SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN AIRPLANE PILOT.....
revised April, 2012
Introduction and disclaimers
OK, let me make all of the usual caveats first. This is just my personal take, based on my experience in the field. And, in all fairness, I got out of the flying business a little over 10 years ago. However, I held a variety of positions in aviation, flight instructing being one of them. To the best of my knowledge, the requirements and experience levels that I list for the various ratings are correct. However, should you decide to pursue a aviation career, you will want to make certain that you have all available current information. My intent is not so much to list the requirements for the various ratings as it is to give the potential pilot some insight into this fascinating endeavour called flying. And, not to be jingoistic, but this applies only to the United States, as it is the only country that I am familiar with. This page is laid out on a "progressive" basis, advancing from the casual pilot to the Airline Transport Rating. Hopefully that covers my bases. One last thing- if the reader does find any errors, please contact me so that I can make the necessary corrections.
Let's get started.
Flying airplanes is a wonderful pass time, it's even better if you can get paid to do it for a living. Should you decided to progress through the ratings and become a commercial pilot you will discover that flying for a living has a lot of rewards- and a lot of pot holes.
Big Airport vs. Small Airport
There are some excellent flight schools at the major airports, but there are some things that you should know about before going in. First off, your instructor is more likely to be using his ticket as a stepping stone to a higher rating and a better job. His motivation, from your standpoint, may not be totality pure. Also, these flight schools tend to charge more because they have a higher overhead. On the other hand, their equipment, aircraft, and teaching aids are more likely to be more up to date. And, lastly, take into account that extra time to fly out to the "practice area." Airplanes aren't cheap, and the Hobbs meter starts counting as soon as the engine fires up. If you spend 10 minutes just getting out of Big Airport airspace, and 10 more returning on each training session, you could easily end up paying 15 to 20 hours of aircraft rental fees for the privilege. However, one big benefit of operating out of a larger airport is that you will become familiar with radio procedures and working with Air Traffic Control.
By small airport I mean anything other than a major metropolitan airport, and preferably an airport without a lot of airline coming and goings. Airline traffic delays your arrivals and departures, makes it more difficult to do touch-and-go practices, requires more spacing when in trail behind them for possible wake turbulence, and just drives up your costs. Sure aviation is a first come, first served operation, but you have to be practical. The chances of your instructor having more varied experience also increase, as he probably has more chances to fly charters and freight operations than his big city cousin does. Also, while he probably has his eyes set on a better job, he is most likely to be better motivated than his big city brethren. The aircraft may be a little older, and class room material a little less scarce and fancy. A chalk drawing on a blackboard may replace a professional production video on the same subject. But the odds are that you will always have the same instructor, and perhaps even the same aircraft. And, travel time to the practice area is usually shorter.
Look. You're going to spend a lot of money taking flying lessons, and the learning curve varies by the individual. Your flight instructor is a critical part of your training, and as I alluded to above, his interests may not be totally pure from your viewpoint. It's a fact of aviation life that pilots become instructors to build up time. The instructor rating is the only one that you can log PIC (Pilot In Command) time while someone else is doing the driving. There are some great flight instructors out there, and there also a lot of turkeys.
Interview your potential instructor. Don't be intimidated. Show a little respect, he deserves that, but ask questions. "What kind of aircraft do you use?" "What's the average time your students spend before solo?" "How long does it take to get to the practice area?" Talk in general, non-aviation terms. Try to get to know this person a little bit. You'll be spending a lot of time up there in a cramped, noisy box with him shouting in your ear. If you don't much care for him on the ground, you'll like him a whole lot less in the air. Trust me.
If you don't like the vibes, ask to try a different instructor. Or go to a different school on the airport. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You're going to spend a lot of money learning to fly. Get the most bang for your buck
They come in all shapes and sizes. High wing, low wing, I've even known people that started- and completed- their training in a twin. What's best?
The one that is the most difficult to fly! Well, within reason of course.
A Cessna 152, for example, is more sensitive on the controls than it's larger brother, the 172. If you learn to fly in a 152, and then step-up to a 172 it will be a piece of cake to handle. It's more difficult the other way around. Generally speaking, the larger the aircraft the easier it is to fly. And, the guy that learns in a tail-dragger has a much easier time of transistioning to a tricycle gear than the tricycle driver does going the other direction. So, in my opinion, opt for the small trainer. High wing or low wing? I'm partial to the high wing for the reasons stated above, but it's really a matter of what the flight school that you pick uses.
