Yes, you have heard it right. Despite being hit hard by the recent pandemic, there will be still a huge demand for certified pilots in the upcoming time. North American alone will be seeking 208,000 headcounts in the next 20 years and the pilot shortage is projected to increase in the US. This is to say, the door is still open for you to work your way to the pilot career ladder. But how hard is it to become a pilot? How many years to become a pilot?

Glad you have asked. This is the ultimate guide to demystify this exciting career. So hop on our airplane and go discover the route to becoming a pilot!

What Does A Pilot Do?

This seems like an obvious question to ask. However, there might be something that you have yet to know. 

Pilot is a broad term for those who sit in the cockpit to fly the aircraft. They are classified as Captain –who sits on the left side of the airplane and take care of the overall operation and First Officer –who acts as an assistant.

In some flights, there might be a second officer, an instructor, or an examiner who checks on the pilots who are in charge of flying. They are all considered pilots! In this article, we will only discuss the Captain and First Officer roles.

Pilots in the cockpit

The cockpit with the captain and first officer – Source: Business Insider

The pilots’ duties are not just about flying the airplane. Here are what pilots do during a flight:

  • Check the cockpit for any technical issues or problems
  • Communicate with cabin attendants to close/open doors for takeoff/landing
  • Decide what to do during turbulence. If it’s mild, the service can continue, otherwise, they will ask the cabin crew to stop serving passengers and sit down
  • Manage the fuel  
  • Monitor the cabin and coordinate with cabin staff

For example: in a flight, there might be a passenger who smokes, who is disruptive or intoxicated so the captain has to decide how to handle this person. Whether to ask a cabin crew to talk to him or restrain him

  • Contact ground staff or the doctor for the medical emergency
  • Handle and make hard decisions in emergencies: landing on water, evacuating, etc.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ft1KfOX1X_Y

*China Airline’s diversion due to bad weather

In short, they manage all the operations of the airplane including communicating with the air traffic controllers.

That’s the short capture of what pilots do during their duties. If you are asking yourself how hard is it to become a pilot? Well, it depends on how good you are at achieving the below prerequisites.

Qualifications And Skills

With all that said above, a pilot needs to equip themselves with a wide range of skills and knowledge to perform their duties.

Earn The Licenses

You need to get certified by an authorized organization that showcases the necessary skills and domain knowledge, starting with obtaining PPL (Private Pilot License). However, to fly on a commercial flight that carries passengers, PPL is not enough. A CPL (Commercial Pilot License) and then a full ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence) are required.

Each of the licenses has different prerequisites on knowledge and flight hours. We will cover this later in this article.

A Degree

A high school diploma is a must-have to most of the airlines in the world that ensures you get a hold of the basics to deal with real-life situations. On top of that, many large commercial airlines nowadays require a bachelor’s degree. It’s good to obtain an aviation-related degree. However, any other majors are also good. 

Soft Skills

One of the things most of the pilots usually lose sight of is to brush up their soft skills, including communication and leadership skills, the ability to deliver clear messages, etc. Why? Because data shows ineffective communication between captains and first officers or between pilots and cabin crews/air controllers causes 60-80% of flight incidents and accidents.

Here is the breakdown of the skill sets that are necessary to become a pilot:

  • Clear communication. Pilots need to ensure the messages (for example the altitude, airspeed, heading left or right, etc) sent to the others are accurate, concise, and clear 
  • Situational Awareness. Flying long-haul is a challenge, however, pilots have to be always aware of unusual happenings such as the weather, the instruction from the air controller team, etc
  • Team working skills. With flight crew, cabin crew, ground staff, etc
  • The ability to lead and deal with unexpected situations. A flight is subject to many unexpected events: diversions, hijacking, fire, leaking, etc. As the leaders of the flight, pilots need to remain calm, assess the situation, and think about possible solutions
  • Strong mentality and tenacity
Teamwork in the cockpit

Pilots are communicating in the cockpit – Source: Flight safety foundation

Many airlines are now asking pilots to go through the CRM (Crew Resource Management) training that focuses on international communication, leadership, and decision making. This will help pilots to communicate better in an international working environment and avoid any conflicts or unclear ways of communication in the cockpit.

Don’t lose sight of these essential skills as being a pilot, you will be carrying hundreds of lives every day.

To respond to your question “How hard is it to become a pilot?” the answer now is that it’s hard because you will be wearing many hats and taking care of everything in between. However, it’s a rewarding job with many new and exciting things every day. 

How many years to become a pilot? How long is flight school? The next section will reveal them all.

The Route To Becoming A Pilot

#1 Get The PPL 

There are many ways to dip your toes into the aviation sphere as a pilot. However, it all starts by signing up for a flight school where you will learn the basics and obtain the first license –PPL.

Before getting to how to get the PPL, here are what you need to know:

PPL stands for Private Pilot License. The course normally takes 5-7 months depending on how committed you are. It provides you with the foundation, prospects of becoming a pilot and allows you to accumulate the flight time.

The cost varies according to the types of aircraft you fly, the school you attend. It can range from $7000 to $9000 (just for reference), including learning materials, exam fees, examiner’s fees, etc. 

