Do You Want To Be A Pilot In The United States?

By: Julia Dean, President

I receive many emails requesting information about becoming an airline pilot in the United States. This article addresses many of the general questions I receive about the types of pilot careers, salaries, FAA requirements, training, advancement opportunities and the employment outlook for pilots.

(Please note that the commercial pilot industry is very competitive, particularly since 9/11. The information gathered for this article was sourced mainly from government labour research organizations, noted at the end of the article).


There are four general types of pilot careers:

1. Commercial Airline Pilots

2. Agricultural Pilots

3. Helicopter Pilots

4. Photogrammetry Pilots


4 out of 5 pilots Commercial Airline Pilots in the US are responsible for transporting cargo and/or passengers. The other 20% of commercial pilots have positions involved in search and rescue, testing aircraft, flight instruction or examination, monitoring car traffic or tracking criminals. Some commercial pilots also fly agricultural planes, described below in more detail.

There are generally three categories of careers for commercial airline pilots: the Pilot, or the Captain is the most senior officer and supervises the flight crew; the Co-Pilot, called the First Officer, who assists the captain; and the Flight Engineer, or Second Officer, who assists the other pilots and performs such tasks as monitoring and operating instruments. Most aircraft fly with only two pilots as computerized equipment is replacing the need for flight engineers in modern, more sophisticated planes.

About 75% of pilots fly 75 hours a month, and spend about 75 hours completing non-flying work responsibilities. About 25% of pilots work more than 40 hours per week.


Agricultural Pilots fly helicopters or airplanes and are typically responsible for dusting crops, distributing seeds for reforestation, fighting forest fires, inspecting pipelines, or distributing fish into lakes.


Helicopter pilots provide a variety of services working for businesses and government. Areas of specialty include traffic monitoring, oil and gas exploration, pipeline monitoring, logging, construction, agriculture, search and rescue, emergency medical transport, law enforcement, and newsgathering. Other helicopter pilot positions are available for corporate or travel charter.


Photogrammetry Pilots specialize at flying at specific altitudes and speeds suitable for aerial photography. Aerial photography is used for mapping the earth’s surface, real estate purposes, and business or government research requirements.


The median annual income of all commercial pilots in the US is $43,300. The highest 10% of earners earned more than $92,000 and the lowest 10% of earners made less than $24,000.

Pilots’ salaries vary widely depending on the aircraft used, the number of hours and miles flown, and whether or not the pilot works for an airline. Earnings for airline pilots are among the highest in the country.

The median annual income of commercial airline pilots is $110,940, and over 25% earned more than $145,000. The lowest 10% of commercial airline pilots earned less than $36,110. Senior pilots are among the highest paid earners in the US.

In addition to traditional income, pilots earn a "per diem" or expense allowance for every hour that they are away from their base city. This per diem can be up to $500 per month. Further, pilots and their immediate families also enjoy the benefits of significantly reduced air travel and hotel accommodation rates.


Greater than 50% of all aircraft pilots in the US are union members. The majority of pilots that are employed by major airlines belong to the Airline Pilots Association, International, or the ALPA.

However, those employed by one national airline are members of the Allied Pilots Association. Additionally, some flight engineers belong to the Flight Engineers' International Association.

Flight route assignments are based on seniority of union membership.


To be employed as a commercial pilot in the United States requires a Federal Air Transport rating and certification for the specific type of aircraft being flown. Helicopter pilots must also be rated and have a commercial pilot’s certificate. Applicants for these licenses must have a minimum of 250 flight hours of experience and be at least 18 years of age. In addition, candidates must pass a physical examination that ensures that they are in good health and that they have good hearing and 20/20 vision either with or without glasses.

The written test for a pilot’s rating includes questions on FAA regulations, the principles of safe flight, and navigation techniques. The certification also requires pilots to demonstrate their flying ability to FAA or FAA approved examiners.

To fly during times of low visibility, pilots must be rated to fly by instruments alone. To qualify for this rating, pilots must pass a written test and are required to have 105 hours of flight experience that includes 40 hours of experience flying exclusively by instruments. This certification requires pilots to demonstrate their ability to fly by instruments alone to FAA or FAA approved examiners.