Oh, one last thing. Be a little leery if the school uses a 4-seater airplane for a trainer. It's larger, and some big people just need a bigger airplane to fit into, but it's also more expensive to operate, and you're the guy that will be paying those charges. I've always been a little suspect of some operations that use a 4-seater for training, then charge people to ride in the back seats as "observers." There are facets of aviation training where this can be valuable- instrument training, for example- but I've always looked on this practice as more of a way for the school to bring in a little extra revenue than as a benefit for the student, or the back seat "observers."
The Federal Aviation Administration, sometimes referred to, in a sense of reverse humor, as "The Friendlies". You might as well get used to these folks, as they control aviation in the United States. They are not your enemy, however they are a government bureaucracy. They have the power to give you your license, and they have the power to take it away. They have a myriad of regulations that can be over-powering. However, if you intend to fly airplanes, it is in your best interest to learn what regulations apply to you, and to understand them.
And to follow them.
Go to the FAA's page on the internet
I highly recommend that you visit the FAA's site (I used to provide an active link, but the government being the government, it kept changing. Just do a Google search.) There you will find a wealth of information that will tell you precisely what is required for the various pilot's licenses, test guides, and medical information, among many other things.
The introductory lesson
Hey, you have to start someplace. If you can afford it, drive out to your nearest small airport and take an introductory lesson. Many flight schools offer a special deal for that first flight. If you are not certain, use the yellow pages and let your fingers do the walking.
During the introductory flight the pilot will let you take control of the aircraft, doing some gentle turns, and the always-a-favorite trip over your house if you live near by. Don't worry about hurting anything. Most likely the fellow sitting to your right is an instructor who has the wonderful ability to look calm and distant while actually being mentally and physically poised to grasp control of the aircraft before you can do any harm.
If you do nothing more than take an introductory flight lesson, at least you will satisfy that "what if?" itch.
In order to fly airplanes, you need a medical certificate. There are three basic classes of medical, known as "Class 1", "Class 2", and "Class 3". (How logical.) Class 1 is for the airline pilots, and is good for 6 months. Class 2 is for the commercial pilots, and is good for 1 year. Class 3 is for non-commercial pilots, and is good for 2 years. If you want to spend some extra money, you can get a Class 1 medical, even though you are a Private Pilot. It will revert to a Class 2 after 6 months, and a Class 3 after 1 year.
Medical exams are administered by doctors that have been certified by the FAA. The exams, particularly the Class 3, are not that difficult. If you are in good health, you will pass. You must have your Medical in order to solo, however you do not need one in order to receive flight instruction.
As an aside, when you get your Third Class Medical Certificate, you will also receive your Student Pilot License. However, the "license" will have no real value until it is endorsed by a flight instructor.
What happens when your Medical expires? Your license to fly airplanes expires. Plain and simple.
For the requirements of each class Medical, check the FAA's
This is an inexpensive way to get in the door to flying airplanes. The license has limited privileges, however, unlike a Student Pilot certificate with a solo endorsement, you won't have to keep going back to an instructor for re-endorsement every now and then. There is a written, and a flight examination. Day VFR, limited (50 miles) distance from the airport, no night flying.
Visit the FAA web site for an FAQ on the privileges and requirements for the Recreational Pilot Certificate.
This is where it starts. In order to take flight instruction you can be any age- no minimum, no maximum. All you need is the money. You'll have to be at least 14 to solo. In addition, you will need a Student Pilot certificate and a 3rd. Class Medical Certificate. The training curriculum will be set by the school, meeting FAA guidelines. First off will be air work, just to get you comfortable with the airplane. Gentle turns and climbs, then when you are confident moving on up to some stall work. After you can do air work, it'll be back to the airport for touch-and-go landings. Then more air work, and more touch-and-go's. When your instructor is satisfied with your competence, he will one day announce that he wants you to stop the aircraft on the airport. This is it. Your solo.
Instructors generally like to spring it on you for the shock value and the heightened experience of the moment. Trust me, they are testing and qualifying you for this event without your knowledge. The first time that you taxi out and realize that there is no one next to you is a moment that you will remember all of your life.
And the elevator can stop of this floor if you wish. By flying an airplane solo, you have accomplished something that an extremely small, and I mean extremely small, percentage of the Earth's population has ever done. You will find that this will have an effect on your entire attitude on life in general. It will do wonders for your self esteem.
