What Does a Pilot Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Maritsa Patrinos © The Balance 2019

Professional pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other types of aircraft. Airline pilots work for specific companies, transporting people and cargo on fixed schedules, while commercial pilots work for companies that offer charter flights, rescue operations, or aerial photography.

Modern airplanes are operated by a cockpit crew made up of the captain 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 plans may also have a flight engineer on board, while newer aircraft have automated this role.

Pilot Duties & Responsibilities

While job duties may vary depending on the type of pilot, there are some that are common among pilots. Aside from flying the aircraft safely, a pilot's tasks and duties may include the following:

  • 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
  • Ensuring the safety and comfort of the passengers, crew, and aircraft

Pilot Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers is as follows:

  • Median Annual Salary: $140,340 ($67.47 /hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $208,000 ($100/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $65,690 ($31.58/hour)

Education, Training & Certification

To become a pilot, you will need to satisfy several different requirements, including education, training, and licensing:

  • Training: Pilots receive their training in the military or by attending U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified flight schools.
  • Education: Most employers prefer to hire candidates who have a bachelor's degree, although the minimum education requirement is two years of college. Coursework should include English, math, physics, and aeronautical engineering.
  • License: To work as a pilot, you need a commercial pilot's license.
  • Certification: Airline captains and first officers need a transport pilot certificate. To qualify for one, a pilot must be 23 years old with 1,500 hours of flight time and pass written and flight exams.

In addition, you must also meet a few other requirements to become a pilot. 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.

Pilot Skills & Competencies

Along with the ability to fly an aircraft, pilots also need particular soft skills or personal qualities, including the following:

  • Communication: You must have excellent communication and problem-solving skills, and be detail-oriented.
  • Teamwork: The ability to work as part of a team is vital. In addition to working with your crew, you must also work with air traffic controllers and flight dispatchers.
  • Interpersonal skills: Exceptional interpersonal skills with an ability to get along with others is vital.
  • Task management: You must be able to prioritize tasks and projects
  • Professional demeanor: It's important to conduct business in a professional manner and demeanor at all times.
  • Adaptability: You must possess the ability to adapt to unusual working hours and working conditions.

Job Outlook

There were roughly 124,800 jobs available as of 2016. The BLS expects the industry to continue to grow by 4% through 2026, which is a much lower rate than the 7% average for other jobs. Openings will become available as people retire from the industry. That means competition in the field will be strong, as there will be more pilots than job openings by 2026.

Work Environment

A pilot career may seem alluring and adventurous, as it provides an opportunity to visit other places. However, it can also be tiring, isolating, and cost you time away from loved ones. You will spend a good deal of your time in the aircraft, but depending on your flight routes may also spend weeks away from home, living in hotels. Before you invest the time and effort in pursuing such a career, make sure that you are fully informed about it to make the best decision for yourself and your family.

Work Schedule

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 at least a few days at a time. Those who have seniority with an airline get preferred routes, so newer pilots may not get to choose where they fly.

How to Get the Job

GAIN EXPERIENCE

Complete flight school, or learn to fly through military experience.


GET LICENSED

Take and pass tests for your pilot's license, and any certifications that can help you get the type of pilot job you're seeing, such as private or commercial pilot, or flight instructor.


APPLY

Apply for pilot jobs directly with individual airlines, or use job-search resources like Indeed.com, Monster.com, and Glassdoor.com to look for available positions.

Comparing Similar Jobs

You may also want to consider other positions that require some of the same skills as that of a pilot, such as these positions, with their annual salaries listed: