How To Become a Commercial Pilot: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Updated June 30, 2023

Two pilots sit in the cockpit of an airplane.

Being a commercial pilot is a demanding job but can also be a rewarding career. These credentialed experts operate aircraft in a safe manner. Understanding the training and practical requirements for becoming a commercial pilot can help you create a plan to pursue this career.

In this article, we discuss what a commercial pilot does, what skills they use and how much they earn, and then we explain how to become a commercial pilot, answer some frequently asked questions about the career and suggest some similar careers you could consider pursuing.

Key takeaways:

  • A commercial pilot operates aircraft to transport cargo and passengers to their destinations safely.

  • A commercial pilot has various skills and qualities to perform their work, including time management, coordination, navigation and verbal communication.

  • Requirements to become a commercial pilot include a private pilot certificate, a satisfactory instrument rating, supervised flight hours and the successful completion of written and practical tests.

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What does a commercial pilot do?

Commercial pilots navigate and fly passenger and cargo planes. Depending on their training, experience and qualifications, they may also fly aircraft used in firefighting and rescue operations. Some also handle charter flights, crop dusting and aerial photography.

In the course of their regular duties, a commercial pilot may:

  • Adhere to a checklist for checking engines and other aircraft systems before flying

  • Ensure that proper balance of the plane's weight

  • Check flight schedules, fuel and weather before departure

  • Communicate with the control tower and receive instructions for takeoff and landing

  • Start the plane's engine, administer its controls and steer the plane along a pre-planned route

  • Monitor the function of the plane's systems like fuel consumption

  • Control the aircraft with the instruments and mechanisms in the cockpit

  • Ensure smooth takeoff and landing

  • Complete reports after flights detailing mechanical issues

In larger aircraft, there are usually two pilots responsible for flying the plane. The more experienced pilot serves as the captain, taking command of the plane and the crew. The second pilot, also known as the first officer, helps the captain operate the plane and take over when necessary. They also usually communicate with the control tower and perform corrective measures.

Related: Private vs. Commercial Pilots: Salary, Duties and Differences

Essential skills for commercial pilots

Commercial pilots plan flights carefully, so excellent time management skills are vital. The most crucial parts of a flight are takeoffs and landings, during which the captain and copilot work in perfect coordination. Collaboration and interpersonal skills can be beneficial in this relationship. Since commercial pilots are in constant communication with the personnel operating the control towers, it's helpful if they can communicate with others effectively and speak in clear and unambiguous terms according to industry protocol.

It's vital for commercial pilots to have excellent eyesight and attention to detail so they can gauge the distance to objects while monitoring multiple aircraft systems at the same time. Even a small change in the controls can have a significant effect on the motion and performance of the plane, so pilots pay close attention to the dials and gauges to ensure that everything works as intended.

Related: Top 10 Communication Skills for Career Success

Average salary for commercial pilots

Commercial pilot salaries can vary depending on the job, range of experience and employer. Salaries may also vary depending on geographical or regional location. The national average salary for pilots of all kinds is $51,523 per year.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.

Related: How To Negotiate Salary After a Job Offer (With 13 Tips)

How to become a commercial pilot

Almost anyone can learn to fly a plane and operate aircraft with the proper training. However, becoming a commercial pilot involves going through some specific steps. Here are seven steps you can follow to become a commercial pilot:

1. Get a private pilot certificate

The first step to becoming a commercial pilot is getting a private pilot certificate. Training and preparation for pilot certification involves learning aviation basics and establishing a solid foundation for more advanced aircraft operation. Most pilots start learning on single-engine planes, later progressing to larger and more complex aircraft.

It usually takes 40 hours of training to become certified as a private pilot. Training typically includes 20 hours of instruction with a flight instructor and 20 hours of solo flight. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a private pilot license costs between $6,000 and $20,000.

Related: How Long Does It Take To Become a Pilot? (FAA Requirements)

2. Acquire an instrument rating

The next step toward becoming a commercial pilot is to get an instrument rating. An instrument rating is a set of qualifications that a pilot possesses before they can navigate aircraft under Instrument Flight Rules. Acquiring an instrument rating also qualifies pilots to operate aircraft in any weather. Earning an instrument rating requires training and instruction in meteorology and instrument flying.