Visit the FAA web site for an FAQ on the privileges and requirements for the Student Pilot Certificate.
Let's say that you decide to stay on the elevator and get your Private Pilot's License. More intense instruction with your instructor will follow. Emergency procedures, including simulated engine-out landings, will be practiced. Stalls, power on and off, maneuvers closer to the ground so that you can see what the wind aloft does to the airplane in it's track across the ground, and how you correct for that. Cross country trips (more than 50 miles from the departure airport), both with and without the instructor (you will need and endorsement from the instructor before striking out). During this time you will also be taking "ground school", which will cover aerodynamics, navigation, aircraft systems, Federal Aviation Regulations (the FAR's), weather, how to use a computer. (No, not that computer, a "flight computer." Actually it's a circular slide rule, and can give you information on True Airspeed, winds aloft, fuel burn, and other data that the pilot needs to handle his aircraft in the most efficient manner.)
After you complete your course of studies, you can take the Private Pilot written exam. You may take this exam at any stage of your training, however you will have had to passed it before you can take your flight test.
Then, after at least 40 hours of experience, You'll be ready for the Private Pilot flight test. Some flight schools have a Designated Examiner on their staff. This is a person that has been tested, and certified, by the FAA to give flight exams in their stead. Or, you will go to an FAA Examiner. It makes no difference which one you go to, the end result when you pass will be the award of your Private Pilot's license.
Visit the FAA web site for an FAQ on the privileges and requirements for the Private Pilot license.
OK, now what? Well, the first thing that you're going to want to do is take someone up for a ride- your wife, dad, mother- somebody. That's only natural. Take it easy on them, they know that you're a newly licensed pilot, and are probably a little apprehensive about the whole thing. Please, don't go up and demonstrate stalls. Unless they're pilots you'll scare the holy bejeezus out of them.
OK, now what? Well, there are the elevator doors again. Stay on this floor and enjoy the privileges of being a Private Pilot. If I may offer just one piece of advice here though. Total time (TT) is everything in aviation. You now possess a license to learn. Fly. Enjoy. Realize your limitations. Don't take chances. Read. Learn more. As you accumulate time your knowledge base will expand and you will become more comfortable and more proficient. That is where "TT" comes into play. Back to those elevator doors. Let's continue the journey and step on in.
The Instrument Rating
If you want to go when you want to go, you're going to need an instrument rating. During your Private Pilot training, there will be some limited instrument (IFR) training. This is intended for emergency use only- to get your butt out of trouble. Nothing more. Without an instrument rating you must be able to practice patience in the local area when you want to fly but the weather won't permit it, and out on a cross-country trip when you want to continue or return home and the weather is below VFR (visual) minimums. All of the stories of "the cat, the dog and the duck" aside, you will get disoriented in clouds and low visibility. If you tempt fate you might get away with it once, twice, or more.
But, as the aviation writer Ernst Gaan said, "Fate Is The Hunter". It will track you down if you play with it...
and it will kill you.
The Instrument Rating
So, the elevator makes the next stop, perhaps it might even be called a "lateral stop." The Instrument Rating, or Instrument Certificate. With this certificate you can fly on the gauges, go when you want to go, Mother Nature be damned. Well, not quite. Even instrument rated pilots can get grounded if the weather goes below minimums. And, the ticket won't get you through a thunderstorm. For that you'll need a special license- it's called the "Test Pilot Rating."
To get the rating you'll attend a specialized ground school, and do a lot of reading and studying. Training will be with a CFII (Certified Flight Instructor- Instruments). After completing the ground school and your studies, it will require another written exam, administered by the FAA or a designated examiner. After you pass the written, and have been signed off by your instructor, there will be the flight test. After you pass the test you will receive your endorsement to fly IFR.
Visit the FAA web site for an FAQ on the privileges and requirements for the Instrument Rating.
Now what? Well, this can be a very dangerous rating. It allows you to legally fly into all kinds of bad stuff. And some of it, icing for example, may be beyond your, and the aircraft's, capabilities. Also, flying along on the gauges is totally foreign to your body's instincts. All of your life you have been receiving your body's status from your inner ears. Suddenly, after departure, you have to turn this input off and transition to the gauges- not an easy thing to do. And, most importantly, this transition from visual to instruments becomes more and more difficult the longer you have been away from it.
