Do you have a dream of a career in aviation, and you want to complete your training in the USA? There are many pathways, so let’s explore the options here. Read on for details on how to become a pilot in USA.
Many a youngster (of all ages) have looked skyward and wished to be at the controls of an airplane they see flying overhead. The journey to making that dream come true – to become a professional pilot – has many possible pathways of varying cost, duration and intensity. Let’s take a dive into the options, avenues, and money involved in obtaining a pilot certificate in the United States.
What are the different ways to become a pilot in the USA?
For legal residents of the United States, there are two main choices for the pursuit of becoming a pilot – civilian and military – though there are some ways to use both systems. For civilians, one can enroll at a local flight school and partake in training conducted under 14 CFR Part 61, General Flight Training. This type of course is generally unstructured, allowing the student and instructor flexibility in how and when the requirements for the pilot certificate sought are met.
Training under Part 141 is also an option – these curricula and schools are individually approved by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and include a more rigid pathway to the End Of Course, with specific topics covered in each progressive lesson. Before taking the Practical Test, or “check ride”, the student must also pass the FAA’s Written Exam, which is a multiple-choice computer test drawn from a bank of regularly updated questions. Under Part 61, the Private Pilot certificate generally requires a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, but most students are ready for their Practical Test, after around 60 hours of flight time. Because they have more regimented curricula, Part 141 programs often require less total flight time than their Part 61 counterparts. This can create a large difference in total cost and duration of comparable training programs, which we will discuss later. For info on Part 61 vs Part 141, you can check out this Flying Mag article HERE1.
“When a flight school talks about training under Part 61 or being a Part 141 approved school, it is talking about the federal regulations under which it has the authority to train pilots. Both sets of regulations define minimum requirements for pilot training and certification. Any FAA-approved flight instructor, whether associated with a flight school or not, may train a student under Part 61 regulations. Part 141 regulations are related to the structure and approval of flight schools. Training under these regulations is permitted only by instructors associated with an FAA-approved flight school.”flyingmag.com/part-61-or-part-1411
The military has a different approach, and this involves some choices as well. One can enlist or be selected as an officer, either with prior civilian flight time and experience or with none at all. All branches of the US military, including the National Guard, usually train pilots to fly their fixed wing, rotor wing, and tilt-rotor aircraft in exchange for a service commitment of varying length generally dependent on that branch’s needs at the time. Military flying2 does not require the same exact certifications of civilian flying, but in most cases the military will provide or allow for conversion of the training and experience to the equivalent civilian certificates when applicable.
Most veterans of the US Armed Forces are eligible for the GI Bill, which provides funding for further education of those who have served their country. This granted money is available for flight training, but typically can only be used at Part 141 schools or universities with flight programs.
For info on transitioning from a military pilot to a commercial pilot, check out this article HERE3.
Check out the different Pilot Jobs in the USA HERE.
How much does it cost to become a pilot in the USA?
The financial cost of flight training is one of the biggest barriers to entry into the industry, especially as inflation has spiked recently. On an hourly scale, flight training time in a single-engine aircraft can be broken down into three major components – aircraft rental, fuel, and instruction.
Most schools advertise a rate that includes all three, but some smaller operations or flying clubs with a resident instructor have different cost structures set up to benefit their members. The cost of all three components will vary widely based on location (busy airports in larger cities tend to be more expensive) and type of aircraft used.
A Cessna 150, a small 2-seat training airplane, can usually be obtained for training at a rate between $120-150 per hour, while higher-performance airplanes like the Cirrus SR-22 can cost upwards of $500 per hour in total. Multi-engine aircraft and helicopters are naturally even more expensive, with their rates ranging from $200 to $600 per hour, depending on the model.
In addition to the hourly flying rates, other expenses a student can expect are required ground instruction (at the hourly rate of their Certificated Flight Instructor, or CFI), manuals/charts/documents subscriptions (and often an iPad with which to view them), a headset, and a fee to the Designated Pilot Examiner who conducts their Practical Test and issues their certificate upon successful completion of the check ride. Depending on location and demand, DPEs can charge anywhere from $300 to $1500 for their services.
The accessories can continue to be used throughout training, of course, but each course requires additional classroom instruction and the Practical Test requires another examiner’s fee.
However, there are a number of airlines in the USA which pay for pilot training through cadetship programs, as well as offer aviation scholarships.
How long does it take to become a pilot in the USA?
Part 141 programs have a distinct advantage in the cost arena over Part 61 programs. Because of their approved structure, Part 141 curricula often require fewer hours of flight time, which can translate into significant cost savings for the student – especially in Commercial Pilot training.
Some Part 141 programs reduce the minimum flight experience requirement for Commercial Pilot License from 250 to 210 hours, which in some cases means an $8,000 reduction in expenses. However, most of these curricula have stricter requirements for ground instruction and less flexible scheduling provisions, meaning the student is less likely to be able to go at their own pace.
For becoming a private pilot, times can range from one month to a year, and becoming an instrument rated commercial pilot can take from six months to two years for the average student.
When factored in with the required flight time for each different certificate and rating, total average costs to become a fixed-wing:
- Private Pilot – $12,000
- With Instrument Rating – $8,000
- Commercial Pilot – $35,000
- Multi-engine Rating – $6,000
How much do pilots in the USA get paid?
Upon becoming a commercial pilot, doors open up to all kinds of opportunities to start earning money for one’s flying, rather than funding it oneself. The typical entry-level flying jobs to be found are aerial survey, banner towing, pipeline patrol, traffic watch, dropping skydivers and sightseeing tour flying, which can pay anywhere from $15 to $75 per hour, depending on location and task. Some of these jobs are paid by the day, or salaried, but the average annual income for a full-time entry-level position hangs around $35-50,000. With the addition of a Flight Instructor certificate4, one of the more difficult certificates to attain, one can also become a hired CFI at a flight school or as a freelancer.
