Becoming a commercial pilot will lead to you having one of the best careers in the world. Here’s a complete guide on how to become a commercial pilot.
To become a commercial pilot, you have to go through flight school, take (and pass) both written and flying exams, earn multi-engine planes and instrument ratings, obtain at least 250 hours of flight time at the controls, and have a general understanding of flight theory and how planes work.
If you’re like many people, then you’ve probably dreamed about becoming a pilot at some point in your life. Taking to the skies, having the best views in the world, all while getting paid to do it. That’s the dream, right? It’s time to make that dream a reality. In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about becoming a commercial pilot. From your first time flying a plane to earning your wings, we’ve got you covered.
Our goal with SkyTough was to create a one-stop-shop for all things aviation. To make this a reality, we need to publish only the best content on the web. And the only way to do that is to use our own experience and combine that with research and input from other pilots and aviation experts around the world. So when you read through this guide, you’ll truly know everything you need to know about becoming a commercial pilot.
What Is A Commercial Pilot?
When you think about becoming a pilot, you’re most likely thinking about becoming a commercial pilot. If you’ve ever flown on a plane anywhere, this is the pilot you see at the front of the plane while you’re exiting. The type of pilot that gets to fly for the big airlines and explore the world. But with all the different types of pilots there are in the world, it’s important to know what a commercial pilot really is.
More or less, according to ATP Flight School, a commercial pilot is one that is allowed to operate an aircraft for compensation. In layman’s terms, this basically just means that a commercial pilot is a pilot that can be paid for flying an airplane. This doesn’t only mean becoming an airline pilot and flying passengers around the world for one of the major airlines. Just that you can get paid to fly an aircraft, including an airplane.
Whether that type of flying involves hauling passengers across the country or around the globe or carrying cargo without having any passengers onboard. It all requires you to obtain a commercial pilot license, which is what we’re going to be looking at today. Because once you obtain your commercial pilot license and earn your wings, you’ll be able to do any of the above!
So let’s get into the good stuff, here’s everything you need to do to become a commercial pilot.
How To Become A Commercial Pilot
Becoming a commercial pilot isn’t easy. If it were, more people would be doing it! With how respected of a career it is and how many perks and benefits there are to becoming a commercial pilot, you should expect it to take some time (and effort!). For a quick overview of what to expect, check out our article on how pilots are trained.
But for an in-depth look into how to become a commercial pilot, continue reading through the steps below!
Step 0: Consider Going To College And Getting A Degree
I’ll preface this by saying that you do not have to have a degree to become a commercial pilot. Yes, that’s right — having a college degree has absolutely zero effect on earning your commercial pilot license and being able to fly commercially. That said, it is still often recommended that you go to college and get a degree if you want to become a pilot.
This is because many major airlines require their pilots to have a college degree. Even if it’s not explicitly stated as a requirement of the particular airline that you’re interested in joining, don’t let that fool you. It’s widely accepted within the aviation industry that candidates with a degree will almost always be regarded higher than those without, so having a degree is almost a prerequisite to becoming a commercial pilot for a major company.
All that said, for most airlines, the degree doesn’t really matter. The companies just want to see that you have one. But if you really want to raise your stock and have the best chance at landing your dream job, getting a STEM degree is recommended. After all, pilots do need to use math while flying, so it’s important that you understand some basic concepts.
For an in-depth look into what the best majors are for pilots (and why), check out our article on the topic here. But here’s a look at some of the best majors for prospective pilots:
- Aviation Technology
- Aerospace Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
- Aviation Maintenance
- Aeronautical Science
- Other STEM Majors
Again, just keep in mind that going to college is not required to become a pilot! That’s why this is considered “Step 0”, as it’s not actually necessary to obtain your commercial pilot certificate. But it is recommended if you want to land the best jobs!
Step 1: Obtain Your Private Pilot License (PPL)
Okay, now that we’ve discussed Step 0 and you know that you don’t have to get a college degree to become a pilot, let’s get into the things that you do have to do if you want to become a commercial pilot. And the first part of becoming a commercial pilot is actually becoming a private pilot first.
