Plane Answers: So you want to be a pilot? Here’s how.

Michael asks:

I am an aspiring airline pilot and I was wondering what were the steps you took to get hired with the airlines. So far I am 15 and starting my flight training with the Civil Air Patrol.

So you want to be a pilot? You’ve probably read the stories of the expensive flight training, years of instructing followed by long working hours at a regional with shockingly low pay rates. Perhaps you aspire to eventually make it to the ‘majors’ or a secure corporate jet job, where you might find some stability and decent pay if the airline doesn’t restructure in bankruptcy or the corporate flight department doesn’t shut down during a cutback.

There’s plenty of turbulence in any flying career. That fact hasn’t changed since the ’70s, to be honest. But pilots are still attracted to the job for a variety of reasons. It’s hard to beat the view or the flexibility in your schedule, and some carriers will take you to places you probably wouldn’t have flown to on your own. And for anyone who loves to fly airplanes, you’d be hard pressed to land another career where you can still afford to fly a jet and still be able to accrue enough flight time in to be competent. So even with all the possible hardships, you’ve decided to chart a course to becoming a pilot. But where do you start?

By far, this is the most frequently asked question we get for Gadling’s Plane Answers column. Since it’s been twenty years since I was acquiring my ratings and looking for a job, I’ll do my best to offer some suggestions to help you along in your career path, and I’ll save the story of my climb through the civilian process for another post.

I’d also like to see some suggestions from those who are learning to fly now, as well. So if that applies to you, leave a comment or two about your path.

This post will deal with the more common paths to an airline pilot job in the United States. I hope to tackle some of the steps needed in the U.K., which is representative of the process in Europe, in a future post.

Let me warn you, not only is the process to becoming a pilot a long one, but because of the different choices available to you, this post may be almost as protracted as your career track. But don’t get discouraged. Having a variety of options is a good thing.

So let’s begin.
In the United States, there are two categories of pilots hired at airlines, and they both involve a few different choices.


If you’re young enough and you have close to perfect vision with no other disqualifying medical issues, the military route offers flight training in high performance aircraft at no monetary cost to you. It will, however, mean a commitment to fly in the Air Force, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard for a number of years after you get your wings.

You are smart to get a head start by joining your local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol. The CAP offers a taste of the military way of doing things and, most more importantly, offers you a way to get some flight time, often taking you to your first solo flight and perhaps even more. You’ll be required to put in time at meetings and even volunteer for search and rescue missions, but you will also have the opportunity to fly some of their aircraft, such as a Cessna 172 at significantly lower rates than you could through a flight school.

If the CAP isn’t in your area, go to and sign up for a $100 into flight at a local flight school. It may be all you need to get hooked on flying.

Military flying almost always requires a bachelor’s degree and you may prefer to attend a university under the ROTC program, which may pay for a portion of your schooling as well. After school, you’ll start your flight training with whatever branch you chose. If you’re qualified, you can also aim for the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard Academy where you’ll have a good shot at a flying position upon graduation, and you’ll get an amazing education at their University.

Landing an academy position isn’t easy. You’ll need a recommendation from a member of Congress at the very least. But it’s worth a try if you have the grades.

If you already have a college degree, you can also try the National Guard in your state. Once your training is finished, your commitment to the Guard is usually limited to a weekend or two a month for a few years. But you should be prepared to find yourself activated with short notice for a much longer tour or tours should your services be required.

Guard pilots often fly F-16s and military transports such as the C-130, C-141 and the C-5. The Army Guard also has helicopter units and airlines have been known in the past to hire these pilots as well, since many of them have fixed wing (airplane) experience as well.

Regardless of your military path, active duty or reserves, make sure you’ll be able to secure a flying spot in the military before agreeing to a long term commitment. I’d also look into the odds of becoming a drone pilot, something airlines aren’t likely interested in anytime soon.

Since I went the civilian route, I’m hopeful we’ll get some comments here with even more helpful advice on the best way to land a military flying position.


