Becoming a commercial pilot is a goal which many aspire to, but only a few can achieve. It requires huge dedication and personal sacrifice, many gruelling hours of studying and it is also very expensive. If you have the right stuff, and enough motivation and desire to make it happen, then you too can earn your wings and become a commercial pilot just like me.
To help you on your journey, I have put together a basic guide on the steps you can take to become a commercial pilot, as well as some of my critical tips and gouge that could save you thousands of dollars and months of your time.
Why become a commercial pilot?
There are many reasons why you might want to become a commercial pilot; for many it is a pursuit of chasing your childhood dreams. Some just hate the idea of a desk or office job and have a need to spread their wings and fly; taking to the skies to see the world.
Some are attracted to the high salaries and benefits. Ultimately the reason to become a commercial pilot rests with you, and you will need to frequently revisit that motivation in order to succeed and pass through the difficult challenge of training as a commercial pilot
Commercial Pilots’ pay is pretty good
Flying commercially is a great way to make a living out of your passion for flying. Commercial pilots make bank! Just check out how much they make in the guide ‘How much do commercial pilots make‘ for an idea of how much!
Not only is your base salary attractive, but commercial pilots often get paid very generous allowances and overtime rates, especially for international routes. In addition, companies usually cover many other costs such as subsidised housing, company vehicles and comprehensive medical and retirement investment contributions.
Flying for some of the major airlines also means you can potentially enjoy the benefits of company stock investment programs, where you receive some of your salary or benefits in the form of generous company stock holdings.
Aviation is a highly respected job in the community
A commercial pilot is a very prestigious job, due to its complex and demanding nature. Not everyone is cut out to fly professionally, and people respect and admire the dedication and commitment to your role. You only need to see the young kids desperate to get a tour of the cockpit and the parents just as eager to follow them to see why.
People respect and admire the uniform, and associate it with feelings of trust and security. Ultimately, this is because flying can be a very uncomfortable and scary experience for a lot of people – just think about it – humans aren’t really designed to be soaring through the skies in a pressurised metal tube at nearly 1000km/hr over 30,000ft in the upper reaches of the atmosphere! It is normal for this to be scary, and people trust that the pilots will keep them safe and get them to their destinations.
Because of this highly dynamic and time-sensitive environment, commercial pilots are respected as great decision-makers and conflict managers, having to often resolve complex and difficult emergency scenarios and follow strict rules and operating guidelines.
Being a pilot is a Rewarding career
Other than flying for reward, flying professionally brings with itself a huge sense of self-satisfaction and is a very personally rewarding career. Safely transporting hundreds of passengers and many thousands and thousands of pounds and cargo across the world is no easy task.
There can be extremely tricky days where nothing is going right, and you have to battle the weather, challenging schedules, fatigue and potentially aircraft unservicabilities to safely get the job done. Achieving a smooth landing in a big heavy jet in high crosswinds or wind shear always brings a smile to my face!
Guide to Becoming a Commercial Pilot
This guide is for aspiring commercial pilots as well as flying students on their way to graduating with a commercial licence.
1. Complete your Pilot Medical Screening
Commercial pilots are required to maintain a strict medical standard. They need to be fit and healthy, and have no big defects. Its absolutely important to get the ball rolling and getting your medical sorted EARLY in your flight training. You must pass your medical or you wont get the licence and the whole thing will be a waste of time!
Pilots specifically need great vision, as well as a healthy heart (meaning acceptable blood pressure) and good hearing. Its also really important to have a strong back and muscles, especially if you want to fly multi engine aircraft, due to the strong rudder inputs that you will need to apply if one of your engines fail! Commercial pilots also can’t have any medical issues like diabetes.
The medical rules vary from country to country, but it is generally referred to as a class one. Start the ball rolling early; contact your government aviation authoirty and ask for a list of approved or designated aviation medical examiners in your area. Book an appointment and tell them you want a class 1 aviation medical licence.
A class 1 licence is not required for training or private operations, but it IS required for commercial operations. Obtaining this should be your first priority so there isnt any nasty suprises waiting for you after spending thousands of dollars on training.
2. Pass the aviation security check
To work as a commercial pilot, you are going to need to pass a stringent security check. This is critical if you want to be employable as a commercial pilot.
This is because as a commercial pilot you will have access to a security sensitive areas, such as air-side tarmac access, not to mention control of a large aircraft flying through some of the worlds busiest and most sensitive airspace.
If you get caught with a DUI or other criminal activity, the risk is that you might do this in your official pilot duties. If you are DUI in a car, whats to stop you from flying under the influence? Similarly, pilots are in a privileged position with regard to customs, and they must have integrity to do the right thing and not smuggle items across borders.
Losing your security clearance often means losing your job (or never getting it in the first place). Be smart, be sensible. Obtain your security clearance and police check as early as possible!
3. Find a good flying school to complete your pilot training
The first step is to become a student pilot. This means registering your application with your civil aviation authority to obtain an Aviation Reference Number (or equivalent).
The next step is to find your flying school. Check out our guide about how to choose a flying school here.
Your first step is to book in for a TIF or Trial Introductory Flight, but sit down with a certified flying instructor and ask as many questions as you can (there is a comprehensive list of questions to ask in the above linked article).
4. Achieve your private pilots licence
Your first qualification on the journey to a commercial pilots licence is the private pilots licence. This will take you approximately 2-3 months to complete depending on your rate of effort, and it will be around 50-70 flying hours or $10,000-$15,000.
Of course, these might change depending on your countries requirements, the school you train with and your individual ability. Realistically, don’t try to push it and budget for less – you will need the hours for your commercial anyway, and its all competency based to ensure safety.
