There are many paths to becoming a professional pilot. Flight schools, academies, the U.S. military, and colleges or universities can arm you with the experience and qualifications to meet your goals. If a flight program affiliated with a college or university is your preference, then you face the same task every aspiring college student faces: narrowing down the choices. Schools with aviation programs come in all sizes, are located all around the United States, and can range in price.
1. Cost. No matter which path you choose, it will cost you—if not dollars, then commitment of years of your life to the military. Still, there are cost variations among collegiate programs. If you qualify for in-state tuition, that will usually be less expensive than a private school—if the state school can provide the type of training you seek. Some schools offer in-state tuition to out-of-state students, so long as they maintain a certain grade point average. Financial aid and scholarships may be available.
Shopping an aviation college on cost can be a bit more difficult than traditional college hunting. Although tuition is the first bill that comes due, it’s probably not the biggest. Flight training costs must be added on, and can vary greatly depending on the institution. Further muddying the picture is that while tuition is a set rate, flight training costs depend on student progress. So while a school may market a minimum cost of getting a degree with certificates and ratings, the true cost could be much higher. Make sure you ask your candidate schools for the true costs for students who have been through the program. Although some fixed-cost programs exist, they are rare.
2. Fleet. What type of aircraft will you be flying? Are the airplanes well-maintained and readily available? Drill down deeper, and you’ll find schools that offer all-Cirrus fleets, such as Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan; or schools that place primary emphasis on stick-and-rudder skills, such as LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, which starts out its students in taildraggers. Visit the flight line and talk to flight instructors.
3. Weather. Programs in Arizona, California, and Florida are going to offer many days of flyable weather. Programs in Maine, New York, or North Dakota are going to expose you to real-world instrument flight rules flying.
4. The college experience. Can you see yourself at this school? Are you ready to embrace wearing a uniform while you fly, or do you prefer something less regimented? Also take into consideration what you want out of your college experience—i.e., whether collegiate sports and outside interests will be important along with the flying component.
5. Career opportunities. Prior to 2013, a first officer holding a commercial pilot certificate could fly right seat in a regional jet. That’s no longer the case. An airline transport pilot certificate is required for all first officers or seconds in command. An ATP candidate must be at least 23 years of age and have 1,500 hours of time, and for multiengine aircraft must have completed an ATP certification training program (ATP CTP). A restricted ATP certificate can by earned by military pilots with 750 hours of time, college graduates holding a bachelor’s degree with an aviation major with 1,000 hours of time, college graduates holding an associate’s degree with an aviation major with 1,250 hours of time, or pilots who are at least 21 years old with 1,500 flight hours.
So there are a couple of considerations. You’re likely to graduate with less than 500 hours total time (some programs don’t allow students to fly the first year). That means you’ll need to bridge the gap between 500 hours and 1,000 or 1,250 hours—and how will you do that?
Does the school offer flight instruction opportunities in its own flight department to graduating seniors? If not, flight instructor jobs are plentiful right now, and that will likely remain constant while the industry experiences a shortage of pilots.
Does the school have a “bridge” agreement? These agreements with regional, cargo carrier, and even some major airlines allow students to intern at partner companies or flight instruct with the participating colleges while guaranteeing interviews or jobs when graduates reach qualifying hours.6. Networking. In an industry as tight-knit as aviation, networking opportunities can be priceless.
The aviation industry looks brighter than it did even a few years ago. It’s an exciting time to be part of a part of aviation. Do your homework; ask questions; make an informed decision. You have more tools at your disposal than any college-bound student has ever had.
AOPA’s College Aviation Directory is the largest, most comprehensive source of collegiate aviation programs available. Search for one near you.