My civilian route involved going to college while flying and scrambling for ratings at a nearby airport that was not associated with the university.

Today, a college degree in just about any subject is usually required by the major airlines. Mine was in management, but l’d encourage you to major in something that you could use for an alternate career if you can’t find a flying job right away or if you are ever furloughed. Many pilots have side businesses or interests, so think about some of these options when you consider your degree.

You may want to accomplish your solo flight and your private pilot license as soon as possible. The minimum age to solo is 16, but you must be 17 for a private license (PPL in Europe), which will allow you to take passengers up in the air.

Getting from the 60 or so hours you’ll have at the end of your private to the 190 to 250 hours needed to get a Commercial license can be challenging. I borrowed some money and bought a very inexpensive ($5,500 in the ’80s) 1946 two-seat Luscombe airplane that burned less than five gallons an hour. The same airplane today would sell for around $20,000, but you’ll likely get your money out of it when you’re ready to sell it, provided it was in decent shape when you bought the plane.

Building flight time is something you can do while working at a job, preferably at the airport or in some way involved in aviation. Your CAP work is very helpful when you want to rent one of their airplanes to build time.

Now you’ll need to be focused on getting the trifecta of ratings you’ll need-the commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings-to fly for a living.

You can start with the instrument rating after you have 50 hours of pilot-in-command cross country time.

Upon reaching about 220 hours, you can work on your training for a commercial license. By the time you finish the training at a Part 61 school (more on that later) you will have reached the 250 hours needed. The multi-engine rating can be added on at this time, as well as a Certified Flight Instructor rating.

Part 141

The FAA allows pilots to get a commercial license at 190 hours if they train at what is called a part 141 school. These schools are audited and certified by the FAA and are required to provide a structured course of training that meets certain minimum hours of ground school instruction, its instructors follow an approved syllabus and the school must follow a specific set of requirements defined by the FAA.

Part 141 schools are good at leading you through the process, but if you are training with a freelance instructor or you want to fly at your own pace, a part 61 school may be preferable. I earned my private license through a part 61 school and picked up my advanced ratings with a 141 school. Do a little shopping around when you’re ready to decide.

It might surprise you to learn that most instructors have recently secured their ratings and are instructing as a way to build flight time while being paid. They’re not getting rich, but at least they’re no longer paying $100+ an hour for flight time.

Most pilots would then find themselves flight instructing for a while, before possibly moving on to another odd flying job such as light twin-engine charter flying or even traffic duty for local T.V. and radio stations.

There have been times-as recently as last year-when regional airlines were hiring pilots with the FAA minimum requirements to get their commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings. However, there’s a congressional push since the Colgan Air accident to require 1,000 or 1,500 hours for anyone flying passengers for a regional airline. If this were to happen, the pool of candidates would dry up quickly once the hiring begins again.

Your seat?

Universities and Academies

Many have heard of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a school with campuses in Florida and Arizona that offers a college education while also providing an immersive flight training environment.

But there are others as well, such as the University of North Dakota, Western Michigan University, Purdue, Daniel Webster College, and Parks College in St. Louis. There’s a great aviation university discussion thread from ten years ago at that is rather enlightening.

You may have also seen ads for the Delta Connection Academy (formerly the Comair Aviation Academy), Gulfstream International, Mesa Airlines Pilot Development and ATP. These outfits will take you from zero time all the way through your ratings and even up to an ATP in some cases. A few are affiliated with regional airlines and promise an interview at the carrier after a period of flight instructing with the company.

Be sure to do a search on these companies before jumping in. I wouldn’t, for example, recommend Gulfstream International or Mesa after doing a bit of research. The others had some positive reviews, however.

This is a really tough time to be looking for any type of job. In December of 2012 airlines will again see a number of job openings after retirements dropped to almost zero after the mandatory retirement age was raised by five years from sixty to sixty-five in 2007. I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see an uptick in the economy and movement that will make all your efforts now worthwhile.