Being current when just flying an airplane is critical enough. Being current on instrument flying is even more important. Toss in a system failure, a little disorientation- even briefly- and your chances of meeting Our Mother, The Earth at a high rate of speed are pretty good. The bottom line is this: Don't expect to have an Instrument Rating and be able to use it once or twice a year to fly down to an ILS minimums approach- it ain't gonna happen. What's the answer? Well, for starters, set your own personal minimums depending on how long it has been since you flew actual IFR, or had recurrent training. If your destination airport has published minimums of 600 overcast and 1 mile of visibility, you may want to impose something like 800 overcast and 2 miles on yourself. Sound silly and non-macho? Well, the airlines do it on aircraft Captains until they have so much time on a new route. The military and most corporations do the same.
Macho? That word doesn't belong in the flying lexicon. Macho is for fools. Macho pilots bend airplanes, and often end up killing themselves and the unfortunate souls that placed their faith in the pilot's supposed abilities. Sorry for the lecture, I feel strongly on this one.
Oops, there's the elevator again. Let's go up.
This rating allows you to fly airplanes for hire. As a Private Pilot you can receive money for your operating costs, but you are not allowed, by law, to make a profit. To do that you will need your Commercial Pilot's License. By now you know the drill. More training, more hours of experience, more ground school, a written exam, and a flight test.
Visit the FAA web site for an FAQ on the privileges and requirements for a Commercial Pilot Certificate.
In theory, you could now go out and get a job flying airplanes for a living. However, with some exceptions, there are few commercial operations utilizing single-engine aircraft. Wait, you say. "What about the Cessna Caravan? That's a single-engine airplane used in commercial operations." Yes, it is. But, and by now you're learning that aviation isn't always easy, that type of flying requires a Commercial Pilot's certificate with what is called a "Type Rating" that allows you to fly that specific airplane. See, I told you flying airplanes wasn't that simple.
The Multi-Engine Rating
This rating allows you to fly multi-engine (usually twin) airplanes, as long as they're under 12,500 pounds in Gross Take Off Weight. (Above that weight and you'll need what is called an "Airline transport pilot certificate". That's what the folks that fly the heavy iron have in their billfolds.)
Visit the FAA web site for an FAQ on the privileges and requirements for a Multi-Engine Rating.
Much like the Instrument Rating, this can be a potentially dangerous certificate to use. Unlike Transport Category Aircraft, most General Aviation airplanes have two engines because they need two engines. That extra fan is not there for back-up, it's there because it is needed. Once again, just like the Instrument Rating, currency is everything. Not just currency in multi-engine operation, but currency in emergency procedures. Unless you are sharp, and I mean very sharp, and you lose an engine on take off, treat the airplane just like a single-engine aircraft. Chop the power on your remaining good engine, and land straight ahead. Don't do that, and your chances of landing upside down, or in a spin, are overwhelming.
But now, with a Commercial License, and a multi-engine rating, you can start making money off of your investment in training, can't you?
The Insurance Companies
Reality check time. Here's one of aviation's "dirty little secrets." In truth, it is the insurance companies that call much of the shots on what you will be able to drive around in the friendly skies. Say that you spend a few hundred dollars to get checked out in the "Fast Baby 340". Does that mean that you can now go out and rent a "Fast Baby 340"? Probably not. What about renting the twin that you just got your Multi-Engine Rating in? Could you go out and rent that? Probably not. Somewhere in the insurance policies for those aircraft is a section titled something like "pilot qualifications." In that section it will state the type of experience that a prospective pilot must have to fly that particular aircraft. And, odds are, if you have a "wet ticket", you won't qualify.
Well, isn't that just great! You need the time in the aircraft in order to fly the aircraft, but you can't fly the aircraft because you don't have enough time in the aircraft. A flying "Catch 22." So, what to do? Well, if you are a friend of the owner, or work for the FBO (Fixed Base Operator) that operates the aircraft, you may become a "named insured." What that means is that you, and your qualifications, will specifically be placed in the policy and allowed to fly the airplane. Failing that, your only choice is to have someone else that is qualified to ride along as the PIC (Pilot In Command) until you rack up enough hours to meet the insurance minimums. That's just part of the flying game.
Remember earlier on when I said that "TT was everything"? Now you may be starting to get the picture. How does one get all of that expensive time and experience? Ah, Grasshopper, you become a Flight Instructor. Or, as the FAA refers to the rating, a "Certified Flight Instructor". (I have no idea what a non-certified instructor is.)
