How Does an Airline Pilot Get His Wings?

Every day millions of people fly.  From Minneapolis to Moscow, airlines carry passengers to their destinations safely.  Little is known about the person or persons that are responsible for getting the passengers from point A to point B.  Many people know there is a lot of training, but the extent of that training is really not realized.  The Federal Aviation Administration or FAA is the governing body for all aviation.  It has made sure that the people in charge of operating the aircraft have paid their dues and are competent to fly the precious cargo.  Barry Schiff, who is a twenty-one year veteran pilot with Trans World Airlines, explains that through the years, aviation has come a long way.  Today’s pilots are required to learn much more than in the past (Thom 7).  The series of steps pilots are required to take should assure even the weariest of passengers.

As Len Morgan says, “A lot of people dream of being pilots but few do anything about it” (n.pag.).  So it is clear that pilots must be highly motivated.  From a pilot’s first solo to a job with Delta or Northwest, the pilot learns everything having to do with aviation.

The first step begins with what is called a Private Pilot License.  This certificate allows the pilot enjoy the freedom of flight. To get this license, a pilot begins as a student pilot.  The student’s training is an introduction to the world of flying.  First, the student learns about the airplane itself.  Morgan writes, “Every pilot worthy of the title knows not only what his airplane can do for him, but what his airplane can do to him” (n.pag.).  The student learns how the airplane obtains lift, how it turns, what kind of engine it has, and all the why’s and how’s associated with it.  Most students begin their training in small airplanes.  As their training progresses, the size and complexity increases.  Student pilots then move on to learn how to operate the aircraft.  Their flight instructor teaches them how to take off and land, and all the knowledge needed to fly the small planes.  As the student gains experience, he is ready for his first solo.  This is a milestone for the student for he has now learned to fly.  Students need to acquire 20 hours of time with an instructor and 20 hours of time flying solo.  As the student continues to gain experience flying in the airport environment and landing, he is taught the regulations of what he can and can’t do with the airplane.  With his training almost complete, the student now must pass a written exam.  The final step is an oral and flight exam with an FAA examiner.  Once the tests are passed, the student becomes a validated pilot.  His next step is the Instrument Rating.

The Instrument Rating is one the most challenging ratings for a pilot to achieve.  It allows a pilot to fly the aircraft when visibility is reduced below the minimums allowed for Private Pilots.  In general, it teaches the pilot to fly the airplane by referring only to the instruments in the cockpit, not by visual references on the ground.

Instrument pilots do their training by flying with what is a called a hood on.  This is a shield that allows the pilot’s field of vision to be limited to the instruments only.  The first thing taught is the scan.  It is a pattern used to look at the instruments and is the basis for the rest of the training.  Next, the pilot is introduced to approaches.  These are a means for the pilot to get the aircraft from the enroute phase down to the airport for a safe landing.  As the pilot becomes proficient at approaches, he is taught the regulations pertaining to instrument flight.  The pilot is required to have 40 hours of simulated instrument time.  This rating also culminates with both a written and a flight test.  With what many call the hardest rating to receive behind them, the instrument rated pilot moves on to get his commercial rating.

The commercial rating is basically an extension of the private license and allows the pilot to be paid to fly.  Robert Goyer states, “It seems as though the FAA uses the Commercial Rating to give would be professional pilots the chance to finally come to grips with the stuff they should have learned when they got their private licenses” (n.pag.).   Pilots without a commercial rating can only “share operating expenses” (Far/Aim).  Commercial students learn advanced flight maneuvers and gain greater knowledge of the airplane.  To receive a commercial rating, a pilot must have a minimum of 250 total flight hours and pass a written and flight test.  With this rating, the pilot is ready for the Multi-Engine Rating.

The Multi-Engine rating lets the pilot fly complex aircraft with more than one engine.  It is a crucial step to progressing to an airline pilot.  Once again, after having been given instruction, a written test and flight test are needed to secure this rating.

Pilots are required to have a minimum of 1500 hours of total time in order to receive their Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.  Most pilots teach others to fly to receive these hours.  To instruct, pilots need to get another rating.

The Certified Flight Instructor or CFI rating is awarded upon completion of a series of training and tests.  CFI’s are allowed to teach students to get their private and commercial ratings.  They are limited to this until they get their CFII rating.  With this additional endorsement, instructors can also teach the instrument rating.  Another endorsement is the MEI or Multi-Engine Instructor.  This is for instructors that want to teach multi-engine students.

So why instruct when you really want to fly for the airlines?  The answer is simple.  Flying costs money and to gain the required 1500 hours it would cost quite a bundle if you just paid out of your pocket.  Instructors are paid an average of $25 per hour and they get to log all of the hours while they are teaching.  It’s kind of like killing two birds with one stone.  So depending on how many students an instructor has, he will usually need to instruct for about three years.  Once they have achieved the 1500 hour mark, they are ready for the Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.  Again, the pilot is put through a rigorous course of training and tests.  The pilot will be certified to fly a certain type of plane.  The plane they fly is determined by the air carrier that they will be employed with.  Pilots usually start in aircraft that carry about 20 to 30 people and move up to larger planes.

As you can see, the road to being an airline pilot is a long one.  The training they receive makes them more than capable of flying the aircraft that millions of passengers a year ride on.  The flight experience is only one of the types of training for pilots.  Most airlines also require at least four years of college.  So the next time you fly and the pilot greets you as you board, feel safe that the person behind the controls will get you to your destination safely.


(1218 words, 11 paragraphs, 4 double spaced pages, Times New Roman 12-point font)

(Works Cited and Consulted on a separate page)


Works Cited and Consulted

Far/Aim 97.  3rd ed.  Englewood: Jeppesen Sanderson, 1997.

Goyer, Robert.  “Going Commercial: What It Takes to Move Up in the Ratings.”  Flying Sept. 1997: n.pag.  Online.  PALS.  5 May 1997.  <>.

Hopkins, Jay.  “Back to Basics.”  Flying Dec. 1995: n.pag.  Online.  PALS.  5 May 1997.  <>.

Instrument Commercial Manual.  11th ed.  Englewood: Jeppesen Sanderson, 1996.

Morgan, Len.  “Been There, Done That.”  Flying Jan. 1997: n.pag.  Online.  PALS.  5 May 1997.  <>.

Morgan, Len.  ”The Best Days.”  Flying Dec. 1996: n.pag.  Online.  PALS.  5 May 1997.  <>.

Thom, Trevor.  Instrument Flying: The Pilot’s Manual.  3rd ed.  N.p.: Aviation Supplies and Academics.  1993.


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