Here is how to obtain the PPL in the State:

  • Ensure you are 17 years old or above. Younger age can be acceptable if your height allows you to reach the pedals
  • FAA Medical Class 3, ensuring you are in a good health to learn and perform your duties
FAA Medical from the state

An example of the FAA Class 3 medical – Source: FAA

  • Good command of English to effectively communicate with others
  • Enroll for an authorized flight school
  • Complete the ground training and written test (60 multiple choice questions). You need to achieve at least 70% to pass the test
  • Fulfill the number of flight hours required: try to get as many total flight time as possible, of which at least 20 hours are instructed,  10 hours are solo time (fly without instructor), 5 hours are instructed night time, some across-country time
  • Pass the final check. The examiner will ask you several questions to assess your qualifications

This is the first step to fly on single-engine aircraft. Next, you will learn how to become a commercial pilot.

#2 Obtain The CPL

You will need 3 more months to obtain the CPL that allows you to take a big step to fly with commercial airlines. 

To become a commercial pilot with CPL, here are what to achieve

  • Must be 18 years old or above 
  • Possess an FAA Medical Class 2
  • Good English skills. You will be tested and your English proficiency will be endorsed on the license
  • An instrument rating or IFR – Instrument Flight Rules. This will enable you to fly with in-cockpit instrumentation so that you can fly even in low visibility weather
  • Pass the FAA written exam
  • Obtain a minimum of 250 hours of total flight time, of which 100 hours as Pilot-in-command (PIC) and 500 hours across-country.
  • Pass FAA checkride — the theoretical and practical exam
  • If you want to be certified as a multi-engine rated pilot, you can do so at this stage. It will allow you to fly on multi-engine aircraft.

So obtaining the CPL with a multi-engine rating will take approximately 3 months. Even though it’s short, you have to ensure you take away the most out of it and log as many hours as possible. This will be your competitive edge when applying for a job later.

A single engine aircraft

A pilot flying a single-engine aircraft – Source: Unplash

#3 Build The Flight Time

As said, having the CPL does not necessarily certify you as a pilot for a commercial airline. You need to build up at least 1500 hours to get the Airline Transport Pilot License –the license that grants you the qualification and knowledge to work as an airline pilot.

CPL holders can opt to build hours by flying cargo or becoming a flight instructor. However, if your goal is to become a commercial pilot, it’s preferable to obtain the flight time by becoming a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor). 

Then, obtain the CFII – Certified Flight Instructor Instrument rating.

Next, get an MEI – Multi-Engine Instructor Rating.

Now it’s time to fly and log flight hours towards your goals!

#4 Get The Frozen And Full ATPL 

After logging enough hours to fly with commercial airlines, you can start to apply for a job, starting as a second officer or first officer.

However, some airlines might require you to obtain the frozen ATPL (a CPL with an ATPL theory) to be qualified. 

All you need to do is register and sit for the ATPL theory exam. It’s where you get to answer theoretical questions about handling a flight, such as how to deal with bad weather, the codes to communicate with the staff, etc. There will be no practical exam involved. 

Frozen ATPL

An ATP theory – Source: FAA

#4 Become The Pilot-In-Command Or Captain

The prerequisite is to get a full ATPL/unfrozen ATPL. To sit for the exam and get the ATPL, here are what’s required

  • At least 23 years of age
  • 1500 hours of total flight time, in which 250 hours have to be PIC hours.

The exceptions will be given to those who meet one of the following criteria:

  • At least 21 years old and a military pilot with 750 total hours
  • Graduated from a 4-year aviation course from approved universities. You can check the list of the school here
  • Accumulated at least 1250 hours, above 21 years old, and own a two-year degree in aviation
  • Pilots with 1500 total hours and at least 21 years old

A checkride in a simulator is required. You will be asked to sit in an aircraft-simulated machine and will be challenged in many real-life situations. An examiner will decide to “pass” or “fail” your performance at the end of the assessment.

An ATPL license from the United States

An ATPL issued by FAA from the US – Source: Epic Flight Academy

If you get this passed, congratulations! You are now heading to build up more flight time and get the chance to become a captain who commands and leads the whole flight.

So how long is flight school and how many years to become a pilot?

It varies depending on where you stand in the first place and how you get to build your hours/knowledge. Different airlines might have specific requirements on multi-engine hours, across-country hours, or instrument rating. Nevertheless, after reaching the first 1500 hour milestone, you are very likely to be exposed to many job opportunities around the world. 

How Hard Is It To Become A Pilot? It Doesn’t Matter As Long As You Have What It Takes

Being a pilot might seem to be glamorous from the onset. However, it requires a lot of hard work and skills to be successful. Also, the process is strenuous and costly itself, thus if you have set your mind on this career, make sure you start it off with a ready-to-challenge attitude, a strong determination, and a kind heart. Because after all, it’s not just about you and the sky. It’s also about the people you work with and the passengers you’re carrying on each flight.

So keep working towards your dream and we hope you see your wings in the sky one day!

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By Sophie

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