It’s not the job for everyone, and there will certainly be speed bumps along the way, but unlike Sully Sullenberger, I would still recommend an airline pilot job to my kids or anyone who’s addicted to flying.

I stumbled across a post from Varrin Swearingen, a pilot who worked his way through the Comair Academy, flew for Comair as a co-pilot and captain on turboprops and jets and then went to work for World Airways. Varrin, like myself, knew he wanted to fly for a living. He was well aware of the challenges that goal presented, including the potential for less than stellar schedules and anemic pay rates.

If you have realistic expectations going in, you’ll be able to see the job for what it is later-a great opportunity to fly to places you wouldn’t have otherwise seen, in an airplane you enjoy flying, and with people you consider good friends. Oh, and the view exceeds that of any CEO’s corner office.

If you made it this far into the post, and you’re seriously considering a flying career, I have one last bit of advice. When you get the job, don’t get too spun up over contract negotiations or the latest rumors and rants posted to online pilot forums. Always try to remember just how much you wanted the job when you went in for your interview. And take a moment when you’re flying a visual approach at night over Boston or New York to glance out the window for just a second and think about just how amazing it is to fly.

If you’ve recently been through some of the above process, please comment below. I’d love to hear about your experiences. And if you’d like to hear about others who have ‘caught the flying bug’ and where they are now, take a listen to episode 24 of Joe d’Eon’s incredibly well produced and entertaining free podcast, “Come fly with me.” [itunes link]

So good luck Michael and let us know in the comments how your CAP experience is going.

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

Holidays to make you feel smart: summer courses at Oxford

If you’re like me, you went to a state university. The education may have been good, but your student union looked like a shopping mall and your dorm resembled a Soviet prison. Here’s a chance to relive the youth you never had by studying at one of the world’s greatest and most beautiful universities.

Recently I checked out out two summer school options at two historic colleges at Oxford University–the Oxford Experience at Christ Church College (pictured here) and the Creative Writing Summer School at Exeter College.

The Oxford Experience is the pricier and cushier of the two. There are a series of one-week courses from July through early August on everything from Darwin to the history of the English language. The small classes (max 12 people) and experienced teachers ensure that you’ll learn a lot. Students live at the college and there’s a real communal atmosphere, with interesting people from around the world. I met several who were on their third or fourth year. Day trips to places such as Bath and Stonehenge mean you’ll have your entire vacation taken care of for you.

Next year’s courses will be as varied as ever, with classes such as The Twilight of the Romanovs, King Alfred and the Vikings, English Romantic Poetry, and the Art of the Illuminator.

The summer school for writers at Exeter College is more like a real university course–three weeks of intensive work with professional writers that can earn you college credit if you’re already attending university somewhere. You have to apply to get in and there’s required coursework. If you’re serious about your writing career, it can also give you the one thing talent can’t–contacts.


One of the best aspects of this summer school is the series of guest speakers. I attended one on screenwriting by Nicholas McInerny, who writes for The Bill, the UK’s most popular cop show. He had piles of good advice for getting into the business and staying there, and much of it applied just as well to fiction and nonfiction writing. I found myself taking notes. He even offered to help a student meet a TV producer. You won’t get that at a community college course.

Both schools have a lot going for them. You get to stay in college accommodation, surrounded by Gothic spires and lovely gardens. Food is provided by the colleges, but have no fear. This is far better grub than the cafeteria swill they serve at more proletarian universities. Christ Church and Exeter have sumptuous dining halls decorated with ornate stonework and stained glass windows. You also have the advantage of staying in the heart of one of England’s most historic and beautiful cities, with teachers who will point the way to all the best hidden spots.

While prices look steep ($1600 or more per week for Oxford Experience, and about $3500 for three weeks at the writing school) that covers decent accommodation and great food so it’s not much more than getting a hotel or B&B for the same amount of time, and takes a lot less planning.

