Want to become a pilot? Find out how with this guide.

Pilot Training in America: Everything You Need To Know

There is no better time than the present to consider piloting a plane. If there is one industry that is showing no signs of faltering, it’s aviation. More people are traveling by plane than have in the past. In fact, according to the International Air Transport Association, or the IATA for short, by the year 2036, there will be around 7,800,000,000 airline passengers.

It’s not easy, though, and it not only requires a determined spirit but also lots of money and time. Before you decide you are going to work to train to be a pilot, figure out it’s right for you.

Different Types of Pilot Licenses


The first thing you need to be aware of if you have decided to pursue that aviation career as a pilot is that there are three different types of pilot licenses you can work towards achieving.

These are:

  • Commercial Pilot License
  • Private Pilot License
  • US Air Force Pilot license

In the following guide, we have provided an overview of all that’s involved in the pilot training for each license, to help you work out what kind of pilot you want to be.

Commercial Pilot License (CPL)


If you are interested in becoming a pilot to earn a living, you need to hold an FAA Commercial Pilot Certificate. Once you hold a CPL, you can earn money from carrying out jobs such as aerial photography and banner towing. You will be able to make money instructing other trainee pilots (though you need to have a specialist instructor certificate).

However, to become a pilot on a commercial plane, you need to work through additional training and recorded flight time to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, known as an ATP for short.

How Do You Qualify For A Commercial Pilot Training Course?

To qualify for Commercial Pilot Certificate training through the FAA, you need to:

  • Be a minimum of 18 years old
  • Speak, write and read English fluently
  • Hold a PPL (See further down)

Hold an up to date 2nd-Class Medical certificate from the FAA (This certification can be obtained by participating in a medical examination conducted by an FAA-appointed Aviation Medical Examiner or AME.

How to Choose the Right Commercial Pilot Training Course

You will find there are several different training courses available. It depends on what you want to do with your certification and the level of training you have already as to the course that’s right for you.

Generally, most trainee commercial pilots enroll in the Commercial Multi-Engine Land or CMEL training course. Some sit the Commercial Single-Engine Land or CSEL course.

The aircraft most complete their training on will be the same as the one they flew to gain their private license – i.e. a 4-seater plane. A requirement of training is all students must record 10 hours of flight time in a high-powered plane. Because of this, many trainees opt to complete the whole training course in larger planes. It is important to note this is a lot more expensive, though.

After figuring out which training course you want to participate in, investigate the flight schools in your area. We recommend you look for a flight school offering a training program fully certified by the FAA because these generally involve a higher quality of facilities and must meet specific standards with regards to the course equipment, curriculum, and staff.

Make a shortlist of the training courses and flight schools that interest you the most. Think about the attributes important to you. You will find most top schools and programs offer open days where you can look around the facilities, speak to students and find out more about the possibility of employment after graduation.

Training costs a lot of money. You will find some training schools offer payment plans and scholarships that can reduce the expenses somewhat.

What the Course Entails

As you will see even from our overview, the training course for your CPL is a lot more intensive and thorough than that for your PPL. However, it follows a similar plan with it being separated into three categories:

  • Ground Training – This primarily involves the study of various flight theory topics, like ATC procedures, air law, flight principles, radio navigation, general navigation, meteorology, monitoring, flight planning, and balance and mass.
  • Flight Training – The training for commercial pilots is tougher than that offered for private pilots and you need to record at least 250 hours of flight time, which includes 100 hours where you are the commanding pilot and 50 hours’ worth of cross-country flying. You also need to record a minimum of 10 hours’ worth of training using the various instruments and complex aircraft flying. During this part of the training, you will be able to work on your precision and achieve mastery over the more complex maneuvers. All flight training courses will involve one single flight covering more than 30-nautical miles at the very least.
  • Examinations – Along with the two pats outlined above, you will also be required to complete an examination on flight theory. This is best sat in the earlier stages of your course as you will be able to put what you learn doing it to good use when it comes to the flight training. This test features 100 questions with multiple choice answers picked out from the bank of FAA commercial pilot tests. You can only pass if you get 70% of the questions right or more.

Additionally, you need to participate in flying an aircraft overseen by an inspector appointed by the FAA or an alternative, but suitably authorized organization. Although it sounds similar, it is a more intense test than that required when you are going for your PPL. Your conduct both before you take-off and when you land will be assessed along with your professionalism in general and level of precision in the air.

How Long Does it Take to Qualify?

Although it will depend on student to student, the average length of time it takes to fully complete training to become a commercial pilot is often between 15 and 18 months. To meet this kind of timeframe, though, you need to train weekly at least 5 times or more. Once you have achieved your Commercial Pilot License you then need to log aircraft flying of as much as 1,500 hours before you are a commercially qualified pilot. By logging flights frequently, this may only take you 2 years or less.

How to Apply

It is easy to put forward an application to enroll on a commercial pilot training course. Once you’ve met the basic criteria for students and have a 2nd-class FAA medical certificate and PPL, you must make sure you have the financial side of things sorted. At this point, you should consider speaking to student provider schemes or applying to be accepted onto scholarships. You also must make sure you apply on time. Choose a suitable starting date. Bear in mind, though, that once you reach this point in the process, it is non-transferable and non-refundable.

How Much Does Commercial Pilot Training Cost?

There are a variety of factors that determine the training costs, including the location of and type of flight school you attend as well as the kind of aircraft you are going to learn to fly. In most cases, $15,000 is what you can expect to pay towards achieving your CPL. If you aspire to become a fully-fledged commercial airline pilot and need to obtain your ATP, you will more in extra charges and rental fees.

As it’s expensive, students often look to scholarships and loans to cover the expenses. You may benefit from one of the programs sponsored by airlines though. To find out if this is possible, try phoning airlines to see which offer funding.

Career Opportunities

Once you hold a CPL, there are a wide variety of career opportunities open to you. An interesting employment choice would be to work as a jump or skydive pilot. This comes with its specific challenges, like making sure you can control the position and speed of the aircraft, compensating for the drag that results from the skydivers jumping out and positioning the plane at the right high and correct geographic location for safe jumps.

If you are interested in passing on your love of flying and aircraft piloting to others, then you may want to consider working towards becoming a qualified flight instructor.

The most potentially lucrative career in commercial aviation though is as a corporate airline pilot. This involves flying business-class private jets on domestic and international flights and communicating with Fixed Based Operators at airports to work out the best flight routes and where you should stop for fuel.

Jobs can be found on various career pages and forums online, as well as at job fairs and other employment conferences.

Private Pilot License (PPL)

If you are interested more in flying planes for fun or looking to purchase a private jet eventually, then it may be that a Private Pilot license or PPL for short is the best option for you. This is generally recognized all over the world as an official license and means you can’t be compensated for any flights, but you can take your friends and family to the destinations of your choice.

How Do You Qualify For A Private Pilot Training Course?

To qualify for Private Pilot Certificate training through the FAA, you need to:

  • Be over the age of 17 to pilot gyroplanes, helicopters, and airplanes
  • Be over the age of 16 years old to pilot gliders and solo balloons
  • Speak, write, read and understand English with fluency
  • Have a 3rd-Class medical certificate at least or something higher
  • Have general competency in math

How to Choose the Right Private Pilot Training Course

You will notice when you start searching there are numerous places where you can train to obtain a PPL. You need to choose the school and course that’s right for you. Look first at those available in your local area. You will find you can enroll in pilot training at many airports and many colleges and universities also provide suitable training.

As is the case if you were looking to obtain a CPL, we would recommend you seek out private pilot training from a program certified by the FAA. These offer higher quality instructors and facilities because they need to meet FAA standards related to equipment, curriculum, and staff.