So we have Step 1: Obtain Your Private Pilot License (PPL).
The reason why commercial pilots must first become a private pilot is because earning your PPL will force you to learn and understand the fundamentals of flying an airplane. During this process, you’ll start with a small, single-engine airplane and learn flight theory, how the controls work, and how to successfully take off, fly, and land an aircraft. Here’s what’s involved.
Meet The Minimum Eligibility Requirements
The first thing you’ll need to do is make sure you meet all the general requirements for becoming a private. The main requirements include:
- At least 17 years old
- Read, speak, and understand English
- Completed flight school
- 40 hours of flight time (including solo flight)
- Pass medical, written, and practical exams
If you meet the minimum age requirement (17 years old) and you can read, speak, and understand English, then it’s time to get moving on the other requirements.
Obtain a Student Pilot Certificate and Medical Certification
Before you go to flight school, you’ll need to obtain a Student Pilot Certificate (SPC) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). You can get this from an aviation medical examiner’s office (the easiest and most common way to do so), the FAA Flight Standards District Office, or from an FAA examiner.
If you opt to get your SPC from an aviation medical examiner’s office, you can obtain your medical certificate at the same time, which is why this is typically the best way to go about it. As a private pilot, you need to obtain a 3rd Class FAA-issued medical certificate at a minimum. But to become a commercial pilot, that will need to be at least 2nd Class in the future.
According to FlightPhysical, the following things will be examined to ensure you can obtain the applicable medical certificate:
- Ear, nose, throat, and equilibrium
- General Medical Condition
As long as you meet the requirements for 3rd Class certification, you’ll be granted the medical certificate and be ready to move on to the fun stuff!
Attend Ground School
There are two different types of schooling that you’ll need to attend while training to become a pilot. So it’s vital that you find a high-quality flight training school that will teach you everything you need to know to become a successful pilot. The first type of schooling you’ll need to attend is known as ground school, which, as the name implies, does not involve any actual flying.
In ground school, you will learn the basics of flight theory so that you gain an understanding of how planes fly. You’ll also learn a bit about the weather since it has such a drastic effect on flying, and you’ll get a taste of some other aviation topics. The point of ground school is to basically teach you the fundamentals of flying and prepare you for the written exam(s).
Pass The FAA Written Exam
As part of the process for obtaining your PPL, you have to pass the written FAA Private Pilot Aeronautical Knowledge Test provided by the FAA to ensure that you understand the basics of flight and aviation in general. This test will cover flight theory, aerodynamics, common things that pilots say and communication with air traffic control (ATC), the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), and more.
In many flight schools, passing this test is required before you’re even allowed to step foot behind the controls of an airplane. That said, some flight schools will allow you to practice flying before you complete this test, especially since there is no legal minimum age limit on learning how to fly a plane.
For most prospective pilots, you’ll take this test (and pass it) before you move on to the next step in the process — flight school.
Attend Flight School and Gain Flying Experience (40 Hours Minimum)
For most of you, this is the part of the entire pilot training schooling that you’ve been looking forward to. During flight school, you’ll actually get to get behind the controls of the aircraft and start getting some flying under your belt. For many people, it’s actually much easier to learn how to fly a plane than you might think, and doing so typically takes just 10 to 40 hours.
While you’re learning how to fly, your instructor will start by teaching you the basic controls and simple maneuvers. You’ll also work towards more advanced topics like taking off, landing, using the rudders to make turns, climbing, and descending back to the runway. More often than not, the biggest thing you’ll focus on during this stage is landing, which the majority of pilots agree is the hardest part of flying.
During flight training, you’ll go on multiple flights regularly where the instructor pilot will describe the goals of the flight, which maneuvers they’d like you to do, and any other aspects of flight they want you to perform. You will then fly the aircraft and perform said maneuvers and they’ll provide feedback on how you did and what you need to do differently. This all leads up to your first solo flight, which is a nerve-wracking experience for all new pilots!
