Becoming an airline pilot can be a challenging yet highly rewarding journey.

The most difficult aspect of becoming an airline pilot isn’t so much learning to fly a plane, but more the written and practical tests you must take and pass along the way.

Thankfully, going from zero to airline pilot follows a very well-structured path, and is attainable to anyone who is willing to put the time and effort in to achieving this goal.

How to Become an Airline Pilot

We’ll start from the very beginning, and assume you hold no prior pilot license or have ever taken any flying lessons.

Student Pilot License

While anyone can step into the cockpit and take flying lessons (really, you can be 10, 80 or any other age to fly a plane), you need a student pilot license, and to pass an FAA medical exam to be eligible to fly solo.

This is necessary, so you can and start logging the necessary flight hours to progress towards higher certification.

Provided you are in good health, don’t suffer from any disqualifying conditions, and meet the necessary vision requirements, you will be issued with a third-class medical certificate that a student pilot license falls under.

No issues so far.

Private Pilot License

The next step on your journey, and where the fun really begins, is to log the necessary flight hours to qualify for a private pilot license.

This takes either 35-40 hours, depending on whether you enroll in a Part 61 or Part 141 school, including 10 hours of solo time – of which 5 must be cross-country –  and a solo flight that covers 150 nautical miles.

Every student must also pass a written knowledge and practical test to earn their private pilot license. Many students opt to enroll in a top online ground school to give them the freedom to learn at their own pace and in their own time.

Most students won’t struggle with meeting these requirements, with the vast majority passing both the first time.

Instrument Rating

Now you are the proud owner of a private pilot license, the next step is to add an Instrument Rating (IR) to it.

Even pilots not looking for a career in aviation tend to go to the trouble of earning an instrument rating because it allows them to fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), thereby lifting certain restrictions.

As you want to become an airline pilot, you’ll definitely want to earn an instrument rating.

It will take a minimum of 40 hours to achieve this by enrolling in a top instrument rating course.

Commercial Pilot License

Now things really start to get serious, and the journey towards becoming an airline pilot gets tougher.

A commercial pilot license is a prerequisite for an airline transport pilot license – just like a private pilot license is a prerequisite for a commercial pilot license.

So your next step will be to log the necessary flight hours and pass the written knowledge and practical test required for a CPL.

The number of flight hours required is either 190 or 250 hours. This varies depending on whether you enroll in a Part 61 or Part 141 school.

We definitely recommend going down the Part 141 route. Not only due to the fewer hours it takes to earn your license, but also because the flight training is more structured, and a better choice for anyone who wants a career in aviation.

However, keep in mind that a Part 141 school has a faster pace that can overwhelm some students.

When it comes to the written knowledge and practical tests, there is less room for error. More advanced topics are covered, and more precise control of the aircraft is required while doing things like changing attitude, altitude, and airspeed at the same time.

A second-class medical certificate is also required, but this won’t be hard to obtain if you had no problems obtaining your third-class certificate.

Flight Instructor Certification

Now that you hold a commercial pilot license and qualify for paid flying roles, you might wonder why go through the trouble of becoming a certified flight instructor.

The reason is that it is a very efficient way of logging the necessary hours for an airline transport license while also getting paid.

The CFI checkride can be hard to pass compared to other tests you have taken so far, though the pass rate is still around 65-70%.

Flight instructor certification will take you at least 25 hours to earn.

Multi-Engine Rating

To be eligible for an airline transport pilot license, which is what commercial airliners are, a multi-engine rating must be added onto your license.

This will take you a minimum of 25 hours to earn.

Airline Transport Pilot License

The FAA has what is known as the 1,500-hour rule.

What this means is that a pilot must accrue 1,500 flight hours to be eligible for an airline transport pilot license and work as an airline pilot.

This is no small feat and can take years to achieve.

The hardest part of obtaining an ATPL is therefore logging the necessary flight hours. By the time you reach 1,500 hours, you should have more than enough experience and knowledge for the written knowledge and practical test to not pose much problem.

The checkride is actually quite similar to an Instrument Rating but with some tighter standards on a few things. Other things tested are unique to an ATP checkride like crew resource management.

A first-class medical certificate is also required. This is very similar to what is required during the FAA medical exam for a second-class certificate, so will not be hard to get.

Getting Hired as an Airline Pilot Won’t Be Too Challenging

Now you have all the qualifications that are required to become an airline pilot, the next step is to actually get hired by an airline.

It’s unlikely that you will be able to just waltz into an international pilot role for a major airline. You will likely probably start with the regionals, and work your way up to the majors.

Getting your first job at a regional airline shouldn’t be too hard as long as you don’t have a high number of checkride failures, and adequately prepare for the interview.

To work for a major, you’ll need a clean record, no more than a few checkride failures, and to be even better prepared for the interview.

Airline Pilot Necessary Qualifications

It’s possible to become an airline pilot without a college degree, though it is highly, highly improbable. Therefore, without a doubt, it’s recommended to go to school and earn your degree if you want to become an airline pilot.

Typically, major airlines require a bachelor’s degree, and regional airlines require an associate’s degree at a minimum.

The good news is that your degree can be in any field, not necessarily just in something that is aviation related.

How Long it Takes to Become an Airline Pilot

Becoming an airline pilot can take 4-5 years.

However, as soon as you earn your commercial pilot, which should take no longer than a year, you can start to take on paid flying roles, and accrue the necessary hours required to become an airline pilot.

In other words, you can get paid and train on the job.

How Much it Will Cost

The hard part of becoming an airline pilot might not necessarily be the knowledge, skill, and experience required, but figuring out how to pay for flight school

Fortunately, flight school loans are available, as well as scholarships and grants.

You can expect to pay an average of $50,000 to become an airline pilot

Airline Might Pay for Flight School

Some airlines participate in a tuition reimbursement program, which can at least partly help offset the cost of flight school.

Airlines include SkyWest, Envoy Air, Horizon Air, Silver Airways, and GoJet Airlines among others.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.