Plane Answers: How a pilot’s flight time relates to their experience

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Ted asks:

Due to the latest streak of incidents and accidents I have seen the pilot’s experience written down in flight hours – the captain on the Turkish plane that crashed at Amsterdam had ~15,000 hrs experience, Capt. Sullenberger almost 20,000 hrs and his first officer 15,000+ hrs while the first officer on the ill-fated Colgan Air flight 3407 only had 774 flight hours experience.

However, I would like to know how this translates into years of experience; how many flight hours does a pilot accumulate in an average year; what are the differences between a long-haul pilot (747,767,777 etc), a pilot that flies shorter flights (737/A320) and a pilot for a regional airline.

If possible, I’d like to find out how a pilot’s career looks in flight hours; from moment 0 when he/she takes the first flight lesson, to the PPL and so on all the way to a Senior Flight Captain with the hours attained at the most important milestones. (I know these vary greatly from case to case, but how would it look like on a more or less approximated average?)

Oh, and one more thing: are the flight hours calculated from take-off to touch-down or do they count ground time as well?

Hi Ted,

That’s a great question.

As you mentioned, the milestones in one pilot’s career can vary wildly from another pilot’s. But I could probably give you a general range.
The researcher Anders Ericsson claims that to be an expert in any field or subject takes 10,000 hours of practice – a milestone in flying I’ve only recently reached.

Here’s a breakdown of the typical flight times for various pilots.

Student pilot

A student pilot can solo whenever an instructor is comfortable signing them off. That can be anywhere between six and twenty hours, typically.

Private Pilot

The private pilot license takes at least 40 hours to accomplish, but most finish it after 60 or 70 hours. That license allows a pilot to carry passengers with them, but not for hire.

Commercial, mult-engine and instrument rated pilot, with instructor ratings

After about 250 hours, a pilot can work toward their advanced ratings which are a requirement to flight instruct or to fly for hire.

Regional Co-pilot

Regional airlines that hire pilots for twin-engine turboprops and RJs (regional jets) typically hire pilots into the co-pilot seat with between 500 to 1,500 hours. After some time in the right seat-as little as six months and as many as ten years-the co-pilot would upgrade to the captain position.

Regional Captain

To be a captain at a regional airline, you would have to have an ATP or Air Transport Pilot license. This license requires at least 1,500 hours, along with a significant amount of cross-country and night flying time. So the typical regional captain could have between 1,500 hours and 30,000 hours.

The large spread in flight time is because some pilots end up at the regional carrier during a time of limited hiring by major airlines. After flying for ten or so years at the regional, it becomes a difficult decision to leave the company to fly for less money initially at a major airline. So many of those captains elect to stay put until they retire at the age of 65.

Regional pilots fly close to the FAA maximum allowable 1,000 hours a year.

National and major airline Co-pilots

The usual new-hire at a national or major airline has between 1,500 hours and 10,000 hours, typically. Military pilots generally don’t accrue the large number of hours in a short amount of time like regional pilots, so they tend to have between 1,500 and 3,000 hours when hired. Civilian pilots often have at least 2,500 hours, and more commonly now, 5,000 hours before landing a job at the majors.

The holy grail. Captain!

Captains at the major and national carriers usually have at least two to 15 years with the airline before upgrading. Since we’ve had an unusually stagnant decade of growth among the legacy airlines, many have between fifteen and twenty years with a company before moving to the right seat. In fact, I just had my sixteen-year anniversary and I’m still firmly planted in the right seat with no real outlook for an upgrade anytime soon. I’m sure once the retirements and growth pick up, that will change quickly.

National and Major airline pilots fly between 600 and 1,000 hours per year.

Notice I didn’t separate the wide-body, long-haul pilots from the narrow-body domestic pilots with regard to experience, since there’s relatively little flight time differences. Some pilots prefer the international flying and some would rather fly within the U.S., or their carrier is domestic only, so the flight time is relatively similar between those groups.

In the airline world, flight time is measured from the time the aircraft pushes back to the time it pulls up to the gate at the destination. Military pilots often only log the time flown in the air, without the taxi flight time included, so that can also account for the lower numbers among those pilots.

But flight time really isn’t the only way to get a feel for a pilot’s experience. Airlines look at a pilots currency, or how much they’ve flown in the past year, the amount of flight time they have in a particular type of aircraft and what type of flying they’ve been doing. A domestic pilot will accomplish a lot of takeoff and landings and gain valuable experience quicker than, say, a long-haul 747 pilot flying as one of the three or four pilots on the airplane.

And it’s also important to keep in mind that we’re all human. All pilots have to fight off complacency, as even 500-hour pilots can start to feel they’ve got this flying thing figured out.

The Turkish pilot with 15,000 hours may have been complacent or lacked currency. The facts on that accident are coming out and it’s looking like an automation failure wasn’t picked up by the pilots while on approach resulting in a loss of airspeed. Proof positive that even a 15,000 hour pilot (equivalent to nearly two straight years in the air) can be caught off guard at times.

So flight time isn’t the definitive tool used to judge a pilot’s experience level. It’s just the most often used.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monda
Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.