You can learn to fly a plane if you can drive a car, but there’s a lot more preparation and practice needed.  The pilot license cost involves more than paying for a piece of paper. You’ll need to get medical clearance to fly, study books and other material, work with a flight simulator and log about 60 hours in a plane with an instructor. There are also testing fees, fuel charges, aircraft rental fees and the cost of flight headsets.

Think about why you want to fly a plane. If you become concerned about being able to afford all those fees, the why can make the training and expense worth it.

Reasons to Get a Pilot’s License

There’s more than one type of pilot, and more than one type of certification. You can fly for recreation, for profit, or become a flight instructor. Six licenses you can earn in the U.S. are:

Sport Pilot

A sport pilot flies at low altitudes in his community, and only during daylight.  Sub categories include glider, rotorcraft, airplane and powered parachute. Sport pilots can only have one passenger, and can’t fly above 10,000 feet. They are also prohibited from flying in B, C or D class airspace. A sport license requires 20 hours of FAA flight time.  The average sport pilot license cost is $4400.

Recreational Pilot

The recreational pilot license is for pilots who want to fly heavier aircraft than a sport pilot and have no desire to become a private or advanced pilot.

Recreational pilots need 30 hours of flight time (with 15 hours of dual instruction included). Pilots with this type of license can only fly during the day and must say within 50 nautical miles of the departure airport. They can’t fly in B, C or D airspaces. A recreational pilot license costs $7700.

Private Pilot

The most common pilot certificate, private pilot license cost is much more than for a recreational or sport license. Private pilots can do much more than the lower licenses classes. A person with a private pilot license can fly at night, fly any single-engine land airplane (as long as they have the right ratings and endorsements), and fly at controlled airports.

Private pilots can’t be paid for flying. To get a private pilot certificate, you must fly for 40 hours, 20 of it with an instructor. A private pilot license costs an average of $9900.

Commercial Pilot

A commercial pilot can be paid for his services. A student who wishes to be a commercial airline pilot needs to learn how to fly aircraft with flaps, retractable landing gear, and other complex gear. Commercial pilots must follow FAA regulations for commercial flights. The cost for a commercial flight license is $15,000 to $20,000.

Flight Instructor

A flight instructor needs to know about instructional design, commercial flight topics, and fight theory. You must be at least 18 years old and have a commercial pilot license to qualify for flight instructor training. Instructor classes consist of several training blocks and may cost up to $15,000.00.

Airline Transport Pilot

If you want to make excellent money as a pilot, work towards an airline transport license (ATP). This license is required if you want to fly a commercial jet for a living.

Commercial airlines require all pilots have ATP certification. You need to be 23 years of age or older and have at least 1500 hours of flying experience. Military pilots and university students are eligible for an ATP license with lower requirements. An ATP license costs.

There are several “blocks” to ATP training. Cost for the complete training and license may be as much as $65,000, a single training block may be 4995, depending on the school.  

Commercial Pilot Salaries

You may wonder how much do commercial pilots make? Well, that depends on what type of aircraft the pilot flies and the company that employs him.

A new pilot makes less than a pilot with ten years’ experience, but the experience isn’t the only determining factor in what a pilot earns.

The airline industry, like other industries, has its lean times. When demand for flights is low, hiring stops and personnel receive furloughs so airlines can continue to operate. Once demand rises again, new pilots are hired, and veteran pilots may get more work hours.

According to professional pilots interviewed for Glassdoor.com, $31,000 a year is the lowest salary, with $114,000 listed as an average salary and $207,000 a year the highest salary. However, salaries may be higher or lower depending on the airline and the pilot’s status.

Types of Airlines and Pilot Pay

Commercial aviation includes several types of carriers. Regional airlines, as the name implies, provide service to cities and towns in a particular region. Smaller aircraft are typically used on these routes, as fewer passengers travel to and from these destinations.

Legacy airlines, or full-service carriers, offer meals, beverages, in-flight entertainment and checked baggage with the cost of the ticket.

Low cost or major carriers lack the amenities of legacy airlines, but have rock-bottom airfares. No-frills airlines may travel to both popular and lesser-known destinations. Passengers must pay for entertainment, meals and extra checked baggage.

Pilot pay rates are better at legacy airlines, with low-cost/major paying less and regional airlines lagging far behind. According to the Airline Pilots Association, the starting salary for regional airline pilots is $22,500 a year. Major airline pilots make an average of between $134.71 per hour (Sun Country) and $235.92 per hour (Southwest). Legacy pilots make the most, with an average hourly wage of $193.75 per hour (Alaska Airlines) and $269.98 per hour (United).

Position matters when it comes to salary. A first officer makes less than a captain.

When a pilot is first hired at an airline, he or she is on call or reserve status and must be at the airport or within the vicinity of the airport. An on-call pilot may find out a flight is leaving in a few hours or a few days. Pilots on reserve status may be paid per diem rates. The rates depend on the airline.

Helicopter Training

Learning how to become a helicopter pilot isn’t much different from learning how to fly a plane. You’ll need to decide whether you want to fly helicopters for fun and personal transportation, as a commercial pilot, or for the military.

Renting a helicopter for private use is more expensive than renting a small plane. Helicopter rentals may cost as much as $500-$600 an hour, so you’ll need a lot of extra cash to indulge this hobby. Professional helicopter pilots need a commercial rotorcraft license, but many helicopter pilots also have Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) and Instrument Rating credentials.

You need to be at least 16 years old and pass a medical evaluation to take helicopter training. You’ll need to log about 30 to 50 hours of dual instructions to secure the license.  The average cost of a private helicopter license is between $10,000 and $15,000 for instruction, helicopter rental, written materials, and tests.

Pilot Education

The answer to how to get a pilot’s license starts with training.  You should budget for an hour to an hour and a half of flying a week, for a total of four hours of in-flight and some on the ground training weekly if you’re like most people. You can do more if you have more free time, but most students find it easier to retain information when it is spread out over weeks or months.

How long does it take to become a pilot? The time frame for a pilot to train for a license depends on what type of license the student needs (a sport license takes less time than a commercial license). A sport or recreational pilot may only need a few weeks training before taking a license test.  Private pilots need a minimum of 40 hours flight time, although most pilots-in-training receive at least 60 hours of hands-on experience.

Private pilot license cost varies from school to school. When you find a school or instructor you like, ask about their payment options.

More About Tuition and Fees

The answer to “How much does it cost to get a pilot’s license?” shouldn’t dissuade you from going to flight school. You have many alternatives to paying upfront and in full. Students with limited financial resources can work out a payment plan with their school, get financial aid or take out a loan.

A Federal Pell Grant pays up to $5500 for schooling and doesn’t need to be repaid. Federal Direct low-interest student loans come in subsidized and unsubsidized versions. Students who qualify for the subsidized loans can have the interest on the loan paid by the government while they are in flight school. The Federal Direct PLUS Loan for Parents lets the parents of students under 18 borrow money to pay for their teen’s license and other flight school-related expenses.

A pilot’s license cost is not a barrier to achieving your dream of helming a plane. Students with the desire to learn can always find a way to pay for their training and learn to fly for profit or pleasure.

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