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“So, how’d you get your hours?”

This is often a popular question at dinner parties.

If the person is asking what did I do to get from my first flying lesson to the position where I am now, that would be a long answer.  It’s been a nearly twenty-year journey, so I might have to answer a question with a question.  “How much time do you have?”  You may want to go ahead and freshen up that drink.  We should sit.

The path from an introductory flight in a Cessna 150 to the left seat in a turbofan business jet is indeed a long one, so let’s break it up into manageable parts.  Let’s discuss what is required to get your first flying job.  This is often the goal for many aspiring professional pilots, so you can stop spending money on flying and start getting paid for it.  While the first flying job is nowhere near as glamorous or lucrative as a sought after corporate job, there is a certain personal victory in stopping the financial bleeding that is flight training.  Many people often spend huge amounts of cash or incur substantial debt to reach a point earning a paycheck from the cockpit.  While I hope to delve into the nuance of different types of training programs and requirements in a later article, I would like to offer a broad overview now.

Private Pilot Certificate

Whether you are completing your training through a four-year aviation college, an accelerated pilot training program, or simply taking flying lessons at your local airport, the Private Pilot Certificate is often your first achievement.  For many who want to fly only as a hobby, this is the finish line.  For the aspiring professional pilot, however, it is merely a first step.  The Private Pilot Certificate allows the pilot to fly typically single-engine propeller driven airplanes by themselves or with passengers.  The private pilot is not licensed to fly for hire in any capacity.  Furthermore, as a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) only Private Pilot, the weather must be generally good.  The pilot must be able to fly the airplane by looking outside at the ground, sky, and horizon for visual reference.  This certificate requires a minimum of 40 hours of flying time that is further broken down into categories like time with an instructor, cross-country, solo, and night time.  Most student pilots require more time than the bare minimum, however.

Sure, new pilots experience the exhilaration of physically flying the aircraft, but they also are exposed to the sea of technical information and the dreaded checkride.  For the professional pilot, continuous learning becomes a way of life and regular checkrides become commonplace.  Sitting back in the flight school office or the conference room of the FBO (Fixed Base Operator) after your first successful checkride (also known as a practical test,) the Designated Pilot Examiner may say something ominous like, “Be careful out there.  This is a license to learn,” as he or she slowly hands you your newly minted Pilot certificate.  This is indeed the case.

Instrument Rating

I have mentioned before that there are 1,000 ways to get to the top of the mountain.  While not everyone does it this way, many aspiring professional pilots take a brief reprieve from the training environment to celebrate their achievement, and then they dive into the instrument rating.  For the person taking flying lessons at the local airport, this may mean a few weeks or even a month to enjoy the privileges of their new certificate and taking friends and family on sight-seeing flights.  For the pilot in an accelerated pilot program, this may mean a day or two off.  Or not at all.

During instrument training, the pilot learns to fly by using only the instruments inside the aircraft.  Previously, as a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) only Private pilot, you may have to cancel your trip if was cloudy or rainy.  Not anymore!  During instrument training, you learn to fly your airplane solely by reference to instruments.  You learn this skill by either flying in weather, often referred to as IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions,) or using a “view limiting device,” which keeps you from looking outside the aircraft.  Examples of this are a “hood” or “foggles.”  Usually, there is some combination of actual and simulated instrument experience, and typically, instructors make sure you’ve mastered the basics using the “view limiting device” before exposing you to the real thing.  Slightly different than the Private Pilot training, there is no specific number of total hours required, but certain tasks must be accomplished and there are some hour requirements for these individual activities.

Much like your previous training, your instructor will provide ground and flight training and record it in your logbook.  Then, back to the testing facility!  Once you are ready, he or she will endorse you to take the knowledge test which is conducted on the computer similar to the one you passed for your Private Pilot requirements.  Finally, the instrument rating culminates in yet another checkride where you demonstrate to the examiner that you can, in fact, shoot instrument approaches, perform holding procedures, and track navigation aids without ever seeing outside the aircraft!

Commercial Pilot Certificate

Whereas the Instrument Rating provides breadth to the pilot’s skill set, the Commercial Pilot certificate dives deeper into the skills developed during Private Pilot training.  There are multiple maneuvers you must perform on the checkride that also demonstrate aircraft handling but are more complicated than the private pilot maneuvers.  The time-building requirements for the commercial checkride also force the private pilot out of the local practice area, so yoiu can gain more real-world experience.  That experience requirement is also built into the regulations; similar to the private pilot certificate, there is a total time requirement, yet this one is a whopping 250 hours.  The tolerances are more stringent which reflect the expectation of more refined skills while carrying passengers for hire.  There is also a requirement to log experience in an aircraft with a retractable landing gear and variable pitch propeller which primes the candidate for a future flying complex, turboprop, or even turbojet aircraft.

Multi-Engine Rating

Like the Instrument rating, the multi-engine rating widens the experience of the pilot.  Specifically, this allows the pilot to fly aircraft with more than one engine.  As an add-on rating, the examiner will presume that you already possess the ability associated with your current pilot certificate, whether it’s a private or commercial certificate.  Some accelerated pilot training programs advocate training students in multi-engine aircraft as early as possible to help them build crucial multi-engine experience. However, due to the higher cost of operating multi-engine aircraft, most aspiring professional pilots defer this expense until later in their training.  Personally, it was easier to stomach the expense of renting a Seneca II aircraft when I had some job prospects in sight.

Congratulations!  After lots of studying and rigorous training, you’re now an Instrument Rated, Commercial, Multi-Engine Pilot!  You now have the ability to go out in the world and earn a paycheck flying a variety of aircraft.  I know people who have gotten to this point in as a little as five months in an accelerated pilot program.  As a full-time college student, it took me two and a half years to get here from my first flying lesson.  You may have a variety of questions after reading this:  can I go fly a jet now?  Will people want to hire me?  How much did this just cost me?!

These are all great questions, and I hope to explore them all.

What is, or was, your path to becoming a professional pilot?