There is also the advantage of not needing to log as many flight hours to achieve certification when attending a fully certified school. For example, you only need to record 35 hours of flight time at a school approved by the FAA, whereas you need to log at least 40 hours when attending a school that isn’t officially certified.

As you will find you need to log more hours during the course, this number is generally considered to be irrelevant. However, we feel it’s worth noting, nonetheless.

Make a list of available pilot training courses and schools and list the most important attributes they should have for you. Is it possible you may want to try and obtain an advanced license further down the line? You should consider attending a school that already offers those courses. Are you employed full-time? It may be necessary to attend a school with flexible study and lesson schedules. You can find the one that’s right for you by conducting your research, speaking to the staff behind the courses or visiting their facilities, reading the aviation industry and interest magazines and talking to other pilots.

Private pilot training, similarly, to commercial training is very expensive and although you may wish to save some money, we would strongly recommend that you make sure the quality of the training offered by a school or on a course is appropriate.

Even once you have qualified, you will need to complete a specific number of flight hours yearly to keep your skills sharp. You will also need to renew your license every 5 years.

What Does the Course Entail?

As noted, when discussing what is involved in the commercial training course, there are similarities in the structure and content of the private pilot training course. It is divided into the same sections, as follows:

  • Ground Training – this part of the course involves the study of flight theory and the topics related to it, such as airplane systems, principles of aerodynamics, federal regulations of aviation and meteorology. You will find that most flight schools and training organizations split the course work into three different stages with exams at the end of each stage.
  • Flight Training – This involves learning about topics like pre-flight operations, controlling aircraft, taking off and landing, traffic patterns and emergency operations among many other crucial aspects of flying a plane. You will spend 10 flight hours at least piloting a solo flight under supervision. 5 hours of those 10 need to be spent flying cross-country with landings at two aerodromes along the way that is different to the one you departed from.
  • Examinations – You will also be required to complete a theoretical exam comprising of multiple-choice questions. The test will cover the 9 main subjects of the course – Navigational and Communication Procedures, Enroute Flight, Aircraft Performance, Weather and Weather Service, Procedures and Airport Operations, Regulations, Flight Instruments, Aircraft Systems, and Basic Aerodynamics. To pass you need to answer 70% or more of the questions correctly and you are only able to sit the practical flight exam after you’ve successfully passed the written exam.

How Long Does Qualification Generally Take?

Obviously, like qualifying as a commercial pilot, the length of time it takes to successfully qualify as a private pilot will vary from one person to the next. However, on average it can take anything from 45 to 65 hours to complete everything, including the flight hours and passing the exams. It is down to you how hard you work, as this can be achieved between as little as 2 weeks and many years. According to experts, though, the best way is to try and complete the assignments as quickly as possible one after the other to retain the knowledge.

How to Apply

It is relatively simple to apply for PPL training. Once you are sure you meet the basic criteria and have your 3rd-Class medical certificate as approved by the FAA, it is best to take some introductory lessons so that you can be sure piloting an aircraft is something you want to learn. When doing this, make sure those flight hours will be logged as part of the hours required to get your license. Then simply apply to the flight school or training provider for the course you are interested in before the start date.

How Much Does Private Pilot Training Cost?

The amount you need to pay overall for private pilot training will depend on the location of and type of flight school you attend as well as the kind of aircraft you learn to pilot. Generally, though, PPL will cost between $10,000 and $15,000. Numerous flight schools charge by the hour, with their rate calculated by adding the hourly instruction fee together with the hourly rental fee for the aircraft.

Career Opportunities

There aren’t any real career opportunities open to you if you obtain a PPL. You are not allowed to charge for your services. Therefore, if you would like to earn a living from piloting a plane you will need to obtain the CPL.

Military Pilot License


By far the highest level of achievement in the aviation world is becoming a US Air Force pilot. US Air Force pilots are used in missions that take place around the world involving the defense of the USA and its citizens. One of the major benefits of this position is the chance to fly the world’s most cutting edge and advanced aircraft. Because the training offered to Air Force cadets is of the highest caliber, qualified pilots are among the best in the world.

