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Decisions, decisions

Exploring the many paths to becoming a professional pilot

Your plan after high school graduation feels like the most important of your life. Your guidance counselor is pushing, your friends are all anxious about their futures, and your parents are maybe a little bit more involved in this whole process than you’d like them to be. So, what’s it going to be?

Illustration by Dan PageNarrowing down your options to say that you want to be involved in aviation is a good start, but it’s only the first of many steps. You must then decide if you want to be in operations, air traffic control, maintenance, a professional pilot, drone operator, or something else.

If you’ve decided you want to be a pilot, the choice then becomes how to get there. There are many ways to earn the certificates and ratings required to be eligible for a professional flying job. The choices can both offer great flexibility and make the process seem overwhelming. Here are the five basic choices, and some of the pros and cons of each.

  • Earn a four-year aviation degree at a college or university.
  • Earn a two-year aviation degree at a college.
  • Earn certificates and ratings at an academy.
  • Get a degree in something unrelated and fly on the side.
  • Join the military.

You can put some of your fears aside right away because each of these choices will get you to a professional flying job. And with airline hiring as strong as it is, the decision of where to go comes down less to which option can get you to the cockpit, and more to factors such as budget, timeline, connections, and so on.

Aviation U

Tree-lined commons, football Saturdays, dorm rooms, hundreds of interesting classes to choose from, and flying. If this is your idea of a perfect way to get a degree, then an aviation university is for you. Aviation programs at four-year universities range from small programs housed on massive campuses, to aviation-specific schools where flight programs are the focus. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is the most well-known of the latter. There, a student can focus on an aviation education and be constantly surrounded by aviation, yet still get to experience some of the great things that colleges have to offer, such as a well-rounded education, intercollegiate athletics, and campus life.

This experience doesn’t come cheap. Embry-Riddle estimates its yearly tuition and fees are about $39,000, not including the tens of thousands of dollars required to complete the pilot certificates. One would think that with it being very much a job seeker’s market that a program that takes longer and requires more of an investment would face challenges. Not so, said Ken Byrnes, chairman of the flight department at the school’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus. Last year was a “record year.” The school flew almost 100,000 hours between flight operations reopening in May 2020 and May 2021. This fall Byrnes said 700 new students joined the school’s flight program as incoming freshman. The Prescott, Arizona, campus saw an additional 300 new students come through the doors. Why are so many new students willing to invest such a large amount in their flight training and education?

More so than at any point in recent memory, the investment has a decent chance of return, and airline jobs will be plentiful for the next eight to 10 years. But Byrnes said ERAU does more than just stamp out new pilots. “We educate people. We don’t train them.” Students spend 1,000 hours in the classroom digging deeper into aerodynamics, crew resource management, weather theory, and more. They train in simulation and with virtual reality. And they take jet transition training in their final year. The goal, Byrnes said, is to develop the student’s soft skills. “I ask all the airlines what they’re looking for and flying ability is never top on the list. They want a safety-conscious, professional decision-maker who can fly.”

As a measure of success Byrnes points to the Pilot Source Study, a survey of regional airlines that looked at which new-hires successfully completed initial training and how many additional training events were required. They found that the best predictors for success in airline training were pilots with a high grade-point average, those who graduated college within five years of their hire date, military or restricted ATP qualifications, pilots who graduated from a program accredited by the Aviation Accreditation Board International, those with fewer than 1,500 hours, and those with a bachelor’s degree.

Aviation Community College

It’s no secret that community colleges represent one of the best values in education. Local, less expensive, and a solid foundation of core education—a degree from a community college can be a great way to get the education you need to pursue more advanced degrees, or the certification required to enter the workforce.

Dozens of community colleges across the country offer aviation programs, including professional pilot, maintenance, air traffic control, and unmanned aircraft systems. When hiring at the major airlines is slow, a four-year degree is often required to be competitive. As major airlines scoop up pilots from the regionals, and the regional airlines scurry to refill their ranks, these requirements have been relaxed. Now you’d have to search to find a regional airline that requires any degree. So why even consider a two-year program? Your long-term future.

Most pilots don’t want to fly for a regional airline their entire career. And if you want to fly for a major airline, a degree will be essential to be competitive. Starting your career with a two-year degree obtained while you work on your certificates and ratings will put you in a position to complete a bachelor’s degree later. Slightly slower than an academy, but faster than a traditional university aviation program, community colleges are a good middle ground.

Flight Academy

If your goal is to earn your certificates and ratings in the fastest, most efficient way possible, it’s hard to beat an academy environment. These schools, which exist primarily to train future airline and corporate pilots, are in the business of getting people from zero time to the flight deck as efficiently as possible. Schools like ATP Flight School have dozens of locations around the country, hundreds of airplanes and instructors, and rigorous standards and procedures meant to flow someone from student to instructor to hired in a short period.

“This is the fast track to a successful airline career,” said Michael Arnold, ATP’s director of marketing. “Students set themselves up with higher pay and better quality of life.” Because airlines operate on a seniority based system, a pilot’s hire date has everything to do with her ability to make more money, upgrade to captain, get the home base of her choosing, shelter herself from downturns, and pick the schedule she wants. Arnold’s point is that an academy like ATP gives students the opportunity to take advantage of the system faster because training there is a full-time job, and you’re practically guaranteed an instructing job with a full load of students after earning the credentials.

As airlines deal with the pilot shortage in more creative and direct ways, they are starting to invest in their own training programs. Arnold said he thinks ATP’s practice of working with a range of airlines helps make its program competitive. “We focus on a path to all major airlines,” he said. ATP has relationships with 30 different airlines and corporate flight departments, including a direct-hire agreement with Frontier Airlines upon reaching 1,500 flight hours.


If you go online and seek out the advice of seasoned pilots, many will tell you to get a degree in something other than aviation and earn your certificates and ratings on the side. In certain cases that can be good advice. A degree in business, finance, computer science, or the humanities may indeed give you a fallback if any number of things get in the way of the goal of becoming a professional pilot. Industry downturns, medical problems, and other curveballs do happen, and qualifications in other industries can be beneficial.

Furthermore, getting your certificates and ratings at a local flight school is potentially the least expensive way to go. But it’s not always a smooth ride. Local flight schools generally aren’t established to help students rapidly progress through training. Rather, the training will be self-paced, and when you start juggling school, flying, a job, and other commitments, it’s easy to let flying slip to the side. There are exceptions, and some local schools can work with you to ensure you receive quality training at a fair price. It’s sort of like the difference between eating at McDonald’s or the local diner. With McDonald’s you know exactly what you’re going to get and for what price. The diner could be much better, but it could also be a waste of money.

The other downside to this method is that you can’t take advantage of the lower airline transport pilot certificate minimums or the airline relationships of colleges and academies. You’ll be on your own.

Uncle Sam

If you’re looking for adventure and want Uncle Sam to pay the bill, the military could be a great option. It’s not for everyone, but the benefits of a military career are substantial, and numerous. See “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” on p. 36 for more on what it takes to get there and what it’s like to lead a life of service.

It’s hard enough picking a career. Knowing there are so many ways to get there makes it even more overwhelming. But there’s no wrong answer. Aviation is an exciting and dynamic industry, and whether you go straight to an academy or spend the time to earn a degree, there’s never been a better time to jump in.

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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