So if you want to experience high culture and learning at its best, try a smart holiday at Oxford University.

Five ways to enjoy “Suicide Sunday”

I stumbled into Cambridge, England on “Suicide Sunday,” a joyous occasion in which the local university students cut loose and get wasted blow off steam following the completion of final exams. The streets are packed with tourists and students, the former gawking, the latter playing. To witness the events is figuratively intoxicating, while to participate offers a more literal experience. The booze flows plentifully, and merriment is omnipresent.

So, how can you get in on the action? Call ahead to the Cambridge University to find out when Suicide Sunday will be (it’s always in June). Once you hit the ground, here are a few ways to pass the time:

1. Pour yourself a drink: If you’re clever, enter one of the colleges. The signs prohibit non-student entry, and there are security guards just inside those doors (as I learned the hard way). But, if you can slip inside, you’ll be at the center of the party. It’s fairly likely that free liquor will flow your way.

Backup Plan: If the rent-a-cops bust you, shoot for an aquatic landing. Take a “punt” (flat-bottomed boat) or other vessel onto the River Cam. Slip up to the shore and climb out. Bribe a student (in the boat and on shore). Get wasted. Too easy.

2. Stay on the river for a bit: “Punting,” mentioned above, is really nothing more than pushing a boat with a pole along the River Cam. You can either rent your own and try your luck or hire a “chauffeured” punt to bring you along the river. Keep in mind that there will be plenty of self-hired punts out there, so you’re best bet is to stay in the hands of a professional.

People Watch: There are parties at the colleges all along the river. Watch for the splashes, as drunk students tend to toss each other into the water. Sometimes, small wrestling matches occur that ultimately lead to a trip into the drink. You can enjoy the show from start to finish.


3. Fill your stomach: The most common picnic fare seems to be beer and cheap Indian food. Join the party! Both are plentiful. Grab your grub and head out for the punt bridges behind St. Catherine’s (on Silver Street). Look for a spot in the unmowed grass, and chow down. Buy a little extra – you may be able to host a small party of drunk college kids!

Heckle the Help: When you’ve finished eating, stake out a spot on a bridge. To fit in with the locals, pick up a few water balloons. Then, hunt drunks. You won’t be alone. More than a few people were on the prowl while I was waiting for my punt.


4. Enjoy the architecture: Yes, there is a cultural aspect to Cambridge University. The easiest way to satisfy your intellectual obligation is to wander the streets and enjoy the downright regal architecture that the various colleges offer. Also, you can do this while meandering from one rockin’ party to the next, so you don’t have to sacrifice any precious drinking time.

Watch for Pitchers: The clean cut British boys pushing punting tickets aren’t as skilled as the souk-minders of Marrakech, but they’re trying. Don’t get sucked in by their innocent charm while you’re snapping photos of the buildings. Make your arrangements for punting when you get down to the river.

5. Protest, protest, protest: Cambridge, England is not unlike Cambridge, Massachusetts, in that there is always some group fighting the social and political injustices of the world. On the most recent Suicide Day, I saw a bike rally chanting: “Free Gaza now!”

Let It Roll: Speaking of bikes, they’re the most popular form of transportation in Cambridge. Look for them when you cross the street. Hell, rent one for a while. It’s nice to see the world like a local.


Disclosure: Many thanks to Visit Britain, which picked up the tab for this trip and to British Airways for the flights. Obviously, it did not pay for my opinions. If they did, I doubt this is the story that would have been commissioned.

Hey, college students: Here are 5 ways you can afford that next trip

College can be a cruel time for would-be globe-trotters: It’s often the time when you most want to travel– whether it’s Spring Break in Mexico or a month in Europe– but it’s also one of the times you’re least able to. Why?

No money. Sure, it might be easy to take out tens of thousands of dollars of student loans to fund your trip, but you will pay for this, with compound interest, later. Better to find some creative ways to scrape together some cash so you can turn your dream trip into reality.

Here are five non-traditional tips that’ll save you some real dough:

1. Your campus bookstore is ripping you off big time. Please don’t tell me that you still buy and sell your textbooks at the campus bookstore. Why not just take your money and flush it directly down the toilet? (Or, hell, I’ll take it.)

Buying and selling your books online can save you hundreds of dollars per semester. ( works best for me.) Another tip: As soon as you figure out what books you need for the semester, see if they’re available at your university’s library. Often you can check out textbooks for an entire semester and return them when the course is over.

Finally, if a course “requires” a textbook’s new 12th edition (cost $140), buy the book’s 11th edition (cost $2.99). The book’s page numbers will be different, but the content will probably be very similar.

2. Suckle at the government teat. If you work at least 20 hours per week and make less than $1,200 per month– the exact requirements depend on your state– you might be eligible for food stamps, a form of federal assistance that can provide you with hundreds of dollars per month to spend on groceries.

Nowadays, food stamp recipients don’t use actual stamps but a type of debit card, so that no one but you (and maybe the cashier) has to know that you’re suckling at the government teat.

3. Selling your plasma is not that embarassing. Nothing signals financial desperation quite like donating plasma. But if you’re saving up money for a trip, an extra $70 per week ($35 for donating twice per week) can really come in handy.

What’s involved in donating plasma? On your first trip, you’ll have to fill out lots of paperwork, receive a physical, and take a drug test. (Note: “Negative” is, paradoxically, a good result.) After that, you’ll sit back for an hour or so, watch the plasma drain from your body, and feel the cash roll in. For those of you near a major airport, eight plasma donations might just buy you a round-trip ticket to Costa Rica. Adiós, sangre!

4. Shopping at Aldi, Save-a-lot, and Price Rite is not that embarassing either. For the poor college student with $11 a week to spend on groceries, these stores are, for lack of a better term, the bomb-diggity. Canned goods, milk, and snacks are ridiculously cheap, and you won’t notice a drop in quality. Admittedly, these are no-frills places– not an olive bar, exotic fruit, or free sample to be found. But you’ll save a ton of money.

5. Here, have forty-five bucks. An investment site called Sharebuilder has an ongoing promotion that gives you $50 for signing up for their service and spending at least $5. I’ve done this, multiple times, and it works like a charm. And so far, the police have not come knocking on my door. (Well they have, but not for this.)

I’d suggest plugging “Sharebuilder promotion code 2009” into your favorite search engine, then doing some research. The money takes 4-6 weeks to arrive, but it’s free money, so quit yer bitchin’.

Have any more money-saving tips for poverty-stricken students? Leave ’em in the comments.

Gadling + BootsnAll – Picks of the Week (4.3.09)

Another Friday is upon us, and we’re back with another round of weekly picks from our friends at BootsnAll, the independent travel experts. What strange stories, great lists and secret travel tips caught our eye? Take a look below and find out:

  • ABC’s of Study Abroad – spending a semester abroad has become an increasingly popular option for university students in recent years. Aaron Shew gives us a rundown of great tips on the whole process, covering everything from why to do it, where to go and how to make it work for you. If you’ve ever thought about studying abroad, here’s where you can take that first step!
  • Secret Wine Country – European regions like Bordeaux and Tuscany are synonymous with vineyards, tastings and great wine. But did you ever think to try a few bottles in the Ukraine? Or in Hungary? Eileen Smith fills us in on six unexpected Eastern European hotspots where you can try a few unique vintages.
  • Cave Culture – the first reaction of most people to word “cave” is not great. Pitch black spaces, flying bats and freezing cold water all suggest caves are not particularly great places to hang out. But as Deanna Hyland points out, caves are actually fascinating places to visit, filled with amazing rock formations, unique human history and fascinating wildlife. Take a look at her list of 12 Exciting Caves to Explore around the world.

That’s all for now – see you again next Friday for another installment of our ongoing Picks of the Week series. Stay tuned.