Pilot - Career Information and Job Outlook

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A pilot flies aircraft including planes and helicopters. He or she may work for an airline that transports people and cargo on a fixed schedule or for a company that offers charter flights, rescue operations or aerial photography. The former is known as an airline pilot while the latter is called a commercial pilot.

Two pilots typically make up the cockpit crew, but some older planes require a third.

The more experienced crew member—the captain—is in command. His or her copilot is also known as the first officer. They share responsibility for flight duties that include steering the plane, communicating with air traffic controllers, and monitoring instruments. A flight engineer is the third person on the cockpit crew, but many of his or her tasks are automated on new airplanes.

Quick Facts

  • Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers earned a median annual salary of $127,820 in 2016. Commercial pilots' salary was $77,200.
  • In 2010 there were about 84,000 airline pilots and almost 41,000 commercial pilots in the workforce.
  • The job outlook for this occupation is poor. Employment of both airline and commercial pilots is expected to grow much more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2026.

A Day in a Pilot's Life

According to job postings on Indeed.com, a pilot's tasks may include:

  • "Performing pre- and post-flight inspection of the aircraft"
  • "Selecting the safest and most efficient flight routes and airports"
  • "Determining all flight/mission/risk parameters"
  • "Ensuring compliance with record-keeping requirements"
  • "Communicating with all required agencies and personnel"
  • "Providing for the safety and comfort of passengers, the crew, and the aircraft"

    The Truth About This Career

    • Airline pilots spend an average of 75 hours each month flying and 150 hours on non-flight duties while commercial pilots fly between 30 and 90 hours per month.
    • Both have irregular schedules that involve working for several days in a row and then having several days off.
    • Airline pilots must have, as mandated by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), at least eight hours of rest between flights.
    • They are often away from home for a few days at a time.
    • Those who have seniority with an airline get preferred routes.

    How to Become a Pilot

    Pilots receive their training in the military or by attending FAA certified flight schools. Most employers prefer to hire job candidates who have a bachelor's degree although the minimum requirement is two years of college. Coursework should include English, math, physics, and aeronautical engineering.

    To work as a pilot, you will have to get a commercial pilot's license. You must be least 18 years old and have 250 hours of flight experience, vision that is correctable to 20/20, and no physical handicaps that could affect job performance. You will also have to pass physical and written exams, in addition to a flight exam during which you will demonstrate your flying ability to an FAA-designated examiner.

    Airline captains and first officers need a transport pilot certificate. To qualify for one, a pilot must be 23 years old with 1500 hours of flight time. He or she must pass written and flight exams.

    What Soft Skills Do You Need?

    In addition to the ability to fly aircraft, pilots also need particular soft skills—or personal qualities. You must have excellent communication and problem solving skills and be detail oriented. The ability to work as part of a team is vital since pilots must not only work with one another, but also with air traffic controllers and flight dispatchers.

    What Will Employers Expect From You?

    Here are requirements employers listed in actual job announcements on Indeed.com:

    • "Exceptional interpersonal skills with an ability to get along with others"
    • "Able to prioritize tasks and projects"
    • "Conducts business in a professional manner and demeanor at all times"
    • "Ability to adapt to unusual working hours and working conditions"

    Is This Occupation a Good Fit?

    An individual is more likely to be satisfied in an occupation if it is compatible with his or her interestspersonality type, and work-related values. Pilots should have the following traits:

    Related Occupations

     DescriptionMedian Annual Wage (2016)Minimum Required Education/Training
    Air Traffic ControllerDirects the movement of aircraft in the air and on runways and taxiways


    3 years of progressively responsible work experience; a bachelor's degree; or a combination of college education and a degree
    Ship Captains

    Commands water vessels that carry people and cargo

    $72,680Completion of training program approved by the U.S. Coast Guard
    Flight AttendantKeeps passengers on an aircraft safe and comfortable$48,500Bachelor's Degree and on-the-job training

    Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited November 21, 2017).