August 12, 2021 Pilot Pipeline

How to Become a Pilot: A Comprehensive Guide

Everything You Need to Know

“How to become a pilot” is consistently searched on the internet. If you have ever searched that phrase, then this article is perfect for you. In this article, we will cover the minimum requirements for becoming a pilot, the different ways to become a pilot, the cost / time of training, and the amount of money you can make as a pilot.

The first thing you need to do is figure out what your goals are: do you want to fly for fun by yourself or with friends or do you want to fly as a career? The requirements are pretty similar. However, flying as a career will require you to get your Commercial Pilot Certificate. Whereas, if you want to fly with friends and family, you will only need to obtain your Private Pilot Certificate. 

Minimum Requirements to Become a Pilot

There are a few minimum requirements that you must meet before you can begin the process of becoming a pilot. You can begin training and solo an aircraft at 16 years old.

However, in order to begin the pursuit of a private pilot certificate you must be: 

  • At least 17 years old
  • Fluent at reading, writing and speaking English
  • Able to provide proof of identity
  • Able to qualify for and obtain a 3rd class FAA medical certificate

Lastly, to become a commercial pilot, you must be:

  • At least 18 years old
  • Fluent at reading, writing and speaking English
  • Able to provide proof of identity
  • Able to qualify for and obtain a 2nd class FAA medical certificate
  • A licensed private helicopter pilot

FAA Medical Certificates

FAA medical exams clear you to fly and ensure that you are physically fit to do so. Most people are able to pass an FAA medical exam. To learn more about FAA medical certificates and standards, check out the FAA website. 

The FAA has three different classes of medicals: 1st class, 2nd class, and 3rd class. The three medical classes all have different requirements and standards. To learn everything you need to know about medical certificates, read this article. 

Lastly, you must also receive a Student Pilot Certificate prior to starting your training. The good news is that you can get this certificate at the same time as your medical. If you already have your medical and need a Student Pilot Certificate, go to the FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) and submit an application. Most of the time, your flight school or instructor will assist you with getting this certificate.

If you meet the basic requirements and pass a medical exam, you are ready to begin chasing your dream!

Pathways to Becoming a Pilot

There are two main paths you can take to becoming a pilot: the civilian route and the military route. Both of these options are very different, but can ultimately help you reach the same goals down the road. And one of these options is much cheaper (hint: it’s the military).

Civilian Airplane Path

As a civilian, you can decide you want to fly at any point. Once you make this decision, you can find a flight school and begin your training almost immediately.

The first step you should take is going for an introductory flight to ensure that flying is for you. During this roughly two-hour experience, you will learn about the aircraft and its controls. Then, you will actually be able to take over the controls and fly for about an hour. If you enjoy the flight and feel comfortable, you might want to continue training to become a pilot. Now, it’s time to select a flight school!

There are many different types of flight schools: Part 61, Part 141, Accelerated Programs, and University Programs. The time to complete training and the cost of training will vary depending on the type of program you select. For more information regarding the types of programs and things to consider when choosing your training provider, read this article. 

The Pilot Pipeline Flight School Finder is a great tool to help you search for flight schools and make an informed decision. This tool allows you to sort through schools based on rating, location, military needs, and much more.

Once you have your flight school, you will begin your training (the fun part)! First, you will pursue your Private Pilot Certificate. Then, you will move onto your Instrument Rating and Commercial Pilot Certificate. 

Here are three great articles that outline the training processes:

  1. Private Pilot Certificate
  2. Instrument Rating
  3. Commercial Pilot

As you can see, the civilian process of becoming a pilot can be very complex depending on your end goal. Luckily for you, Pilot Pipeline offers a career management software that utilizes your experience and end-goal to create custom career pathways. Create your FREE account here

Civilian Helicopter Path

Just about everyone looks to the sky when they hear a helicopter flying overhead. I have been intrigued by helicopters, and those who fly them, since I was young. A helicopter is an incredible piece of machinery: they are agile, fast, and can reach places that a fixed wing aircraft could never. 

The civilian process of becoming a helicopter pilot is extremely similar to the airplane process outlined above. The minimum requirements are essentially the same and you will use the same criteria to select your flight school. Obviously, you will be training in a helicopter and the requirements will be a little different, but you will complete the same certifications and ratings. 

For a more detailed look at how to become a helicopter pilot, read this article.

Military Path

Joining the military to become a pilot is a great option, and in my opinion, one that is underutilized. One of the main perks for flying in the military is that they pay for your flight training. Even better, you actually get paid to train and fly!

Variety of Options

Three great military branches where you can fly are the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The process is very similar for these. Once you join, you would set your sights on making it to flight school. Once you get there, the military instructors will guide you through the entire process. If you do not have a degree, you can become a Warrant Officer and fly for the U.S. Army. 

Another great option is the Marines, which is a little different than the three mentioned above. In order to fly for the Marines, you must be an Officer and have a four year degree. So if you have a college degree and want to fly for a great military branch, the Marines might be for you!

The Military Process

Starting the process is fairly simple. First, you can just walk into a local Armed Forces recruiting office and begin discussions with your recruiter. Tell them your goals and ask a lot of questions about the flight programs in your desired branch. They’ll be happy to help. 

If you are interested in both college and the military, consider the different military academies. The United States Military Academy at West Point (Army), The Naval Academy, and The Air Force Academy are great colleges that produce plenty of pilots. 

If you are currently in high school or college, look into joining a JROTC or ROTC program. These programs are a great way to explore military options, and you will learn a lot while you’re there. 

In the military, you can fly fixed wing aircraft or helicopters. Going to fixed wing route is a better choice for someone who wants to become an airline pilot after their time has been served. However, you don’t need to fly a fixed wing to become an airline pilot. There are great rotor transition programs that will help you transition after you leave the military. 

The military process to becoming a pilot is a little more simple than the civilian route, due to the fact that you will have guidance throughout the entire process. Another added bonus is that this option is completely free. Lastly, if you have goals of becoming an airline pilot, you are in luck. Airlines love to hire Veterans. Therefore, you might be a little ahead of the pack when you decide to transition. 

Cost and Time of Becoming a Pilot

The costs and timelines for certificates and ratings are similar for both airplanes and helicopters, so let’s group them together. 

Private Pilot Certificate

A Private Pilot Certificate will allow you to operate as pilot in command (PIC) of certain qualified aircraft. As a private pilot, you can fly solo or you can carry a limited number of passengers. Obtaining your Private Pilot Certificate can take anywhere between one and six months, depending on the flight program you are enrolled in and your commitment level. A Private Pilot Certificate can be expensive. All things considered, you should be prepared to spend between $10,000 and $15,000 for your training. 

Instrument Rating

An Instrument Rating is arguably one of the most valuable ratings you can add to your pilot certificates. As the name implies, an Instrument Rating is earned through extensive training focused on flying solely by reference to instruments. An Instrument Rating allows you to safely (and legally) fly through clouds. Professional aviation would not be possible without this capability, and these skills are fundamental to safe flying. All in all, an Instrument rating will likely cost you an additional $10,000 to $15,000 and should take roughly 10 weeks to complete. 

Commercial Pilot Certificate

Obtaining your Commercial Pilot Certificate will cost anywhere between $3,000 and $5,000. The overall time to become a commercial pilot is roughly two years, however this includes your Private Pilot Certificate and Instrument Rating. Majority of this time is spent building the hours you’ll need to become a commercial pilot and get hired. You’ll need 1,500 hours before you can be a commercial pilot or airline pilot. 

Total Cost and Financing

All in all, the cost of becoming a commercial pilot can cost you anywhere between $40,000 and $90,000 depending on the type of program you enroll in. The time to become a pilot will heavily depend on the program you decide to join and your training intensity. The average timeline is roughly two years to become a commercial pilot. However, there are accelerated programs that can get you there in as little as seven months.

I know, it’s crazy expensive. But, there are plenty of financing options available to you. Pilot Pipeline offers a Scholarship Finder to its Premium members, which allows you to sort and filter through over $25 million worth of scholarships based on demographics, ratings, organization, and much more. If you are interested in learning more about other financing options, read this article.

How Much Do Pilots Make?

I am sure you are wondering if all of this training and money spent is worth it financially? Well, most people would think so. Pilots can make a very comfortable living, after they put in their first few years on the job. First, let’s take a look at airline pilots.

Airline Pilots

Airline pilot salaries are dependent on a few factors: seniority, type of aircraft, and position (First Officer or Captain). Keep in mind that the lower end of the salary ranges are new pilots who are just starting. The higher salaries in the ranges provided are for the most experienced pilots (Captains) who are flying complex aircraft. It’s also important to note that pilots receive incredible benefits from their employer and are reimbursed for expenses while working.

Let’s analyze the compensation in four subsections of the industry: regional airlines, legacy airlines, major-national airlines, and cargo carriers. 

  1. Regional Airlines: the average salary of a regional airline pilot is roughly $65,000 per year. However, pay can vary between $35,000 and $150,000 per year.
  2. Legacy Airlines: the average salary of a legacy airline pilot is probably $200,000. The salary range here is much wider, anywhere between $80,000 and $350,000.
  3. Major-National Airlines: Pilots who work at major-national airlines can expect to earn anywhere between $50,000 and $250,000.
  4. Cargo Carriers: Cargo carriers actually pay extremely well. A cargo pilot can earn anywhere between $45,000 and $310,000 per year. 

For an extremely detailed breakdown of airline pilot compensation, check out the following article: How much do pilots make?

Helicopter Pilots

Now, let’s take a quick look at helicopter pilot compensation. As a new commercial helicopter pilot, you will likely take a job as an instructor (so get your CFI while training). The average pay of a helicopter flight instructor is roughly $30,000 per year. 

Once you build roughly 1,000 hours of flight time while instructing, you can move to a new job, such as a tour guide or emergency services pilot. Tour guides will make between $40,000 and $50,000 whereas emergency services pilots make between $50,000 and $90,000. Firefighting helicopter pilots make good money, about $75,000 per fire season. 

As you build experience, you can pursue better jobs such as flying for business executives and VIPs or being a pilot for an offshore oil rig. In these roles, you will likely make more than $100,000 per year.


We just covered a ton of information, so it is okay to feel a bit confused or overwhelmed. I promise that the process of becoming a pilot is not as hard as it seems. Once you start training, you will have an instructor to guide you through the entire process. Flying is an incredible experience and you’ll probably fall in love with it if you give it a chance. Also, it’s hard to forget about the potential financial rewards as well!

I hope this article gave you a better understanding of the general process of becoming a pilot. Enjoy your flying and stay safe!

Career Guidance and Planning

If you are looking to pursue your Private Pilot Certificate or manage your career and navigate the process of becoming a pilot, check out Pilot Pipeline. The software uses your current experience and end-goal to curate a custom pathway that will guide you through the process. The best part? It’s completely free! Sign up for a free account or commit to a Premium account that will grant you access to the Timeline Assistant and Scholarship Finder. 

If you ever feel that you need further guidance from someone with a great deal of experience, check out Pilot Pipeline Consulting. Services range from General Career Guidance to Application Review and Interview Preparation. Set up a free 15-minute consultation to discuss your goals and develop a strategy moving forward. 

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