However, before you can go on your first solo flight, you’ll need to complete a pre-solo knowledge test that’s administered by your instructor. This test is different from the written exam above, and the goal of this test is to make sure that you really understand the basics of flying an aircraft, not just the fundamentals of flight theory. Once your instructor is happy with your knowledge and abilities, you’ll be allowed to go on your first solo flight.
After completing your first successful solo flight, the possibilities really ramp up and you start learning more and more. Next, you’ll start performing solo cross-country flights; these are not actually across the country, they’re just at least 50 nautical miles point to point! Then, you’ll learn more advanced things about becoming a pilot such as how to navigate, how to engage autopilot (if applicable), and more advanced maneuvers.
During this process, you just need to have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, all leading up to your final test — the practical exam. That said, most pilots have far more time spent in the cockpit than that, with the majority having around 50 to 70 hours of flight time before taking their test. 40 hours is just the minimum amount required by the FAA.
The full breakdown of the minimum required flight experience before taking the practical exam is as follows:
- 3 hours of cross-country training (with instructor)
- 3 hours of night flying (with instructor)
- 100-nautical mile cross-country flight (with instructor)
- 10 takeoffs and landings (with instructor)
- 3 hours of instrument training (with instructor)
- 5 hours of cross-country flying (solo)
- 150-nautical mile solo cross-country flight with landings at 3 airports
In all, you need a minimum of 20 hours with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight. Then at least 10 hours of any sort of additional flight time to reach the 40 hour minimum amount needed.
Pass The FAA Practical Exam (The Checkride)
Once you have completed the minimum flight training requirements outlined above, it’s time to take the practical exam. Also known as the checkride, this is when you’ll have to take the actual flying exam with an FAA examiner. They will test your ground control, aircraft knowledge, and flying capabilities.
Lasting anywhere from around two hours to six hours or more, the checkride is not a standard procedure and will differ from examiner to examiner. They’ll typically start with the ground portion of the exam before moving on to a verbal exam. These non-flying portions will take anywhere from a half hour to a few hours. After that, you’ll have to fly with the instructor for roughly 1 to 2 hours, executing the maneuvers that they tell you to do.
If all goes well with the checkride, you’re pretty much finished. There’s just one thing left to do!
Fill Out The Paperwork And Get Your PPL
The final step in the process — and the one that you’ve undoubtedly been waiting for — is to fill out the necessary paperwork and officially obtain your Private Pilot License. Once you successfully complete the checkride in the previous step, the examiner will help you fill out the FAA paperwork online. You’ll have to pay whatever the current rates are, so check with your instructor so that you understand how much you’ll be paying and for what.
After everything is filled out, the examiner will provide you with a temporary PPL until the official FFA-issued license arrives in the mail. Congratulations! At this point, you’ll have earned your wings and you’ll officially be a pilot. Go buy yourself an affordable plane to celebrate and fly all over!
At this point in this guide, you might be thinking that all you’ve done so far is learned how to obtain your PPL, you haven’t seen much of anything about becoming an actual commercial pilot. But don’t worry, this is by far the longest section of the guide and is the most involved — at least in terms of reading and understanding what you need to do.
There are two steps left, but the bulk of the busy work and knocking most things out of the way was done in this first step. So you’re well over halfway done with learning how to become a commercial pilot. So let’s move on to Step 2.
Step 2: Earn Necessary Ratings For Commercial Flight
While obtaining your PPL in Step 1, you will have mastered the use and operation of single-engine aircraft. But unfortunately for you, you’ll need to step it up and earn a multi-engine aircraft rating if you want to become a successful commercial pilot. This is because even though airplanes can fly with just one engine, commercial planes typically have at least two!
Earning a multi-engine rating is far easier than getting your PPL in the first place. There is no written exam to test your knowledge; instead, you’ll just need to be trained on the multi-engine plane’s different systems, controls, maneuverability, and more. Once you’ve learned how to fly a multi-engine airplane, you can take another checkride with an examiner and earn the rating. This rating will allow you to fly significantly more types of planes than before.
Additionally, you’ll also want to earn an instrument rating which will enable you to fly an airplane using Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). This is how commercial aircraft are flown and is vital for navigation and being able to “see” in poor conditions. While an instrument rating is not 100% necessary to becoming a commercial pilot, you’ll need to have instrument training at some point, so you might as well get the rating!
Earning this rating requires you to undergo much more rigorous training than earning the multi-engine rating, because it largely involves learning how to fly almost all over again. For this rating, you’ll need to go back to ground school to learn how the systems work and what IFR are. You’ll also need to log another 40 hours of flight time (or simulated time) using only instruments. This minimum hour requirement includes:
- 15 hours with an instructor
- 250-nautical mile cross-country instrument flying
- At least 3 different types of approach using onboard instruments and navigation systems
In addition to all the training, you’ll also need to take another written test to make sure you understand how instrument flying works and how to handle various situations. And lastly, as you might expect, you’ll be required to take another checkride with an FAA examiner. Upon successful completion of this checkride, you will be granted the instrument rating.
With both of these new ratings achieved, you’re nearly finished and ready to become a commercial pilot! There’s one step left, but trust me, the vast majority of all the hard work is complete. Let’s go on to the third and final step.
Step 3: Obtain Your Commercial Pilot Certificate
Finally, you’re almost at the finish line — Step 3: Obtain Your Commercial Pilot Certificate. The minimum requirements for earning your Commercial Pilot Certificate (CPC) are similar to what it took to earn your PPL, but with much higher standards. The basic requirements are as follows:
- At least 18 years old
- Read, speak, and understand English
- Completed flight school
- Multi-engine and instrument ratings (if applicable)
- 250 hours of flight time
- Pass medical, written, and practical exams
Let’s go over the biggest things to note here and explain what you need to do for each one. First, you have to be 18 years old instead of 17. Easy enough! If you’ve already earned your PPL, then that means you meet the English requirement and you’ve already completed flight school. Moving along! Next, you will have already earned these ratings in Step 2, so you’re way ahead of the game.
Now for the big one — having 250 hours of flight time logged. One of the major reasons that I strongly recommend getting your multi-engine and instrument ratings along the way is that a big portion of these hours will already be knocked out, especially with the hours you spent flying while earning your PPL.
Within the 250 total hours needed, there are some minimums to keep in mind. These include:
- 100 hours as Pilot-In-Command (PIC)
- 50 hours of cross-country flying as PIC
- 10 hours of instrument training
- 10 hours of Technically Advanced Airplane (TAA) training
The remainder can be made up of any other hours spent flying under any of these categories, these are just the minimum. If you’ve gone through Steps 1 & 2 in this guide, you’ll have a minimum of 80 hours logged in total, and the instrument minimum knocked out entirely. At this point, most pilots will already have well over 100 hours of flight logged after the first two steps and you’ll be well on your way to earning your wings.
The other main difference between PPL and CPC requirements is the tests that you’ll need to pass. To earn your CPC, you’ll have to complete the Commercial Pilot Knowledge Test (the FAA written test), another FAA Practical Exam (the checkride), and you’ll need to have an FAA-issued 2nd Class medical certificate (rather than 3rd class).
But at this point, you will have been through these same written and practical test processes so many times that you will know exactly what to expect. After completing the written test and logging the number of hours required, you’ll be able to take the practical exam. After passing the final checkride, you’ll be done!
Congratulations! Once you pass the final checkride, you’ll officially be a certified commercial pilot. All you’ll need to do is wait for your Commercial Pilot Certificate to arrive in the mail and you’ll be set. The only thing left to do is look for a job that you love and (hopefully) pays well, and have the best job in the world as you work towards retirement.
Spread your wings and fly, get out there and become the world’s next commercial pilot!
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood