How to Be a Commercial Pilot

By Eric Hammer

The first time anyone goes up in an aircraft (unless they are too young to remember), most people have one of two reactions. Either they absolutely hate it, or they start asking how to be a commercial pilot. The idea of human powered flight, only about 100 years old has become so much a part of every day life that most people don't think twice about it. But what does it take to land a job flying an aircraft for American Airlines or TWA? The answer, lots of flight time.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which sets the rules for anyone wishing to fly an aircraft of any kind, commercial or otherwise has very specific guidelines on how to be a commercial pilot. Everyone starts the same and everyone goes through the same amount of training. There are no real shortcuts, though a few exceptions may be available.

For example, a certain amount of flight time that you are required to take in order to become a commercial pilot may be done using a professional flight simulator (using Microsoft's flight simulator game on your PC doesn't count). Occasionally, exceptions are granted to allow for a little less flight time. Also, depending on the type of aircraft you want to learn to fly, there are different requirements.

How Much Can You Make?

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a commercial pilot is $119,750 per year. However, that number, while impressive can be deceiving. First, pilots who earn good salaries have worked their way up after a great many years of training. Second, as airlines try to squeeze more profits out of flights, they are also trying to get new hires at ever lower costs.

Also, according to, the average pilot's salary ranges from $39,127-$82,789. Expect to earn on the lower end of that spectrum for at least the first few years of work.

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Remember that pilots don't necessarily have to work only on big, commercial airliners. You can also land work (no pun intended) flying jets for places like UPS, DHL, Fedex and even the Post Office since they all fly cargo jets all over the country and the world. Plus, you won't have to worry about dealing with irate passengers.

Another suggestion many people who ask how to be a commercial pilot tend to overlook is flying tourist aircraft and helicopters. Tourist aircraft typically have a single engine and fly much lower than commercial airliners. Helicopters also have lower requirements in order to get a license to fly them.

Finally, there are other options for flying, including crop dusters, fire fighting aircraft and piloting private aircraft for companies and wealthy individuals, all of which increase your options for flying jobs.

Qualifications / Requirements

As previously noted, the FAA has very specific rules regarding getting a pilot's license. Everyone starts the same way - as a student pilot (you are granted the right to be a "student pilot" automatically the moment you take control of the aircraft you are in - your instructor will be sitting beside you and let you steer the plane. However, to get a student license, there are other requirements - and you need a student license to fly solo for the first time). You must then progress through several levels before you get a commercial license.

Specifically and in short, you need 250 hours of flight time. You also must pass a test, both written and practical. You must already posses a private pilot's license and you must be over 18 years of age.

Note that if you want to begin learning to fly, the only requirement is that you can physically reach the controls of the aircraft. However, if you want to progress beyond flying with an instructor (i.e. fly solo), then you have to be at least 16 years old and pass a certain number of exams.

First Steps

Start by finding a flight school. These are typically located at small, regional airports in your area rather than at the big commercial airport where you go to fly to some other destination. Tell them you are interested in learning to fly. Most fight schools will give you a first lesson either for free or for a minimal cost. During that first lesson, you'll be shown the basics of a pre-flight check (you always check the fuel to make sure it's clear, you always check your instruments, you always buckle in, etc.) and the pilot will take off with you in the copilot's seat. When you are in the air, the pilot will allow you to take the controls and steer the aircraft for a while before you return to the ground.

After that initial flight, you'll sign up for lessons and earn your private pilot's license. This allows you to take others up in a single engine aircraft, but not to charge a fee. Once you have that license, you can then begin learning toward your commercial pilot's license.


Check out these helpful resources to find out more about how to be a commercial pilot:

Federal Aviation Administration: Become a Pilot - While it's a little confusing to follow and we wish the site was laid out better, the FAA's own web site does have a wealth of information on how to be a commercial pilot.

GG Pilot: Commercial Pilot - This information, from a flight school summarizes the details of what you'll need in order to become a commercial pilot.

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