Commercial Airline pilots have additional licensing requirements. First, airline pilots must have a transport license, which requires applicants to be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 flying hours of experience. This experience must include instrument and night flying. Additionally, airline pilots must pass written and flight examinations. Second, airline pilots are usually required to have one or more advanced ratings, such as an aircraft type rating or a multi-engine aircraft rating. This second qualification criteria is dependent upon the types of aircraft the pilot is flying and/or the type of pilot job.

Pilots’ licenses or ratings are valid as long as the pilot passes the period physical exams and flying tests that are required by the Federal Government and the airline company regulations. Medical certificates are issued in 3 classes. A class l certificate is the most rigorous, and requires the highest levels of vision, hearing, equilibrium and health. The Class ll Medical Certificate has less stringent requirements, but still demands a high standard of general health and an excellent medical history. The least rigid classification is the class lll Medical Certificate.


Legally, pilots are not allowed to fly more than 100 hours in any given month, and no more than 1000 hours in any given year. In addition, pilots must be allowed at least 8 hours of uninterrupted rest in the 24 hours before finishing their flight duty. The FAA requires airlines to provide pilots with this rest period to guard against excessive fatigue that could result in an unsafe flight.


There are approximately 600 civilian flying schools in the US that are certified by the FAA. Some colleges and universities also offer FAA certified pilot courses that offer degree credits. In addition, the Armed Forces is a large source of trained pilots for civilian pilot careers.


Many new airline pilots start out as flight engineers or first officers with smaller or regional airlines. Advancement for many pilots may involve transferring from a small airline to a major carrier. However, advancement is typically dependent upon seniority. Flight Engineers can advance according their seniority to First Officer positions after 1 to 5 years of experience. After to 5 to 15 years experiencing, they can advance to Captain positions depending on their seniority.

Some pilots advance to managerial positions, while others advance based on seniority to larger aircraft or better routes or a preferred home base location. Agricultural Pilots can advance into management jobs or become self-employed as independent contractors.


The number of job opportunities for pilots in the US is expected to grow about as fast as the average of overall employment growth from 2003 to 2010. However competition for jobs will continue to be high. Causes that slow growth are a function of mergers and challenges in the airline industry. In addition, advancements in technology reduce the need for Flight Engineers, and video conferencing and teleconferencing reduce the need for business travel.

Some industry analysts predict the need for 27,000 new pilots between 2003 and 2010 as a result of retirement. Many of the pilots who were hired in the 1960’s are now reaching mandatory retirement age, and thus a few thousand job vacancies are expected to arise each year for the next several years. Note that not many pilots retire early because of the high earnings and benefits, and the fact their unique skills are not generally transferable to other careers.

The employment of pilots is sensitive to changes in the economy. Airlines are forced to furlough or temporarily lay-off pilots during periods when the demand for air travel declines. At times of recession, pilots employed in commercial or corporate flying and flight instruction are adversely affected by the downturn in the economy.


Pilots that have the most FAA licenses and that have logged the most number of flying hours on sophisticated aircraft will generally have the best job prospects. Military pilots typically have more experience and licenses than other pilots, and thus have more job opportunities.

It is forecasted that the greatest number of new job openings will come from the regional passenger and cargo airlines, and international carriers. The industry will likely experience a need for more airlines, pilots and flight instructors.

It is also expected that there will be an increasing need for pilots that operate single engine airplanes because more businesses are chartering private aircraft.

Note that women make up approximately 25% of the total number of people employed as pilots in the US and this figure is expected to increase.


The majority of pilot jobs in the US are located in cities with major airline hubs. Most positions are concentrated in Texas, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, California, the District of Columbia, Michigan, Illinois, Washington and Florida. These regions generate the most flights relative to their population size.

By Julia Dean, MBA

President, - helping people get airline jobs faster

Copyright . All rights reserved.


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor



California Employment Development Department

Research & Analysis Bureau Providing Labor Market Information for the State of Montana

Business and Finance

» More on Business and Finance