You dont want to go SOLO half cooked, so put the effort in and work hard. To obtain your private pilots licence you will need to pass the following events in order;
- Pre solo theory exam
- Pre solo flight check
- Pre Area solo exam
- Pre Area solo flight check
- Basic Aeronautical Knowledge (BAK) exam
- General Flying Progress Test (restricted licence)
- Pre solo navigation exam
- Pre solo navigation check
- Private Pilots Licence theory exam
- Private pilots licence check ride
5. Pass the written theory examinations for the commercial licence
This varies from country to country, but usually consists of a minimum of seven aeronautical theory exams
Meteorology is the study of weather phenomena such as cloud types and formation, the causes and effects of wind and turbulence, and interpreting and using weather forecast products such as Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts, Area forecasts and Significant Weather charts.
Operations, Performance and Planning
Operations, performance and flight planning is all about actually using the aircraft. It involves use of Pilots Operating Handbooks, as well as interpretations of standard operating procedures and guidelines, as well as practical examples of Air Law
Aircraft General Knowledge
Aircraft General Knowledge includes factors such as an understanding of theoretical and practical mechanical knowledge of the aircraft and its systems, such as how a venturi system works and its practical application to fuel systems within the power plant of the aircraft
Human Factors arms commercial pilots with an understanding of how we as the Human fit into the picture. Understanding that humans are often the weakest link in the chain is critical to understanding and promoting flight safety. For example, commercial pilots learn about circadian rhythms, jet lag and how fatigue can affect your ability to safely land an airliner.
Aerodynamics is a theoretical skill that is critical for commercial pilots. Understanding how the air flows around the aircraft and it generates lift is a crucial core concept for building advanced knowledge. For example you will learn about aerodynamic surfaces such as flaps and spoilers, and understand how they are practically used in flight.
Air law is one of the most critical topics for aspiring commercial pilots. This will teach you the rules of the air and ensure you safely operate the aircraft without breaking any laws. Not only do you need to contend with your national laws, but when travelling internationally you must also abide by the host nations laws, as well as international aviation air law standards. commercial pilots will learn the rules governing crew duty management, and be able to calculate flight crew duty limits to ensure their crew is not exceeding laws and flying fatigued. A higher standard pass mark is often required for this subject
Navigation is a critical skill for commercial pilots, and will build on your studies as a private pilot. Understanding the foundational navigation principles behind how your Flight Management System (FMS) or ‘box’ works is important in order to navigate efficiently and safely should it fail, and allows you to gross error check and keep the automation system honest
6. Complete the required total hours for a commercial licence
This varies from country to country, but is usually around a minimum of 200 hours. You should not simply go and fly cross country to build these hours; contact a flying school and consult them about a commercial licence training package as you will need to pass a checkride at the end.
7. Pass your final check-ride
This is the actual test you must pass to acheive your commercial pilots licence. You will be quizzed on the results of your 7 theory written exams, as well as general proceedures and theory.
The flights vary from examiner to examiner, but my test took approximately 4 hours to complete and I visited about 4 different airfields as well as in-flight diversions and ‘photography’ missions to check my navigation competency.
Congratulations, you’re now a commercial pilot… ?
So your the worlds newest commercial pilot? Well I have news for you, buddy, its time to eat some humble pie!
Fresh Commercial Pilots are barely employable, so it will be important for you to continue to develop your skills and establish yourself as a valuable and employable aviator.
Not only do you have limited experience on different types of aircraft (you will have likely only trained on single engine aircraft), but you also will have a low number of hours, meaning the insurance costs to employ you are sky high, and as a result, operators are less than keen to hire you due to these high overheads.
You will need to increase your flying experience and total hours, so many new graduates opt to continue training at their flight school and undertake advanced training, specialisations as well as conversions onto specific types of aircraft, whilst they continue to look for entry level jobs such as scenic flights and shark or fire spotting operations.
Advanced training and conversion
Having the licence is one thing, but in order to fly the big jets you will need to conduct advanced training and specific conversions onto aircraft type. This will include an Instrument rating as well as a basic multi engine rating, but you could also look to complete aerobatics, formation or even instructor ratings to expand your skillset and flying ability.
- Instrument Flying Rating. An instrument flying rating allows you to fly IMC and is a must for all professional pilots
- Multi Engine Flying Rating. A multi engine flying rating allows you to fly aircraft with more than one engine; you will usually train on single engine aircraft so this will be a big step up and again is realistically required of all professional pilots
Getting a job as a commercial pilot
It is often said that getting the licence is the easy part. It can be quite challenging to land your first job as a commercial pilot, especially in our current landscape due to COVID-19 fears.
Entry level jobs often include…
- Scenic flight operations
- Parachute dropping
- Basic charter flights (single engine leading into twin engine)
- Survey operations
- Fire spotting operations
- Shark spotting operations
- Banner towing
- Sky writing (automated systems using formation smoke dispensers)
- Flying training (you can become an instructor and teach recreational or private pilots)
As you gain experience, flying hours and seniority and better understand the industry, you will unlock more increasingly complex aircraft and better paying jobs, such as corporate charter jets or even a shot in the airlines.
It can be a long process working your way up the ladder, so check out this guide on how you might get some of your first low hour pilot jobs
Becoming a commercial pilot is no easy task, it takes years of dedication, sacrifice and hard work. But don’t let this discourage you from pursuing your passion. Take the lessons learned here and lock them away as your secret weapon – if you have listened and taken note, these could potentially save you a lot of time and money.