Like all roles in the armed forces, as well as being taught how to be the best pilot you can be, you will also be molded into a strong leader and exemplary role model. There are numerous opportunities for careers and if you are sure you have what’s required to be the best of the best (think Maverick in Top Gun), the US Air Force may be right for you.

How Do You Qualify as a US Air Force Pilot?

The United States Air Force is a highly elite group and it is a demanding and intensive task trying to work your way through the ranks. All students must meet the basic requirements:

  • Have US citizenship
  • Started training to become a pilot between 18 and 29 years of age
  • Have a bachelor’s degree from the Colorado Air Force Academy or a traditional education institution
  • Have basic knowledge of flight theory, directives of flying, operating procedures of aircraft, mission tactics, meteorology, and navigation
  • Have completed either Air Force Reverse Officer Training Corps, Air Force Academy or Officer Training School
  • Have completed Single Scope Background Investigation or SSBI
  • Have completed Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training

The most direct route to becoming a pilot for the Air Force is by completing an undergraduate course through Colorado’s Air Force Academy. This is a highly prestigious course and placements are competitive. OF more than 12,000 applications received, only a little more than 1,000 are given a placement every year. To be given a placement you need to pass intensive fitness and medical examinations and have a congressman or congresswoman’s nomination.

The height requirements for candidates are 5ft 4in to 6ft 5in, with your height when seated being 34 to 40in. Your vision needs to meet a specific standard and be correct either by contact lenses or glasses to 20/20. If, though, you suffer from asthma, other allergies or are colorblind, you cannot apply to join the Air Force Academy.

You will be required to complete and pass the rigorous Air Force Qualifying Test with 50 at the very least for the combined pilot and navigator portions and 25 for the pilot portion. This test takes around 3.5 hours to complete and is designed to test your personality, math skills, verbal communication skills, and academics.

What Does The Training Entail?

If you are successful in gaining a place in the elite and prestigious Air Education and Training Command located at the Randolph Air Force Base, you will begin your training with introduction training. If you do not have a PPL already but are graduates of either the Officer Training School or ROTC, you need to log at least 25 hours of instructor-led flying lessons. These are normally conducted in single-engine planes by civilian instructors. You must have flown at least once on your own before you achieve your 17th flight hour. Additionally, you need to participate in 25 hours’ worth of classroom lessons on flight techniques and theory.

After passing the introductory training course, you then need to take more specialized training. This very intense program involves long hours and days in classroom settings along with aircraft and simulation training. You will be taught basic flight skills at either the Texas-situated Laughlin Air Force Base, Oklahoma-based Vance Air Force Base or Columbus Air Force Base located in Mississippi.

Afterward, you will advance to the more specialized training determined by your standing in the class and personal skills and ability. This is the point when you will learn to pilot an aircraft.

How Long Does Qualification Generally Take?

You are required to be an officer before you can participate in the pilot training program, so it normally takes around 4 years at the very least to become an Air Force pilot.

How to Apply

You can start applying by contacting an Air Force recruiter, who will discuss what the right path for you is by asking you questions and assisting you in the admission procedure. You have the option to either become a fully enlisted Airman and work through the ranks or by participating in officer training.

What is the Cost?

If you are successfully enrolled in the Academy, you will be given tuition that’s fully paid for to the sum of $400,000 and you will also be given your room, board, low-cost lift insurance, interest-free loans for emergencies, monthly stipends and medical care.

Career Opportunities

Once you have graduated and contracted, you will be required to commit to active duty. This generally involves committing to 4 years as a 2nd lieutenant, though you may wish to stay on longer to build your career.

Once leaving the US Air Force, you may be able to secure work for big commercial airlines or opt to work at NASA instead. Other options include working as a corporate pilot.