Updated: Jan 20, 2021
One of the most often asked questions I receive is, “What is the best pathway to becoming an airline pilot?” This question arises from fellow colleagues, relatives, friends and their acquaintances, and often random strangers, most commonly while waiting for my morning coffee at the airport café. I truly enjoy answering this question because it provides an opportunity to share my passion for aviation with other aspiring aviators. A career as an airline pilot is filled with obstacles and highly susceptible to industry volatility, but most of us consider it our lifelong vocation and genuinely enjoy overcoming the various challenges routinely encountered. The training pathway to becoming a professional pilot requires dedication and significant financial commitments, but the reward associated with obtaining a self-fulfilling career is undoubtedly worth the effort.
There are many training options available for someone seeking a career as an airline pilot. It is my goal to help you decide which route is right for you by outlining the primary pilot training pathways and the associated benefits and drawbacks of each program. So, what is the best pathway to becoming a professional pilot? I personally believe that the correct answer to this question resides in each individual’s goals and his or her associated background. The “correct” pathway to acquiring an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate , the license needed to operate as a pilot of a commercial airliner, may look different for a high school student when compared to a college graduate. Additionally, many professionals decide to pursue aviation later in life, which also affects which program will fit their needs best. Due to the differences with individual experiences, the proper training pathway will vary.
The following sections describe the four most common pilot training pathways: Universities, Academies, Part 61/FBOs, and Military organizations. At the end of each section, you will find links to additional blogs where active airline pilots describe their personal experiences in training having gone through the associated training pathway. It is my hope that each of these real-world examples help you make the right decision that will fit your needs!
University Flight School
University flight schools are one of the most common routes to pursue a career as a professional aviator. These programs are often tied to a four-year bachelor’s or two-year associate degree. In addition to acquiring the required flight certificates and ratings, these programs generally require additional aviation focused courses that cover a range of topics including meteorology, flight physiology, business, aviation law, and air traffic control. This multi-disciplinary form of aviation training is highly beneficial for future career opportunities and the obtainment of an airline job. Upon completion of training, university graduates often build flight time by becoming a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) at their associated college.
I generally recommend this pathway for individuals who do not yet possess a four-year college degree. Most of the major airlines require a four-year degree to be hired as a pilot; therefore, it is generally beneficial to combine this requirement with university-based flight training. I have also encountered several individuals that chose this route due to the availability of student loans as well as GI Bill benefits for veterans. Even though this pathway may require a longer training footprint, the experience and knowledge attained is beneficial for long-term career employment opportunities.
Pros: Multi-disciplinary aviation education, highly structured flight training, air carriers often provide preferential hiring to university graduates, increased availability for government student loans
Cons: Longer training duration, generally more expense required, less schedule flexibility
Academy Flight School
Academy flight training programs are designed to provide accelerated flight training. These programs are generally the quickest pathway to acquiring all pilot certifications. It is not uncommon for an academy graduate to have completed all the required flight certificate ratings in less than 12 months. As with university programs, graduates of academy flight schools often instruct as a CFI for their associated school to build hours to meet ATP flight time requirements.
I commonly advocate this pathway for individuals who already possess a four-year college degree and would like to obtain employment at an airline as soon as possible. It is important to note that academy flight school students are not eligible for government student loans. Therefore, academy attendees are required to finance training through private lenders or by personal means. If you have the financial resources and schedule flexibility for a fast-paced training environment, an academy flight school may be the right option for you.
Pros: Accelerated training footprint, highly structured training, fastest pathway to the airlines
Cons: Limited financing available, pace of training may be overwhelming, limited aviation education beyond regulatory requirements
Part 61 & Fixed Based Operator (FBO) Training
This style of flight training is most often found at your local airport. Fixed Based Operators (FBOs) can be described as organizations that provide services to the general aviation community. This includes aircraft maintenance, charters, flight training, and other aviation services that are separate from air carrier operations. Most FBOs offer some form of flight training, although fleet capacity is often limited. If an FBO does not provide flight training directly, they will generally have information for the nearest flight training schools and local CFIs.
Part 61 training includes the same flight concepts and principles found at university and academy programs; however, the training environment and associated schedule is tailored to the student. These training programs can vary in duration based on the student’s schedule as well as the instructor and aircraft availability. Part 61 attendees are also required to finance training through private lenders or by personal means. I often suggest this style of training for those that want to stay local and need flexibility for other commitments, such as family, work, and other obligations.
Pros: Flexible training schedule, available at most airports throughout the United States, ability to choose an instructor that meets your training needs
Cons: Less structured, limited financing available, variable training duration, often limited aircraft and instructor availability
Military Flight Training
Military flight training offers a unique opportunity to obtain your flight certificates while serving a branch of the US military. The military training environment is highly structured and provides guaranteed employment for the duration of service for those awarded a flying position. These programs often entail 10+ year commitments and require travel to the associated training locations and deployments throughout the world. Upon completion of service, military pilots often receive preferential hiring from various US airlines.
I generally recommend military training for those genuinely interested in serving their country. There are a variety of unique aircraft flown by each branch of the military, which provides unmatched flight experience. Additionally, all of the flight ratings and training are paid for by the government, thus eliminating the financial burden of training expenses. Military backgrounds are a great pathway to an airline career upon completion of service and often provide additional employment opportunities. The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard allow for continuing military service while being employed at an air carrier.
Pros: Unique flying opportunities, expense-free training, preferential hiring at most US airlines
Cons: Long-duration commitment, requires re-location to various bases and deployments, often slowest pathway to the airlines
Each of the pathways described above provide the required training needed to obtain your flight certifications. It is important to choose the option that best fits your needs and correctly positions you to achieve your long-term career goals. For more information about each career pathway experience, click on the associated blog in the sections above. If you have any questions for us, please sign up for a career mentoring session with one of our industry experts. We look forward to speaking with you soon!
Dr. Alex Nikle, co-founder and consultant at Airline Pilot Careers, is an aviation enthusiast currently employed at Delta Air Lines. He specializes on vocational studies and career mentoring for professional pilots and aspiring aviators. Dr. Nikle has served on various pilot recruiting and hiring boards at university, corporate flight, and airline organizations.
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