Once you discover your passion and purpose in life, it is exciting. Anything that stands between you and your goal is an obstacle that you want to plow through – often as quickly as possible.

Does this sound like you? Are you imagining what it will be like to sit in that cockpit, your hands on the controls? Good. You have a vision for your life – that is step 1. Now step 2 is putting a plan in place to make your vision a reality.

Maybe you are just starting out and haven’t even signed up for your first flight lesson yet. You may not even know what type of pilot’s license you need to get. Good – you’re in the right place.

Already have your private pilot’s license and want to become an airline pilot? We’ve got you covered too.

Together we will sift through the requirements, cost, timeline and options for achieving your dreams.

Ready to take that first step?

Let’s go!

What Type of Pilot’s License Do I Need?

Your end flight goals are what will determine the type of pilot’s license you need to work towards. The FAA issues 7 different levels of pilot licenses ranging from a student pilot certificate up to an airline transport pilot. Let’s review each so you can decide which you will need to earn.

1.      Student Pilot Certificate

Think of this as the equivalent to a learner’s permit for driving a car. Every pilot will need to obtain this certificate first in order to take flight lessons.

2.      Sport Pilot Certificate

Earn this certificate if your end goal is to be able to fly light-sport aircraft (LSA) like the Icon A5.

(NOTE: Try our step-by-step guide to become a Sport Pilot.)

3.      Recreational Pilot Certificate

The recreational pilot certificate was introduced in 2014 as a hybrid between a sport pilot certificate and a private pilot’s license. A recreational license lets you fly light, single engine-aircraft with certain restrictions. Recreational pilots can fly in the daytime, within 50 nautical miles of their originating airport. They must avoid controlled airspace and towered airports.

4.      Private Pilot Certificate

Most pilots go from their student pilot certificate to earning a private pilot certificate. This is like a standard driver’s license on land. With this certificate, you can fly most airplanes as long as you aren’t being paid for your piloting.

5.      Commercial Pilot Certificate

If you want to get paid to fly, the commercial pilot certificate is the place to start. With this license, you can be paid to freight planes, fly charters and tow banners.

6.      Flight Instructor Certificate

A flight instructor certificate is a good option for those who enjoy teaching and earning money while adding to their flight hours.

7.      Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP)

The most advanced pilot certificate available is for airline transport. If your dream is to be an airline pilot, this is the certificate you will need.

How Many Hours of Training Do I Need to Get My Pilot’s License?

Naturally to earn more advanced licenses, you will have to log more flight time. You will also need to pass an FAA aeronautical knowledge test, a practical test (except for at the initial level) and a medical exam.

Here’s what to expect for each certification level: 

Student Pilot Certificate

Sport Pilot Certificate

  • Complete 20 hours of flight time (15 with instructor and 5 solo)

    Recreational Pilot Certificate

    • Must be at least 17 years old (16 for gliders or balloons)
    • Must have either a student pilot certificate or a sport pilot certificate
    • Complete 30 hours of flight time (Must have 15 with instructor, 3 solo, 2 cross-country flight – greater than 25 NM)

    Private Pilot Certificate

    • Must be at least 17 years old
    • Complete 40 hours of flight time in a single-engine airplane (Including a minimum of 20 hours with instructor on specific areas of operations and 10 hours of solo time also on specific areas of operations)

    Commercial Pilot Certificate

    • Must be at least 18 years old
    • Must already have a private pilot license
    • Must have logged at least 250 hours of flight time (including 100 in powered aircraft and 100 pilot-in-command training)

    Flight Instructor Certificate

    • Must be at least 18 years old
    • Must already have either a commercial pilot certificate or an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate
    • Pass FAA Certified Flight Instructor Knowledge exam
    • Must hold an instrument rating in desired category and class of plane

    Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP)

    • Must be at least 23 years old
    • Must already have a commercial pilot certificate
    • Must have logged at least 1,500 total hours of flight time (including 250 hours as pilot-in-command)

    How Much Will It Cost to Get my Pilot’s License?

    Now that you know which certification you need and what it will take to earn it, the next question is, “How much will it cost?”

    Of course, there is no precise answer because it depends on variables like:

    • Whether you choose to go the civilian or military training route
    • Whether you attend a college, university, professional flight school or local flight school
    • The cost of flight time and aircraft rentals in your location
    • How you are financing your tuition and if you are paying interest

    That said, here are some high-level estimates* to get you started:

    • Sport: $3,000-$5,000
    • Recreational: $6,000-$7,700
    • Private: $6,500-$15,000
    • Commercial: $3,000 add-on to existing private rating
    • Flight Instructor: $8,000-$12,000+, additional $5,000+ for instrument rating
    • Airline Transport: $30,000 (private + instrument + commercial + airline transport)


    How Long Does It Take to Become a Pilot?

    If you are in a hurry to become a pilot, you may be wondering exactly how long it is going to take. Here’s the thing – the timing is flexible based on your choice of schooling.

    The fastest way to become an airline pilot is to enroll in an accelerated training program. A well-known example of this type of training model is the Airline Career Pilot Program through ATP Flight School. For a flat rate of $81,000, dedicated students can go through the training program in as little as 9 months. When you graduate, you will have earned your private and commercial pilots licenses along with your certified flight instructor (CFI) and multi-engine ratings.

    You will still need to build up your total flight time to meet airline minimums, and you can do that by taking a guaranteed 18-month long CFI position with ATP. You may also qualify for airline sponsored tuition reimbursement programs.

    If you’ve been doing the math, you will realize that if you choose to, you can go from never having set foot in a cockpit to flying as an airline pilot in just over 2 years.

    Do you already have your private pilot license? Great – that means that you can shave 3 months and about $17,000 off your total costs.

    Expect the schooling process to take 4 years if you go the university route. When you graduate, you will have a college degree, although you will probably still need to log more flight time to meet minimums.

    If time is less important than cost, you can chip away at the requirements a little at a time at a local flight school and earn your ATP certification in about 3-7 years.

    Wondering if there are any ways to work and build hours towards your ATP? Read our suggestions here: 8 Low Time Pilot Jobs for Pilots With Less Than 500 Hours

    How Do I Get Hired as an Airline Pilot?

    You have all the training, you’ve logged the hours and now you are ready to land that first pilot job. Where do you begin? The job market is competitive, so be prepared. Follow some proven strategies for getting hired.

    Do everything you can to stand out. This means networking and developing contacts who can help you get your foot in the door.

    When you are just out of school, you will have low flight hours, so your best bet is to start out applying for regional airlines. You will need to work your way up.

    Remember: Seniority is everything, so the sooner you get hired, the better.

    Where Do I Start?

    Before we wrap this up, let’s break down your next steps. Here’s a checklist to walk you through the process:

    • Figure out which type of pilot license you want to earn
    • Decide if you want to go the military or civilian training route
    • If you opt for civilian training, put together a plan for how you will pay for your flight training
    • Decide which type of training program to enroll in
    • Research training programs and choose your top programs
    • Apply for training
    • Secure financing
    • Ace your training
    • Log your flight hours
    • Apply for your dream job
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