What Do I Need to Become an Airline Pilot?

Posted by JoshWhit

The big goal of just about everyone getting into aviation is to become an airline pilot. Not only do you make great money, but you also get paid to visit cool places. On top of that, you’re flying some of the most technologically advanced aircrafts available without being in the military or some aircraft company that’s pushing the boundaries of new aircraft.

Long story short, if you want to get paid to fly, being an airline pilot is the ultimate goal. 

You have great benefits, like free travel and top of the line healthcare plans, make a great salary, and get to fly big jets!

If you’ve watched the movie Sully, then you may already know the most important thing to be an airline pilot is a great mustache.

All joking aside, aviation is all about safety. The FAA is one of the safest organizations in the world. It has such a high success rate because each individual in aviation cares about themselves and by flying an aircraft with passengers, they take on the responsibility for, not only their own life but all those in the aircraft with them.

That means the requirements to become an airline pilot is very difficult. I’m going to do this article strictly with what is required by the FAA to become an airline pilot, so let’s get into it.

Private Pilot License

My Discovery Flight

The first step to becoming an airline pilot is to get your private pilot license (PPL). 

The FAA requirements for your PPL are outlined in Part 61 Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR), Section 61.109.

I’ll hit the highlights here: 

  • Must be at least 17 years old.
  • Able to read, write, and fluently speak English
  • Get a 3rd class FAA medical certificate
  • A minimum of 40 hours of flight time
    • 20 with an instructor
    • 10 solo – 5 must be solo cross country

There’s also a ground school portion that can be completed at a flight school, or through an online program such as Sporty’s.

Instrument Rating

Airplane hobby meme

Getting your PPL sets you on the course to become an airline pilot, but it’s really only a milestone along the way. 

The next step on the path is to get your Instrument Flight Rules Rating.

To expand on what that means; after you get your PPL, you will be only eligible to fly under VFR conditions. VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules. Instead of using the instruments, like a GPS, for flight, you will be using primarily your vision through the windshield.

The Instrument rating is absolutely required to fly large jets such as the Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320. It allows you to be able to navigate through the use of your instruments and avionics in the aircraft. 

The FAA outlines the requirements in 14 CFR 61.65.

The main points are:

  • At least 50 hours cross-country flight time as the pilot in command (PIC), with at least 10 being in an instrument-rated airplane. 
  • A total of 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time.
  • At least 15 hours of instrument instruction under the guidance of a certified flight instructor.

Commercial Pilot Certificate

After getting the IFR rating, you need to build some time because the next thing is the commercial license. 

Prior to getting your commercial license, you legally cannot be paid as a pilot. There are ways to get reimbursed and build flight time, but it is against the law to be legitimately paid as a pilot. 

In case you haven’t noticed, the main thing about flying is that you need to build time flying. The best way to be the safest pilot possible to gain experience. The best way to gain experience is to fly more. It’s always better to be in a real aircraft than a simulator though. Simulators do help build experience, but they don’t give you the true feel of an aircraft in specific situations.

The actual FAA requirements are outlines in 14 CFR 61.129, but again, I’ll hit the highlights for you here:

  • You must have at least 250 hours of flight time with 100 in a powered aircraft and 50 in an airplane.
  • At least 100 hours as the PIC; 50 of which must be in an airplane.
  • At least 50 hours of cross country time, 10 that must have been in an airplane.
  • 20 hours of training, 10 of instrument, 10 of complex or technically advanced aircraft (TAA), and various cross country and test prep.
  • 10 hours of solo training, including cross country and night.

There are only 2 things left before you can legally be an airline pilot, so hang tight.

Multi-Engine Rating

There are various ratings and endorsements you can get in the process to become an airline pilot that will help you build time, but a multi-engine rating is an absolute must. Just think about how many times you’ve been to a commercial airport and seen an airplane there with only a single-engine.

Go ahead. I’ll wait. Also, this is a fixed page, so it can literally sit here for the rest of time…

That just proves my point there. The multi-engine rating is an absolute must. 

The FAA is extremely regulated and typically has a bunch of time requirements before you can officially get your ratings and endorsements; however, when it comes to the multi-engine rating, the FAA does not have any actual time requirements. Basically, it’s based on when the instructor feels you are good enough to get the official sign off and pass the practical tests. 

A pretty common number to shoot for is about 10 hours of instruction before they can pass the exams. 

Airline Transport Pilot

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This is the last thing legally required to get hired on as a pilot at an airline. You need the airline transport pilot rating (ATP).

The FAA requirements are, once again, in the 14 CFR. The ATP rating is outlined in 14 CFR 61.159. But the gist is:

  • 1,500 total hours.
  • 500 hours of cross country flight time.
  • 100 hours of night flying.
  • 75 hours of instrument time.
  • 250 hours as the PIC.
  • 50 hours of multi-engine flying.

These are the basic limited time requirements and licenses to become an airline pilot.

It’s important to note though, having an ATP license doesn’t guarantee anything though. Each airline will likely have different things they are looking for and will prioritize different things. Most airlines will also ask for a bachelor’s degree in addition to your licenses. A lot will also want you to be in good moral standing and have some charity work or side work on your resume to show you’re a well-rounded individual and will represent the company well. Usually, the pilots are the faces of the company despite now having the least amount of face to face time with the customers.

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