How to Become a Pilot – A Guide by Pilots for Pilots

By Pilot Institute
Posted on August 21, 2022 - 16 minute read

Many people dream of taking to the skies. Whether for their own pleasure or as part of a career, aviation is fast, fun, and exciting. If you are wondering how to become a pilot, you are in the right place. Today we discuss the initial first steps and offer detailed advice on pilot licensing requirements. We will also cover some frequently asked questions.

Here’s your full guide to becoming a pilot, written by pilots for you.

How to Become a Pilot – The Quick Answer

Several steps must be undertaken if you want to be a pilot. Each flight license requires a minimum number of flight hours to be completed. You also have to be able to pass an FAA medical and several theory examinations. The final stage is a check-ride with an approved examiner.

However, there are several different routes that you can take. The amount of work and the effort required will vary depending on what type of license you are looking to achieve. The hour’s requirements, medical fitness standards, and the theory exams’ difficulty differ depending on the pilot’s license you seek.

Below you’ll find an in-depth guide giving the hours requirements, medical criteria, and expected timescales for achieving a pilot’s license.

Don’t fancy reading too much? Mmm, Are you sure you want to be a pilot?

Just kidding.

Here’s our ultimate video guide to becoming a pilot.

Where Can I Read Official Guidance on Becoming a Pilot?

You can read the detailed guidance on pilot licensing requirements in the Code of Federal Regulations. The section you need is Title 14 (aeronautics and space), Chapter 1, Subchapter D, Part 61. You’ll often hear pilots simply refer to this as ‘Part 61’.

To make life easy, you can read the requirements we’ve listed above in how to gain your pilot’s license here on the online version of the CFR.

Quick Reference Guide

License TypeMedical Class RequiredMinimum AgeHours RequiredTheoretical Examination?
StudentDriving license16VariableYes
Sport PilotDriving license1720Yes
Recreational PilotClass 31730Yes
Private PilotClass 31740Yes
Commercial PilotClass 218250Yes
Airline Transport PilotClass 1231500Yes

Am I Eligible to Become a Pilot? – Vital Checklist!

Before you even set foot onboard an aircraft, it is well worth checking that a few boxes are ‘ticked’.

A few (relatively simple) eligibility requirements must be met to gain a pilot’s license. Here’s a quick checklist and an explanation of why these requirements must be met: –

Fit to Fly?

Piloting an aircraft is a great responsibility. Regulatory bodies want to ensure that pilots are in a good state of health, both physically and mentally.

For this reason, to hold any pilot’s license, you must undergo a medical assessment. You will be issued an FAA Airman Medical Certificate if you meet the requirements.

On the FAA website, you can find out more about where to attend a medical assessment.


The requirements are not particularly restrictive. Provided you are in what could be considered an ‘average’ standard of health, medical testing is not something to be overly concerned about. Different licenses require different ‘classes’ of the medical certificate.

You can find the medical requirements of each license detailed in our quick reference guide.

Age Requirements

The Federal Aviation Administration places upper and lower age limits on license holders. The limits are as follows: –

  • Solo flight: Minimum 16 years old
  • Private Pilots Certificate: Minimum 17 years old
  • Commercial Pilot Certificate: Minimum 18 years old
  • Airplane Transport Pilots License: Minimum 23 years old

These are the minimum ages to get issued a pilot certificate. Having said that, you can begin building hours much younger. Some kids start their flying lessons at 13 or even younger.

Language Requirements

You might be surprised to learn that aviation has a defined language…

Wait, really?

Yes, and that language is English.

And there’s more…

There will be quite a lot of theory involved in your flight training, and you will be reading and writing a lot. So, it is vital to quickly and easily understand the information being presented to you.

It is a requirement that you can speak, write and read English to an acceptable standard to be granted a pilot’s license. This requirement is mandatory for all types of pilots licenses, whether professional or leisure.

Types of Pilot Licenses Available in the USA (and What You’ll Need to Do)

Sport Pilot

  • Medical Required: Driving License
  • Minimum Age: 17 (Must be 16 for First Solo)
  • Approximate cost $4000 – $5000

What is a Sport Pilot License?

A sport pilot license is the easiest pilot’s license to achieve in the USA. It enables the holder to fly light aircraft on a purely recreational basis.

It’s a great license to aim for if you just want to get your hands on the controls of an airplane and don’t want to make it your career.

Sounds great, right?


There are several restrictions on the license that can be a little limiting.

The sport pilot license only allows you to fly during daylight hours and in good weather. You are also only permitted to carry one passenger at a time. There are strict limitations on how fast and high you can fly too.

There is also a limit on how big an airplane you can fly. Generally, sport planes are very light (< 1320lbs)

But there is actually a lot that is great about this license.

