All roads lead to Rome. There are four primary ways to become a commercial pilot—that is, someone who flies for a living, whether for the airlines, a charter company, as a flight instructor, or in a similar position.
1. Flying club or flight school. No college degree associated with this route; you are taking flight and ground instruction in pursuit of private, commercial, and certificated flight instructor certificates, as well as instrument and multiengine ratings, from a flight school or flying club.
Structure and accountability are what differentiate a Part 61 flight school from a Part 141 flight school. Part 141 schools are periodically audited by the FAA and must have detailed, FAA-approved course outlines and meet student pilot performance rates. In most Part 61 programs, the structure is looser. There are no FAA-approved curriculums, so students can be more flexible about rearranging lesson content and sequence to meet their needs. In either type of program, you may fly a mix of aircraft and encounter student pilots who are career focused like you, or simply pursuing flying as a hobby.
2. Career academy. No college degree here either, but these institutions are focused on one thing: career flying, and to get you where you want to be in as short a time as possible.
3. College/university. Two- and four-year degree programs where flight training is integrated into the curriculum, usually at extra cost. Flight training may be conducted with a partner flight school that owns the aircraft, or the college may maintain its own fleet and flight department and operate as a Part 141 facility.
4. The U.S. military, which provides training at no cost in return for a service commitment. Service academies can be tough to gain entrance to, and pilot slots are not guaranteed.
Career confusion. A lack of guidance on how to become a pilot proved frustrating for Adia Smith when she was a high school student. She’d taken several aviation courses and had grown up attending airshows. “I had this lingering interest in pursuing flying,” she said. But when she started researching undergraduate aviation programs in 2003, “I could not get a clear and concise cost, [an explanation] of what you take, and ‘this is how you start,’” she said.
Smith’s parents were as confused as she was. It didn’t help that the aviation industry was in a slump at the time. Smith’s parents could not justify the cost and eventually convinced their daughter to attend a state school, where she chose another major.
Now Smith is an admissions counselor for California Aeronautical University (CAU) in Bakersfield, California, and she helps young people to become more knowledgeable than she was. “I meet students every day who are in this same position,” Smith said.
Airlines or fighter pilots?
Many people think working in aviation boils down to flying for the airlines or piloting a military jet. Both are stellar aspirations—but don’t limit yourself. There are many other types of jobs. How about airport operations, air traffic control, or aviation maintenance?
“I think a lot of people don’t realize there’s a legitimate career in aviation—not just flying,” Smith said. “The pilots are exciting but there are all these other people who make up aviation.”
Even if you have wanted to fly since you were a toddler pointing at airplanes, Smith said you should still take an introductory flight lesson before you go all in. “When it comes time to invest that money, you’ll be confident you want to do it,” she said.
How do you pick an aviation college?
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. And there are lots of them. (See our annual College Directory, p. 44.) 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. And that’s appropriate, said CAU’s Smith.
“Becoming a pilot is never going to be a cheap thing to do no matter how you go about it,” she said. “When you look at the responsibility you have as a pilot, it makes sense.” A regional pilot is responsible for handling millions of dollars of equipment, not to mention safely transporting human beings.
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?
“We’ve all read the U.S. News and World Report ranking of schools, but really and truly I think the most important thing is the right fit or feel,” said David Ison, president of the University Aviation Association, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote and foster excellence in collegiate aviation education.
Ison said you should 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. Katie Pribyl, senior vice president for aviation strategy and programs at AOPA, knows this well. As a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Arizona, campus, she met a student from ERAU Daytona Beach at EAA AirVenture. In 2005, furloughed from Independence Air, Pribyl saw her friend at AirVenture once again, and he helped her make connections that eventually put her on a path to AOPA. “Had it not been for that connection, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Pribyl said.
The aviation industry looks brighter than it did even a few years ago. Colleges are seeing the impact of a thriving outlook, too. In September, ERAU’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus, welcomed the largest freshman class in 15 years. 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.