Is becoming a pilot worth the cost?

As a flying instructor, one of the most frequent questions my students ask me around the 5th or 6th lesson is whether becoming a pilot is worth the cost. For me, the answer will always be “yes!”, but for many, the answer is “no”. There is a clear answer at the end of the article, but I need to explain the ‘cost‘ first for you to understand.

Lots of people want to become a pilot, and it’s easy to see why: watching a stunt pilot do tricks in the air and seeing the awesome view out of your window in a passenger jet is pretty alluring. On top of that, we have a string of Hollywood movies showing how awesome you’ll be by becoming a pilot.

The only problem is that you don’t see the monumental amount of effort and cash it takes to actually become a professional pilot. Becoming a pilot is a herculean task, which allegedly 80% of people abandon, but then again, nothing worth doing is easy. But once people start to see the size of the journey ahead in becoming a pilot, many start to lose their resolve.

How much does it cost to become a pilot?

A basic commercial pilot’s license can cost anywhere around $100,000. A qualified commercial pilot with bare-bones minimum hours (~200) will then have a very hard time getting a job. To make yourself attractive for anything above entry-level sightseeing and tourist joy flights, you will need specialist training.

Related: how much do commercial pilots make?

The cost of specialist training, ratings and endorsements can quickly add up. Whilst some lucky pilots to-be may snag cadetships and other employment packages which include training, the vast majority will end up out of pocket for such activities.

Specialist training such as multi-engine training and command instrument ratings can eclipse even the cost of the initial basic license, and type conversions on transport category aircraft, such as a Boeing 737, can exceed $50,000.  

Personally, I have spent over $300,000 on aviation training activities. I have divorced myself from thinking of cost in isolation, as many of these training courses have been crucial to my success in the industry. Training has also given me a robust and broad set of skills which have safeguarded me, enabling me to survive multiple emergencies – for example a complete loss of power on take-off resulting in a safe off-field landing.

How long does it take to become a pilot?

It has taken me over a decade in the workforce to establish myself as a professional pilot. It is a lifelong learning endeavor and you simply don’t stop learning. This takes up time, and on average now as a qualified pilot working full time, I work 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week. Like any career, with seniority comes greater choice on flexible work hours, and I know many pilots who work reduced hours. But for now, I am happy to keep flying and learning as much as I can.

During training, my workload was even higher. I sacrificed my weekends and downtime, nights out with family and friends, and a lot of recreation activities so that I could concentrate on my studies. I also spend a lot of time working extra jobs to try and afford all my flight lessons.

I would hang around the local airport, with my books, soaking up as much as I could whilst I prepared for my exams and flights. Flight training is something you need to be totally immersed in – live, speak and breath aviation. The pilot fraternity is notoriously close, and spending time with like-minded individuals is essential to doing well, and networking is critical to landing that good job at the end of the training process.

Not to mention, the actual flights can take a long time, as well as the commute to and from the airport. One of the schools that I trained at was a 2-hour drive from where I lived – there just weren’t any nearby schools. So I would make a weekend of it. I was lucky as I had a pretty amazing instructor that actually had an airstrip at his hobby farm – in order to get two good days of flight training in, at the end of the first day we would fly to his farm and I would stay in his guest quarters.

How hard is it to become a pilot?

Let alone the cost and time, there is substantial effort required in becoming a professional pilot. And let’s be realistic – it’s not something everyone can do. There are rigorous medical screening requirements, even for recreational and private pilots; commercial pilots holding a grade one aviation medical are very closely scrutinized.

Then there are the exams. I have sat over 50 theoretical ground exams during my career. These spanned from Basic Aeronautical Knowledge to Principles and Methods of Instruction, Instrument Rating examinations through to and Airline Transport Pilot Aeroplane Flight Planning and Helicopter Aerodynamics. Personally, I enjoy the academic side of pilot training, I’ve also completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in aeronautical and space engineering, so the knowledge requirements have never been a chore for me.

The exams for pilot training aren’t easy. They are incredibly challenging, complex exams requiring dedication and a lot of time to study, designed to ensure you have the ‘Right Stuff’ to be a pilot and progress to become a Captain. There are some amazing people out there who offer training and coaching, but these services are typically very expensive.

As difficult as the ground theory lessons and exams are, the flight training can be exceptionally challenging at times. Many students struggle initially with certain concepts, and fight airsickness whilst learning to multi-task and prioritize in accordance with the law of flying: Aviate – Navigate – Communicate – Administrate!

Initial lessons teach would-be pilots about the basic tenants of how to handle an aircraft; the effects of controls, how to trim in straight and level flight, climbing, descending, turning and even aerodynamic stalling (and recovering!) of the aircraft. These progress into how to land and take-off safely, and handle basic emergencies such as engine failures or loss of electrics or flight control services. This culminates in a solo flight where pilots ditch their instructors to take a hot lap – a very emotionally charged and adrenaline-inducing flight.

Mastering these basics is difficult, but achievable with a very high level of effort and hard work on behalf of the student. Practicing constantly, memorizing limits, pretending to talk on the radio and visualizing attitudes and flying sequences

This progresses into much more difficult (but equally as rewarding) sequences such as navigation exercises, advanced stalling and further emergencies such as practice forced landings and other emergency precautionary landings. When seeking upgrading classes of licenses, pilots are expected to conform to ever-tightening accuracy tolerances. They are subject to more critical and in-depth compound emergencies under significant time pressure requiring a mastery of the basics and standard operating procedures, whilst including a level of lateral thinking to solve problems.

Overall, an extremely high level of effort is required to succeed in becoming a pilot, and it requires a fit and healthy individual with a robust capacity and ability to deal with high levels of stress and time pressure.

The opportunity costs

The cost, time and effort you spend training to become a pilot also have a significant opportunity cost to you as well, that is, you won’t be able to do other things. You have to prioritize your goals, and the fact is that pursuing a career in aviation may mean that you won’t be able to have one in medicine or go on to become a professional sportsman or woman.

Whilst nothing is impossible, it’s best to set realistic goals, and the simple fact is you need to sacrifice quite a lot to become a successful pilot.

Does flying ever become boring?

Turning something you really enjoy as a hobby into your full-time career can sometimes suck the fun out of it. For example, when I come home from a long period away from work, the last thing my colleagues want to do is jump into the cockpit of an aerobatic trainer with me for some hot laps.

For some reason, I can’t get enough of flying (perhaps I am wired a little differently to my peers?), but nonetheless, you should consider whether you really want to pursue becoming a professional pilot or whether it is really just a fun hobby you enjoy – because you might find you don’t enjoy it anymore if your forced to do it day in, day out, in less than ideal working conditions.

What are your intentions?

A lot of people get into aviation for the wrong reasons. When I asked around, these are some of the answers I got for why people might become commercial pilots;

  • For the prestige
  • Because I am good at it
  • Because of the high pay
  • To travel the world
  • Because flying is my passion
  • To get out of my small home town
  • To join the airlines
  • Because it’s fun
  • To impress a girl
  • Because I didn’t want to get a real job

It’s clear that people have a variety of motivations to become a pilot, but its equally as clear that having a solid motivation is critical. If not, you might find yourself halfway through the process, drowning in bills and preparing for exams at home again on a Saturday night when all your friends are out at a bar, asking yourself “Why am I doing this!” A lot of people drop out of pilot training, and with the high costs involved, it’s a massive disappointment.

Conclusion

So, is becoming a pilot worth the cost? Here’s the answer.

If reading about the costs involved, the time and the effort hasn’t deterred you, and you have a burning desire to become a pilot that will see you through the challenging times, then the answer is yes, it is absolutely worth it.

Becoming a pilot has been the most rewarding experience of my life, but it was extremely tough for many years during training. As a professional pilot, it is still a tough environment to work in, but it is also a career I thoroughly enjoy. Would I do it all again if I had the chance? In a heartbeat!

Just make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, that you understand the effort required and that you are ready to commit to the herculean effort that becoming a pilot costs.

Quoting a friend who is a long haul pilot for Qantas –“Becoming a pilot is a difficult way to earn an easy living”


Are you a commercial pilot? Would you do it all again? Let us know in the comments below.

Ken

Ken

Ken is a passionate aviator, a professional pilot and flight instructor. He has over 14 years of flight experience on hundreds of aircraft ranging from recreational, aerobatic, historic, commercial and military aircraft, training hundreds of students along the way.

    Ken has 14 posts and counting. See all posts by Ken

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    5 thoughts on “Is becoming a pilot worth the cost?

    1. I started out training to become a pilot but I failed my commercial flight test twice and it’s just really shaken my confidence. I haven’t really got the money to keep going so I’m still working in hospitality and saving, I’ll probably have another go next year but I already feel like I’m so uncurrent it would be like having to start all over again, and I don’t know if it’s even worth it to be paid less than what I earn now…

    2. I fly for a regional airline and it’s a very comfortable lifestyle. I’ll be looking at mainline probably in a few years. I did an aviation degree so my licence was included in that cost and I do have student loans I am paying off. My friends who went ‘direct’ to flying with no degree are already starting to go mainline as FO’s so if I had my time again I’d probably do that as the pay is quite a bit higher and quicker progression, a degree isn’t really necessary I just didn’t have the money for training upfront

      1. Hi Metro! Very interesting comment about the degree vs no degree issue. Its a question that comes up a lot, and often I think students are more interested in the ability to use student loans to cover the cost of a commercial pilots licence as it is linked to the degree, rather than the degree itself. I agree though that there is no requirement for pilots to have a degree and skipping that can let you focus on flying and allow you to progress quicker. Food for thought! thanks

    3. Thanks for the information on the costs of becoming a pilot and the type of exams and flying lessons that are required. If someone wants to become a pilot, it would probably be a good idea to start research flight schools. This way, they could figure out which one can help them learn the type of flying skills and experience they need.

      1. Hi Erika, great comment! Researching flying schools is very important. I remember agonising about where I should learn, and whether I should learn in GA or ultralight/sport aircraft first. I’m glad I spent so long researching, and actually flew with a number of schools before I settled into one I liked with a really experienced instructor. Maybe we should write an article on how to choose a flying school? What do you think?

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