For starters, the medical requirements are pretty unrestrictive. In fact, if you are fit enough to hold a driving license, you should easily meet the criteria. It is also a relatively cheap license, with fewer flying hours.

Here’s what you’d need to do to get a sport pilot license: –

  • Complete 20 hours of flight time (of which 15 must be with an instructor)
  • Completion of a ground training course from either an instructor or online.
  • Fly at least 5 hours solo
  • Fly at least 2 hours cross country
  • Complete 10 take-offs and full-stop landings
  • Pass an oral test with an FAA examiner
  • Pass an FAA-approved written exam

In truth, flying the airplane is the fun (and some would say easier) part. The theory is the area that most find daunting.

Want the good news?

Some great courses will explain all of the concepts and theories behind flying in a really easy way to understand. Here’s what pilot’s say about ours.

Recreational Pilot

  • Medical Required: Class 3
  • Minimum Age: 17
  • Approximate Cost: $6000 – $7000

What is a Recreational Pilots License?

A recreational pilot’s license is similar to a sports pilot’s, with a few differences.

You can fly slightly heavier (and faster) single-engine aircraft. You can also operate in more restrictive (ATC-controlled) airspace.

However, these added ‘perks’ do come at a cost.

For starters, you will need to attend an FAA-approved medical examination.

Moreover, you will also need to fly more hours to gain that coveted pilot’s license.

It is worth bearing in mind that many of the same limitations apply to sport and recreational pilot licenses.

You still won’t be allowed to fly at night, with more than one passenger, or in bad weather.

So, why does the recreational pilot’s license cost more?

Well, there are a few reasons…

First, you need another 10 hours of flight time, which soon adds up. Second, larger airplanes tend to burn more fuel, which adds significantly to the ‘per hour’ cost.

Here’s what you need to do to get a recreational pilots license: –

  • Complete 30 hours of flight time (of which 15 must be with an instructor)
  • Complete an approved ground course, either online via home study or with an instructor
  • Pass a flight test (also known as a ‘check ride’)
  • Gain a logbook endorsement from an instructor to confirm you are prepared for the knowledge test
  • Pass an aeronautical knowledge test in several areas
  • Complete at least 2 hours of cross-country flight training  (>25 miles from your home airport)
  • Fly at least 3 hours in the type of aircraft you will complete the flight test in
  • Complete 3 hours of solo flying in the type of aircraft you will complete the flight test in

Private Pilot License

  • Medical Required: Class 3
  • Minimum Age: 17 (Must be 16 for First Solo)
  • Approximate cost $8000 – $12000

What is a Private Pilot License?

Things get a little more serious with a private pilot license (or PPL if you want to learn aviation lingo).

PPL flying gives you much more freedom than sport and recreational licenses.

Want examples?

You’ll be able to fly much larger airplanes for a start, and yes, that does include aircraft with more than one engine (as long as they weigh less than 6000lbs).

What’s more, you will gain the ability to be able to fly at night and even in bad weather (although both of these require an additional rating ‘tacked on’ to your license).

You can also take more friends with you. A PPL license will permit up to 6 occupants!

As a final flourish, you’ll be allowed to fly up to 18,000 feet and can even fly up to 250 knots!

However, with great responsibility comes the requirement for greater knowledge. PPL flying is a little more challenging than sport and recreational flying.

Here’s what you need to do to get a Private Pilots License: –

  • Complete 40 hours of flight training (of which 20 must be with an instructor)
  • Pass a knowledge test in several areas

The above will include

  • Completing a minimum of 10 hours of solo flight time
  • Completing 3 hours of cross-country flight training
  • Flying a solo cross-country flight longer than 150 miles, with at least 3 full stop landings
  • Completing 3 hours of night flying
  • Flying a minimum of 3 hours, using instruments only
  • Passing a check ride

Quite the list, right? It’s even more complex if you are looking to fly multi-engine airplanes! And there’s, even more, to do for special categories such as instrument flying and aerobatics! The good news is that plenty of online resources make it much easier. Why not take a quick peek at what is available?

Commercial Pilot

  • Medical Required: Class 2
  • Minimum Age: 18
  • Approximate Cost: $30,000+

What is a Commercial Pilot License?

A commercial pilot license allows you to be paid for your services as a pilot, also known as ‘for hire or reward’. However, at least initially, it might be hard to turn a profit. The commercial pilot’s license requires a significant investment of time and money!

Also, medically speaking, there is a slightly more arduous medical (class 2) that must be undertaken.

As you’ll see from the requirements below, becoming a commercial pilot is much more involved. It also requires a significantly increased number of flying hours.