“When I first learned that most flight instructors were rather new pilots themselves I was rather shocked. Shouldn’t someone with a few thousand hours of flight time be the one to teach me to fly? But when you step back for a moment, it makes quite a bit of sense. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “While we teach, we learn.” I’ve found this is absolutely true. As we take the knowledge we have recently gained and teach it to someone else, it becomes solidified in our own mind.”Liz Brassaw – thrustflight.com/how-to-become-a-flight-instructor4
For more experienced pilot positions, the salaries dramatically increase. Airline pilots are the most common example, where the top Captains are often earning a base pay of around $300,000 per year, with additional per diem, overtime, and other incentive pay added on.
You can read our article on Is Becoming a Pilot worth the Cost HERE.
Can foreigners become pilots in the USA?
While still expensive, the USA is home to some of the most affordable flight training in the world. This has led to a significant number of citizens of other countries coming to the USA to train, either in hopes of becoming a professional pilot in the USA, or taking their certificates back to their native country for conversion to the local certificate so they can seek employment at home. Certain airlines will sponsor the visa of foreign nationals from select countries with similar training requirements and hire them once the conversion training is complete.
You can check out this info on the AOPA website HERE5 for info on non US citizens seeking flight training.
Is the USA a good place to be a pilot?
While the glamour of being an airline pilot has faded compared to the middle of the twentieth century, the USA is still a great place to be a pilot. Pilot labor unions have played a significant role in increasing the safety records of airlines while simultaneously protecting their member pilots from pressure by their employers to fly unsafe equipment, in bad conditions or when fatigued.
Updated FAA regulations and the USA’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration have paired well with the unions in regulating when and how much companies may ask their pilots to work, leading to significant increases in quality of life. Additionally, the airlines of the USA have some of the highest total pay available6 to commercial pilots in the world.
What qualifications do you need to become a pilot in the USA?
One of the biggest questions for those seeking to become pilots in the USA is of the medical certificate. Applicants must be able to pass an annual (or semi-annual, over the age of 40) medical exam that covers hearing, vision, heart health and other physiological factors. Many aspirational pilots sign up for their courses and even take some lessons before they find out they have a disqualifying medical condition or have been taking a medication not approved for flight by the FAA. It is therefore a good idea to get a medical exam before starting any training.
Otherwise, the listed requirements for becoming a pilot are not very complicated or strenuous – only that the applicant read, speak and write the English language fluently. However, training and the testing process dictate that aspiring pilots must have a good knowledge of math, scientific principles and weather; they must be able to think quickly and adapt to rapidly changing environments, and must have good spatial and situational awareness. Of course, those skills are developed and honed over any training course, but it is best for flight students to show up for training with a good predisposition for learning and fine-tuning those attributes.
Are pilots in demand in the USA?
There has never been a hiring frenzy for pilots like the USA is experiencing currently. It has been caused by a historically high differential between the astronomical cost of training and the poverty-level wages paid to most junior professional pilots. This, and many furloughs over the past two decades, has led to a supply shortage of qualified pilots for airlines, charter operators, air ambulance companies, etc., to hire. That market need for pilots has now driven first-year pay to levels triple what they were a decade ago, complete with signing bonuses that, at some airlines, are over $100,000.
Never in airline history has there been so much movement of pilots between operators. Major carriers are hiring between 100-200 pilots per month, which means the low-cost carriers, regional airlines, and fractional companies can barely get their pilots “on line” before they are being interviewed and hired by a bigger, better-paying company.
Is it hard to become a pilot in the USA?
Between the cost, time commitment and rigorous, unforgiving training, becoming a pilot in the USA is definitely not easy. However, with determination and secure financing (either paid up front or financed) becoming a pilot is an attainable goal.
What is the best way to become a pilot in the USA?
The best way to become a pilot in the USA is however fits the needs of the aspiring pilot. Military or civilian, full time or on weekends, in busy airspace or at a sleepy uncontrolled airport… the best way to become a pilot is the method that is most comfortable for the hopeful aviator.
Becoming a pilot in the USA is a long and complex journey, but one with fulfilling rewards awaiting those who succeed – be that a position flying large jets for a major airline, or owning an airplane and sharing flight with friends and family.
Do you aspire to a career in aviation? Or have you completed any flight training in the USA? We would love to hear from you!
- To Go Part 61 or Part 141?, Flying Mag. Accessed online at https://www.flyingmag.com/part-61-or-part-141/ on May 31, 2023.
- The Best Way to Become a Pilot in the Military, Chron. Published: Sep 03, 2021. Accessed online at https://work.chron.com/way-become-pilot-military-18178.html on May 31, 2023.
- How Can Military Pilots Transition To Commercial Flying?, Hardiman and Kunzler, Simple Flying. Published (updated): March 17, 2023. Accessed online at https://simpleflying.com/military-pilots-commercial-flying-transition-guide/ on May 31, 2023.
- How to Become a Certified Flight Instructor | CFI, Liz Brassaw, Thrust Flight. Published (updated): April 20, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.thrustflight.com/how-to-become-a-flight-instructor/ on May 31, 2023.
- NON-U.S. CITIZENS SEEKING FLIGHT TRAINING, AOPA. Accessed online at https://www.aopa.org/advocacy/pilots/alien-flight-training-program/aliens-and-non-us-citizens-seeking-flight-training on May 31, 2023.
- Airline Pilot Salary, Epic Flight Academy. Accessed online at https://epicflightacademy.com/airline-pilot-salary/ on May 31, 2023.