Related: 7 Types of Pilot Certifications and Licenses (Plus Benefits)

3. Pursue flight hours

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects candidates for a commercial pilot license to have the following flight hours:

  • 250 hours of flight with at least 100 hours in a powered aircraft and 50 hours in an airplane

  • 100 hours as the pilot-in-command with at least 50 hours in an airplane

  • 50 hours of cross-country flight with at least 10 hours in an airplane

  • 20 hours of training, including instrument training, technology advanced aircraft (TAA) training and test preparation

  • 10 hours of solo flight, including night flights and cross-country flights

The FAA also requires pilots to present a logbook of flight hours endorsed by an authorized flight instructor. A logbook endorsement can prove that you have the skills necessary to operate your chosen aircraft safely. When you complete your training and are ready to take the official test, a certified flight instructor (CFI) can confirm your competence.

4. Take the written and practical tests

To earn your license, the FAA requires you to take and pass both a written and a practical exam. The Commercial Pilot Airplane (CAX) exam has 100 questions, and you have three hours to complete the test. A passing score is anything over 70%.

For the practical test, an evaluator observes your work to verify your skills. The test focuses on your aeronautical knowledge, flight skills and approach to safety and risk management. To pursue your commercial pilot license, aim for a Temporary Airman Certificate, which you receive if the evaluator rates your performance as satisfactory.

5. Obtain a commercial pilot license

The next step is to obtain a commercial pilot license. Review the FAA's guidelines to ensure you meet all the requirements for commercial airline pilots. The cost of obtaining a commercial pilot license is about $20,000. After obtaining a license, pilots can accept payment for their services.

Related: What Is the Job Outlook for Airline and Commercial Pilots?

6. Secure additional certifications (optional)

If you want to advance your career and widen your options, you could pursue additional distinctions. The top license for pilots is the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, which most airlines and many other major employers require. The FAA requires 1,500 hours of flight time to become an ATP.

CFIs are also typically commercial pilots, so you might pursue additional certification if you have an interest in becoming a flight instructor. Earning a CFI credential requires you to take written and practical tests with the FAA certifying you know how to teach others to fly. It usually takes about six months to earn this distinction, and the CFI can qualify pilots for certain positions and provide additional employment opportunities.

Related: Cargo Pilot vs. Airline Pilot: What's the Difference?

7. Work as a commercial pilot

Once you have your license and meet the minimum flight hour requirements, you're eligible to fly for an airline as a commercial pilot. Commercial pilots can transport people and cargo. They also might work for government agencies, flight schools or shipping companies.

Related: 23 Types of Commercial Pilot Jobs (With Salaries and Duties)

FAQs about being a commercial pilot

Here are some commonly asked questions about becoming a commercial pilot:

What are the degree requirements for pilots?

A degree is optional to earn a commercial pilot license. However, many airlines may require applicants to have a bachelor's degree in addition to flight experience. A bachelor's degree might open up more opportunities in the aviation industry.

Related: FAQ: Do You Need a College Degree To Be a Pilot?

What subjects should I study to become a pilot?

Having an extensive background in science and math can be beneficial to aspiring commercial pilots. It may also be advantageous to study geography and languages to increase your chances of employment. Knowledge of these subjects may give you an advantage over the competition when vying for commercial pilot positions.

Is it challenging to become a pilot?

Working as a commercial pilot requires a great deal of technical knowledge. Professional pilots are responsible for the aircraft, crew and passengers, so expert stress management skills and concentration can help pilots navigate the high-stakes environment effectively. Becoming a commercial airline pilot also requires considerable study and training, as well as many hours of flying time.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Being a Pilot (Plus Tips for Becoming One)

Are you looking for a job now?

10 jobs similar to a commercial pilot

If you're interested in becoming a commercial pilot or working with air transportation, here's a list of 10 similar jobs you may consider:

  1. Cargo pilot

  2. Ambulance pilot

  3. Flight instructor

  4. Air traffic controller

  5. Airport operations

  6. Aircraft dispatcher

  7. Military pilot

  8. Aircraft technician

  9. Test pilot

  10. Flight attendant

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