With many flight hours to log, tests to take, and certifications to earn, becoming an airline pilot can take a long time – years, in fact.
Thankfully, the journey along the way can be just as rewarding as finally sitting in the cockpit as the captain of a commercial airliner for the first time.
In short, to be eligible for an airline transport pilot license (ATPL), a pilot must be at least 23 years, complete a minimum of 1,500 flight hours, have a commercial pilot license with instrument and multi-engine time, pass an extensive written and practical test, and be issued a first-class medical certificate.
Here is the step-by-step process of doing just that.
7 Steps to Becoming an Airline Pilot
1. Earn a Student Pilot License
Before you earn an airline transport pilot license and become an airline pilot, you need to start just like everyone else – at the bottom with a student pilot license.
To be eligible for a student pilot license and fly solo, a third-class medical certificate must be obtained by passing an FAA medical exam, where an aviation medical examiner will test things like your near, distant and color vision, and hearing.
Filling out the application and taking the medical exam won’t take long. But it is the time waiting to arrange both these things and get your certificate in the mail that will.
Time: 2-3 weeks
2. Earn a Private Pilot License
Once a medical certificate has been issued, you can fly solo which is a prerequisite for obtaining a private pilot license.
One of the requirements is to log 35-40 hours of flight time. The hours vary depending on whether you are enrolled in a Part 61or Part 141 flight school.
Anyone looking for a career in aviation, especially one where the goal is to become an airline pilot, should opt for a Part 141 school due to its more structured training.
A written knowledge and practical test must also be passed.
Time: 35-40 hours (plus studying and test time)
3. Add Instrument Rating
With a private pilot license now in your possession, your next step is to add an instrument rating.
This is required if you want to fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), lifting certain restrictions.
Time: 40 hours (minimum)
4. Earn a Commercial Pilot Certificate
Before you can obtain an airline transport pilot license, you must first earn a commercial pilot license.
This requires 190-250 hours of flight time, depending on whether you enroll in a Part 61 or Part 141 flight school. If you opted for a Part 141 school, 190 hours are required.
A second-class medical certificate must be obtained, which has slightly more stringent requirements (like meeting 20/20 vision standards for distant vision) than a third-class certificate.
As before, a written knowledge and practical also need to be passed. Both tests now require more knowledge and piloting ability that demonstrate that you are able to fly to a higher standard.
It’s a good job too because you will no longer be restricted to just flying for fun, but can now take on paid flying roles.
Time: 90-150 hours (plus studying, test time, and the medical exam)
5. Earn a Flight Instructor Certificate
While you don’t necessarily have to earn a flight instructor certificate (CFI) in your journey to becoming an airline pilot, it’s something you will definitely want to do.
This is because meeting the required flight hours to be eligible for an airline transport pilot license is no small task. So what better to keep your skills sharp, earn the flight experience required, and get paid for flying than becoming a flight instructor?
Time: 25 hours (minimum)
6. Add Multi-Engine Rating
A multi-engine rating is required for an ATPL, so will need to be added to your commercial pilot license.
No prizes for guessing what this rating entails. It is, of course, learning to fly multi-engine aircraft.
Time: 25 hours (minimum)
7. Earn an Airline Transport Pilot License
You might have known that you wanted to become an airline pilot at a very early age, but an airline transport pilot license has an age requirement that you must meet.
You have to be at least 23 years old to be eligible for an ATPL.
Considering that an airline transport license requires a whopping 1,500 hours of flight time to be logged, you probably won’t get to this stage before you’re 23 anyway.
The written knowledge and practical test will be harder than any other you have taken thus far, requiring you to demonstrate a very high level of piloting ability.
After all, the safety of hundreds of passengers will be in your hands every time you step into the cockpit.
A first-class medical certificate must also be obtained. If you had no problems acquiring a second-class certificate, then you won’t have one here either. The requirements for the two certificates vary very little.
Note that there is also a restricted airline transport pilot license too (R-ATPL). With this license, you have the pilot rank of are eligible to act as a first officer (co-pilot). 1,000 flight hours are required instead, as well as the completion of an ATP Certification Training Program.
Time: 1,500 hours (plus studying, test time, and the medical exam)
8. Get Hired By a Commercial Airline
You have now finally met the hiring minimums of most commercial airlines.
To reach this point and be eligible to work as an airline pilot, it has likely taken you 4-5 years (not to mention a whole lot of money).
The final step, which can often be a full-time job in itself, is to start applying and prepping for the hiring process.
If you chose a good flight school, you’re already halfway there due to the networking opportunities that many of these schools offer.
Time: 10 hours +
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Airline Pilot
Do you need an aviation degree or go to an aviation college to become an airline pilot?
No, there is no need to obtain an aviation degree or go to an aviation college. However, regional airlines tend to require an associate’s degree at a minimum.
Major airlines, typically prefer a bachelor’s degree, though this can be in any field – i.e. you don’t need an aviation-related degree.
Is it hard to become an airline pilot?
The act of flying a plane isn’t necessarily hard, but the required knowledge, skill, and experience can take a long time to develop.
Is there a maximum age limit to become an airline pilot?
By law, airline pilots are required to retire at 65 years old. If you are looking for a career change in later life and are interested in becoming a pilot at 50, it might therefore not be the wisest choice and most attainable goal.
However, there are plenty of pilot roles available to older and retired airline pilots, with many charter, private and corporate operators preferring the vast experience retired airline pilots can bring.
Is it worth becoming an airline pilot?
Most airline pilots will tell you that they are very happy with their decision.
Besides the attraction of a high salary, working as an airline pilot is a highly rewarding career. It is also a career that many pilots have dreamed of becoming since they were younger, so every day they get to do what they love.
While it can take a long time to become an airline pilot (not to mention the high cost), it is possible for almost anyone who is willing to put the work in and meets the health requirements.