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Becoming a pilot is the beginning of a well-respected career. But it’s not easy, or more people would do it. When do pilots get their wings?

For a pilot to earn their wings, it means that they’ve officially become a pilot and earned their pilot’s license or certificate. It depends on what type of pilot — a private pilot (two months), a commercial pilot (up to two years), or a military pilot (years of training and a 10-year commitment).

Earning your wings as an aspiring pilot is without a doubt the day you’re looking forward to most at first. To finally be free of training and pilot school. To actually be a licensed pilot. In this article, you’ll learn what it really means to earn your wings, how long it takes to earn them, and how the different branches of the military have various types of wings for their pilots.  

Here at SkyTough, we want to provide our readers with the best, most helpful content that they’ll find on the web. To do so, we thoroughly vet all the information in our articles for accuracy and only post the best information we can. When it comes to pilots earning their wings, we’ve been through the process ourselves and have taken input from other pilots that have been in similar situations. So you know you’re getting the most accurate information you possibly can.

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What Does It Mean When A Pilot Earns Their Wings?

In the general sense of the phrase, a pilot “earns their wings” when they officially become a licensed pilot and have the required training and certification to fly the aircraft that they’re trained on. Many people seem to think that earning your wings means becoming a high-ranking pilot, such as a captain. But they are not the same thing!

Any time that you’ve flown on a commercial flight or a private plane with a licensed pilot, that pilot has already earned their wings since they’re licensed to fly the aircraft. Due to the fact that military pilots use an actual winged insignia to designate their qualified pilots, people think that earning your wings is something that is coveted among non-military pilots. But remember, for non-military pilots, earning your wings just means becoming a licensed pilot.

So to earn your wings as an airline pilot, you need to obtain licensure and certification to operate the plane that you’ll be flying. This typically requires that you undergo pilot training from an accredited program and have at least 1,500 hours of flight time logged. This process typically takes roughly 18-24 months to earn your commercial pilots’ license and wings.

To become a private pilot and earn your license/wings, it takes far less time since you don’t need to have the same amount of training and flight time that an airline pilot needs. Starting from zero time, you can earn your private pilot’s license in just two months. After training through an accredited program and accruing just 40 hours of flight time, you can take the required testing needed to earn your wings.

Up to this point, we’ve been discussing civilian pilots earning their wings for commercial flight or as their own private pilot. For military pilots, there is a bit more involved.

When Do Military Pilots Get Their Wings?

Not only do military pilots get different wings than civilian pilots, they actually get physical wings that they attach to their uniforms to denote their status as a pilot. The wings that pilots get are actually called aviator badges and are issued in three different types depending on the branch that the pilot is from — Army, Air Force, and Naval Aviator which includes the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.

The aviator badge issued for the Naval forces (including the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard) is issued in just one rating regardless of rank or experience level. This set of wings is the wings icon that many people think of when they’re imagining a pilot earning their wings. Only the Naval badge is gold in color, making it stand out against the other potential aviator badges.

Both the Army and the Air Force wings are silver or grey in color and are issued in three versions, depending on the pilot’s rank: Basic, Senior, and Command (Air Force)/Master (Army). These higher rankings don’t change the color or basic design of the badge but are denoted with the inclusion of a star or a wreath above the wings.

So when do military pilots earn their wings and the distinction of adding them to their uniforms?

Similar to civilian pilots “earning their wings” when they officially become licensed pilots, military pilots earn their wings in much the same way. According to specifications from the Air Force, pilots earn their Basic wings when they have reached the level of training and certification required to operate the aircraft that they’re being trained on. The Army and the Naval badges have similar standards.

The different versions of the wings offered by the Army and Air Force are only based on experience levels, not any sort of indication on who is a better pilot or anything like that. The gold badge worn by Naval pilots is often thought to signify that they’re the best pilots the military has to offer, but don’t let the gold coloration confuse you. It’s simply the only Naval aviator badge presented to those pilots, regardless of rank or experience level!

When Do Military Pilots Get Their Wings?

Becoming a military pilot typically takes far more time, all things considered, than it does to become any other sort of pilot. This is because military pilots have far stricter requirements than other types of pilots. While private pilots and commercial pilots don’t have to have a degree, military pilots are required to have one, among many other things.

Some of the major things involved with becoming an Air Force pilot, for example, include:

  • Bachelor’s degree (aviation or STEM field encouraged, but not required)
  • Completion of Air Force ROTC
  • Completion of Officer Training School
  • Graduation from US Air Force Academy or other US service academy
  • Be between 18-30 years old (waivers are possible up to 35)
  • Score at least a 10 on the quantitative and 15 on the verbal composite scores on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test
  • Completion of Initial Flight Training
  • Completion of Undergraduate Pilot Training
  • A 10-year commitment to the Air Force

If you include the 10-year commitment in the amount of time that it takes to become an Air Force pilot, then you could say it takes 10 years to do so. But in terms of the actual time before earning your wings as an Air Force pilot, you’re looking at around six years to finish school, all necessary training, and pass the required tests.

So if your goal is simply to earn your wings and become a pilot as quickly as you can, then aiming to become a military pilot is not the best option. Instead, concentrate on just becoming licensed as a private pilot and then maybe working towards a commercial designation. Although as a military pilot, you’ll get the chance to fly some of the most advanced aircraft in the world that will take you higher and faster than you’ve ever thought possible.

No matter what kind of pilot you’re thinking about becoming, earning your wings is a huge accomplishment that should not be overlooked. Once you get licensed and earn your wings, you will be able to take to the skies and see things that few people will ever get to see — one of the many perks of becoming a pilot.

So we highly encourage you to get out there and start your training, you won’t regret it. And we want to be the very first ones to congratulate you on earning your wings since we know you’ll get there!