Career Information and Job Outlook for Pilots

Pilot
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Being a pilot can be an exhilarating and very satisfying career.  After all, you can travel to different locations, and you are flying the friendly skies. But what does it take to be a pilot? And what does the industry look like?

Here are some important facts to consider as you think about becoming a pilot. 

What do Pilots Do?

Pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters and other types of aircraft.

Airline pilots work for specific airline companies, transporting people and cargo on fixed schedules. Commercial pilots work for companies that offer charter flights, rescue operations or aerial photography. 

On modern planes, the cockpit crew is made up of the captain — the experienced member of the crew who is in command — and the co-pilot, or first officer. Together, they share responsibility for flight duties such as steering the plane, communicating with air traffic controllers and monitoring instruments. Older flights may also have a flight engineer on board while newer aircraft have automated this role.

Pay and Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers was $111,930 per year as of May 2017. The median salary for commercial pilots during the same period was $78,740.

There were roughly 124,800 jobs available as of 2016.

The BLS expects the industry to grow 4% between 2016 and 2026 — much slower than the average for other jobs. Openings will be as a result of people retiring from the industry. That means competition in the field will be strong, as there will be more pilots than job openings by 2026. 

How to Become a Pilot

Pilots receive their training in the military or by attending U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified flight schools.

Most employers prefer to hire 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 need 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 handicap that may 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"

A Day in a Pilot's Life

While the job duties may vary for each type of pilot, there are generally some that can cross over. According to job postings on Indeed.com, a pilot's tasks may include performing pre- and post-flight aircraft inspections, selecting safe and efficient flight routes, determining risks that may occur, keeping accurate records for compliance purposes, communicating with required agencies and personnel, and ensuring the safety and comfort of all passengers, crew and the aircraft. 

The Truth About This Career

Being a pilot may be very attractive because of the travel perks.

But it can be a very stressful and grueling career choice. Consider the following: 

  • Airline pilots spend an average of 75 hours each month flying and 150 hours on non-flight duties. Commercial pilots fly between 30 and 90 hours per month.
  • Both have irregular schedules that involve working several days in a row and then having several days off.
  • Airline pilots must have, as mandated by the 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, so newer pilots may not get to fly where they want to.

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

$122,410

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).