Now, all of this starts to come around in a full circle. Remember when we were talking about picking out your flight instructor during your basic training period? Remember the line about "His motivations may not be totally pure"? Well, here we are.
Now it's your turn. You want to continue on up the elevator. You need time and experience. Unless you have a ton of money, you sure as heck can't afford to rent airplanes for a few thousand hours. What to do? You become a flight instructor.
Visit the FAA web site for an FAQ on the privileges and requirements for the Flight Instructor Rating.
Now, what's your main motivation for becoming an instructor? Is it to share your vast knowledge about aviation and how to fly airplanes with new students? Nope, not by a long shot. Your motivation is build time. And, the Flight Instructor rating is the ONLY rating that allows you to sit over there in the right seat while someone else is doing the driving, and log the time as Pilot In Command. And, what's even better, you get paid while you're racking up the hours. Well, you won't get paid much, after all, the people that you're working for understand your motives also. Many an instructor has worked for free, just so he could log the hours.
So, here's your chance to really do something good for yourself, and aviation. If you go this route, and it's almost impossible not to, dedicate yourself to being a really great instructor. I will tell you this: of all of the jobs that I had in aviation, the time that I spent as an instructor was the most rewarding of all. By a long-shot.
Now what? Well, the elevator is there again. Perhaps you want to stay as an instructor. There are places, few and wide apart, where you can continue on as a professional, but it will require a fair amount of time and research to find them.
Well, what does the elevator say for the next floors up?
Folks, here's where it gets a little shaky. You have your Commercial, Multi-Engine, Instrument and Instructor's ratings. All you lack is time- and a sense of direction. This is when you want to start a data base if you have not already done so. Make friends. Make contacts. Stay in touch with people that you fly charters for. Same for your students. Someone out there needs a pilot. You have to go find them. The jobs are there, just not usually posted in the Want Ads. Contacts are everything to a pilot. When I got my job as a corporate pilot, one that I held for 18 years, one that rewarded me greatly, it wasn't because I was the best qualified pilot available. No, it was because I knew the pilot that held the job before I did. And, he was a former student of mine.
What about the airlines?
If the airlines had their way, a new hire would be 20 years old, with a degree, and several thousand hours of "jet time" under his belt. Hmmm, who meets those qualifications? Right, the military jocks. Uncle Sam is the flight school of choice for the airlines. What about you, after all of your effort? You'll need that degree, that's a given. Experience? Lots. How? Perhaps a lot of time flying charters and stuff, but more likely the commuter airline industry.
Commuter Airlines, Third-Level Carriers
Whatever you want to call them, "Delta Express", "Mesaba", "Air Wisconsin" and so on, these are your bridges to the big airlines if you are not a military flier. And they know that they are stepping stones. Most charge for the training that you will receive, allowing you to "work it off" as you stay in their employment. And, knowing what your motivation is, the pay is enough to live on but you'll never get rich. Get enough time in with them, and it's "Big Airline here I come." After that, Fat City.
Is that it? Is that all there is?
Nope, there's a whole lot more than the airlines when it comes to flying for a living. Personally, I had a chance to go with United Airlines back early in my aviation career. I chose not to because, even though the pay is extraordinary, I just didn't want to be an airborne bus driver. It's not for everyone.
So, what else is there?
Lots, here's just a few:
Corporate operations utilize aircraft just as sophisticated, and in some cases even more so, than the airlines. In many cases the pay is really up there, especially for the Captains. Hey, in flying you gotta pay your dues. In this field, contacts are a major help.
Air ambulance, pipeline, oil rigs (helicopter), charter services, freight, cancelled bank checks, Fed Ex (Airborne, UPS, etc.)
There are many niches out there.
Professional Academies, Universities
This goes back to square one. If you have a degree, take a look at one of the "air academies." You'll spend a lot of money on an intense training syllabus, and walk out a trained, qualified pilot. And, and it's a big "and" they have job placement services.
If you don't have your degree, take a look at Universities like Purdue and the University of North Dakota. They have excellent reputations with the airlines and corporations. You'll walk out with your degree, and all of the necessary ratings. Expensive? Yup, but expeditious.
So there you have it. One person's spin on flying airplanes. My opinion, my errors, my prejudices.
I hope that this has been helpful, and not too discouraging, to you.
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Corrected name of "Airline transport pilot certificate" under the multi-engine heading. (Thanks to Alan Larson for pointing this out.)
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