Becoming an airline pilot isn’t something you can accomplish overnight. Here are seven of the most important facts you should know about this process.

Fact #1: You Shouldn’t Go Straight To Big Airlines

If you’re going to become an airline pilot, you’re going to have to go through a lot of pilot training, and that means starting small. In most cases, that means starting as a Private Pilot, following the FAA’s rules and regulations for doing so.

You’ll need at least 35-40 hours of time in the air before you can even apply for a private pilot certificate, depending on your school and the way your classes are taught. However, you may need to go as high as 70 hours in the air before your school will certify you, and that’s before taking a practical exam and test flight.

Realistically, you can expect to spend about four months to get your private pilot license, assuming you can devote time to it on your school’s schedule.

(Incidentally, this isn’t just about getting experience before you dive in – some airlines operate smaller planes as well as large ones, and being familiar with small planes can make you more attractive as a hire.)

Fact #2: There Are Many Different Certifications, And Yes, They Matter

Aside from the basic Private Pilot license, there are numerous other certifications you’ll want to have as part of meeting the airline pilot requirements. Some of the major ones include:

  • Instrument Rating: The Instrument Rating license allows you to fly a plane entirely by the instruments – and that’s a vital part of getting through rough weather. Modern technologies like GPS have made this easier, but you can expect that every airline will still expect you to know how to guide the plane without that.
  • Multi-Engine Rating: This certification, as the name implies, allows you to pilot planes with multiple engines on them. Since almost every commercial plane has two or more engines, you can see why this is mandatory.

Fact #3: It Helps to Earn Your Way Up

By the time you’ve reached this point, you’re well on your way to completing the process of how to become a airline pilot. However, you’ll need a lot more time in the sky – and one of the best ways of getting that is earning your way up.

The next two certificates you’ll want to focus on are the Commercial Pilot Certificate (which allows you to make money from flying) and the Certified Flight Instructor Certificate (which allows you to teach others and get paid for doing so). You’ll usually want to be in the air at least 2-3 times a week to get your hours in, and turning it into your job for awhile will help you ensure you can keep getting money while working towards your goal.

You’ll likely need $30,000 to $40,000 for the instruction alone – that’s not counting your other living expenses – so every bit helps.

Fact #4: It’s A Lot Easier If An Airline Supports You

Some commercial airlines offer career-type flight training, paid for entirely by the company. If you can get an airline to cover the costs of your education and pay you for doing it, everything gets far easier to manage.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Hiring someone who already knows everything about flying is easier than waiting for someone to complete their training, especially if the airline isn’t sure how many pilots they’re going to need in four years.

In other words, this is great if you can get it, but you shouldn’t rely on company support when deciding how to become an airline pilot.

Fact #5: It Takes About Four Years To Get Your Airline Transport Pilot License

That’s right. If you’re asking “how long does it take to become an airline pilot?”, it’s about four years of professional training and flying multiple times a week if you’re starting from nothing. At least, that’s the conclusion of the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, one of the country’s largest industry groups.

Becoming a commercial airline pilot isn’t something that happens quickly – and it’s not something to take lightly, either. Hundreds of people’s lives will be in your hands, and airlines are strict about experience and qualifications.

That said, if you can fly more than three times a week, you can significantly cut down on the amount of time it takes to earn the license you want the most. Therefore, it’s a good idea to become a certified flight instructor – if you’re heading up five or six days a week to teach others, and maybe even flying multiple times per day, those hours will come faster than you think.

Fact #6: You May Need More Schooling First

Bigger airlines have stricter requirements – and among those is the need for a college degree. Smaller, regional airlines may be more flexible about this, but major airlines will expect at least a four-year degree. A Bachelor of Sciences degree (emphasizing aviation) is a relatively common choice, but you don’t have to have an airline-related degree as long as it’s reasonably applicable to being a pilot.

Fact #7: You’ll Need About 3000 Hours Minimum

If you’re trying to figure out “How long does it take to become a commercial airline pilot,” the relevant number isn’t the time spent learning – it’s the hours in the air.

Experience is one of the single most competitive points among people looking to get hired as a commercial airline pilot, and 3000 hours is the lowest number that could get you hired. Roughly half of this will need to be in a multi-engine aircraft, with another 1000 hours being the pilot in command of an airplane. These do not overlap.

When deciding how to become a commercial airline pilot, though, you may find that you need considerably more time in the air to stand a chance of getting hired. As such, it helps if you can fall back on training others until you have enough experience to get hired by a commercial airline.

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