight instructor training is not by itself a guarantee of employment. As with any degree or certification, it’s a benchmark, and the rest is up to you. CFI-rated pilots that demonstrate not only technical skills, but teaching abilities and the common attributes of great pilots have the best chance of success.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Major Airline Pilot?
As I’ve outlined above, you’ll be eligible for hire as an airline pilot after completing the required ratings and clocking 1500 flight hours (in most circumstances) along the way. You will have spent 12-18 months in your formal training, and another 1-2 years building flight hours, usually as a CFI. So that’s a total of 2-3.5 years from zero experience to the formal start of your career, while getting paid to fly about half of that time. Not bad, right?
But just as with any other career, you’ll spend a great deal of time building seniority toward the best jobs in the industry. Fortunately for pilots, that path is pretty straightforward, and the pilot shortage will help to ensure that more senior pilots are consistently needed. You will almost certainly start out with a regional airline that’s affiliated with one of the majors. For instance, students in our Horizon Air program are working toward flying for the parent airline Alaska Airlines, and students in our United Aviate program are starting at United Express and their affiliated airlines before moving to United.
You’ll start at the regional as a First Officer, typically flying for about two years and earning around 2,000 additional flight hours. Depending on the market need as well as your own abilities and preferences, you could move up to the Captain role at the regional, or move directly on to the major airlines as a First Officer. At that point, most pilots have set their sights on the ultimate career prize: being a Captain for a major airline. But you might also decide that the lifestyle of a regional pilot is a great career choice for you.
Becoming an airline pilot is such a fast-moving career path that it’s a good idea to plot it out in advance, by understanding what cadet programs are available to you, what kinds of financial resources you’ll need, and where and how you want to fly. In plotting this out, there really is no substitute for the friendly, no-pressure advice you’ll get from our Admissions team. When you’re ready, reach out to us at email@example.com.