If you are an international student who wants to study aviation in the United States, you might have several possible careers in mind. One of these career paths might be that of a commercial airline pilot. Working as a commercial airline pilot is a fascinating and rewarding career, and many people who study aviation intend eventually to become one. There are several steps that you will need to go through before becoming a commercial airline pilot, however.
Certificates and Ratings
In order to become a commercial airline pilot, there are several certificates and ratings that you will need. The first thing you will need is a private pilot license, which will allow you to fly on your own, but does not allow you to receive payment for flying.
Commercial pilot certificate
Next, you will need a commercial pilot certificate, which allows you to receive payment for your flight services. You earn this certificate by passing commercial pilot ground school and logging at least 250 flight hours, with allotted time dedicated to certain conditions and maneuvers. After you have passed your written ground school test and logged your hours, you will need to pass a check-ride. This is a lot like the driving test required in order to receive a driver’s license; in the check-ride, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) examiner will ask you to plan a flight, quiz you on aviation matters, and then accompany you on a flight. Like with a driving test, you will be asked to execute certain maneuvers and your examiner will direct your flying throughout the flight. After the test, if everything goes well, you will be issued a commercial pilot’s certificate.
Additionally, in order to become a commercial airline pilot, you will need an up-to-date first- or second-class medical certificate. To receive this, an Aviation Medical Examiner will need to verify that you meet the health and fitness requirements to be a pilot. As a commercial airline pilot, you will be subject to these examinations throughout your career; captains need to pass a physical exam once every six months, and other commercial airline pilots need to pass an exam every year. If a health problem is discovered, you could be out of a job.
You will also need to get an instrument rating in order to fly with low visibility (in adverse weather and in clouds). You receive this rating by passing instrument ground school, logging a specified number of instrument flight hours (flying without visibility), and passing an instrument rating check-ride.
Next, you will need a multi-engine rating. This will allow you to fly planes with multiple engines, which is most likely what you will fly as a commercial airline pilot. To receive this rating, you will need to take some lessons and mass a multi-engine check-ride.
Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
At one point or another, most commercial airline pilots also get an airline transport pilot certificate. This is the highest pilot certificate and allows you to be the pilot in commend (captain) of a large commercial aircraft. For this certificate, you will need to pass a written test, have a first-class medical certificate, be a high school graduate, and have logged 1,500 flight hours, including 250 hours as the pilot in command.
There are two major career paths to being hired as an airline pilot: civilian or military. Each path has its own advantages and disadvantages:
The civilian path offers two options: college or flight school. While there is no college requirement to be a pilot, college shows that you are trainable and can succeed in a challenging curriculum—both of which are necessary traits in a commercial airline pilot. You might choose to attend a college that offers a two- or four-year degree along with flight training towards the various flight certificates you will need. This way, you will graduate with most—if not all—of the ratings and certificates you will need, as well as some flight experience.
Civilian flight training is very expensive. Basic flying lessons start at about $80 an hour, and you will need at least 250 hours before you receive your commercial rating. It also costs a great deal to rent airplanes for instruction.
Another option for becoming a commercial airline pilot is to receive your training through the military. You will need to commit to a set number of years in the military after one year of pilot training (in the Air Force, this is a ten-year commitment). You will need to meet other requirements, such as college course work, good health, and adequate physical abilities. There is no guaranteeing that you will pass the military flight training on the service’s rigid time schedule, or that you will be able to fly a specific airplane. You will, however, receive the best training in the equipment that an airline pilot would fly.
You must be prepared for the military life, however; it is not a commitment to take on lightly. You will be required to follow orders, risk bodily harm, and use lethal weapons. If you are not prepared for this, the military is probably not the best path for you.
After you are certified, you will need more experience and flight hours before an airline will hire you. Your level of experience is based on the number and complexity of the aircraft you’ve flown, the quantity and complexity of the flying you did (jet or propeller, day or night, local or cross-country, flying with or without visibility, etc.), and which crew positions you’ve had. If you chose the military path, you will likely have quite a lot of flight experience before leaving the military. A civilian pilot might work as a flight instructor, then move on to a charter company in order to gain the experience he or she needs in order to become a commercial airline pilot.
If you're interested in a career in aviation, but aren't sure that commercial airline pilot is right for you, check out our Careers in Aviation page for more possibilities.