Here’s what you’ll need to do to gain a commercial pilot’s license…

Gain logbook certification that you have the required theoretical knowledge

  • Pass a knowledge test
  • Pass a check ride
  • Fly a minimum of 250 hours

Of which you must…

  • Fly a minimum of 100 hours as pilot-in-command (without an instructor)
  • Undertake a minimum of 20 hours of flight training
  • Complete 50 hours of cross-country flight
  • Complete 10 hours of instrument-only flight
  • Complete a 2-hour flight cross country in the daytime
  • Successfully completed a 2-hour cross-country flight at night
  • Complete 5 hours of night flying with 10 take-offs and landings

While the above list might seem quite extensive, it is important to remember that sometimes one flight will tick two boxes.

An example?

Your 50 hours of cross-country flight could also go towards your 100 hours of PIC time. Your 2 hours of night cross country can also form a part of your 5 hours total night flying requirement.

Airline Transport Pilot

What is an Airline Transport Pilot?

Airline transport pilot is big-league stuff.

A commercial license covers payment for aerial photography, air-taxi, parachute dropping, and sightseeing. ATP licenses are designed for those who want to fly big aircraft capable of carrying many passengers or cargo.

And let us tell you this.

It is a huge investment and requires real dedication.

The path to an ATP is often quite long and can seem quite complex. However, the FAA does provide a handy guide listing the requirements and paths that can be undertaken to achieve the license.

In short, you’ll need to complete the following to get an ATP license…

  • You must already hold a Commercial pilot license and instrument rating
  • Pass a valid ATP certification program
  • Pass all ATP knowledge and practical tests
  • 1500 hours total time
  • 250 hours pilot in command time
  • 500 hours cross country time, of which 100 must be as PIC
  • Complete 100 hours of night flight time, of which 25 must be as PIC
  • Have flown 75 hours of instrument time

The main barrier for most pilots is the 1500-hour rule… Depending on your route, if you want to be an airline pilot, there are a few exceptions, such as if you are a graduate or have been in the military.

How to Become a Pilot – The Detailed 9-Step Guide

Becoming a pilot is likely easier and cheaper than you might think. Often, many see aviation as a strange, expensive, and inaccessible world.

The real story?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Taking your first step to becoming a pilot is easy. Here’s our step-by-step guide to the things you must do to gain a pilot’s license: –

1) Decide What you Want to Achieve

Are you looking to take your friend or partner on a short flight around the local area? Or, do you have loftier ambitions of flying Transatlantic in a multi-engine 200,000lb jet?

It’s worth thinking about.

There is a great deal of difference between the cost and time associated with each license. By being honest with your ambitions early on, you’ll put yourself in a great place to ensure that you succeed in the minimum amount of time.

2) Check Your Eligibility

For the majority of non-professional licenses, the requirements are relatively simple. Speaking, writing, and reading English is necessary to successfully complete your aviation studies.

It is also worth checking the age requirements for the license that you seek.

The good news is that even if you are a little too young to be granted the license, you will still be able to start studying for the theory!

And just so you know…

Doing your homework is a mandatory part of learning to be a pilot. Why not get ahead of the game?

3) Research Flying Schools

Once you’ve decided on the license you want to pursue, it is time to start looking at flight schools that can cater to your needs.

Big commercial schools can be good, but that isn’t to say that smaller ‘mom and pop’ airfields can’t also provide you with a great way to get up in the air.

The truth is…

You won’t know until you go.

Take a look at local flight schools in your area. Here’s a great list of criteria that we would suggest considering when making your choice: –

  • Location – is the school easy to reach?
  • Weather – is the school in an area with predominantly good weather for flying?
  • Aircraft and staff availability – Will the aircraft and instructor be there when you need them?
  • Traffic density – Busy airspace is good but can be daunting for a new student. Quieter airfields allow you to get more from your training time instead of burning money on the ground ‘waiting at the holding point.
  • Cost – This will be a deciding factor for many. However, the cheapest doesn’t always equate to the best. Try and pick a good balance between cost and quality.

One final tip?

Make sure you visit prospective flight schools. You’ll be able to get a good ‘feel’ for the place when you arrive. If the staff aren’t helpful when you offer them the potential to train you, they won’t be much better once they finally have your money!

Find one you like? Great, now it’s time to…

4) Take a Trial Flight!

What people think flying is about and the reality can be quite different.

Some people discover they don’t like flying very early on. This is no good if you’ve just invested thousands of dollars in a full flying course.

Want a better way to find out if it really is for you?

Book a trial flight or lesson.

Most flying schools offer cheap half-hour packages to taste what flight training is all about!

5) Get a Medical

Once you have tasted flight and have discovered you do want to walk around with your eyes skyward (we pinched a Leonardo Da Vinci quote there), it is time to ensure that you are medically fit to fly.

A medical certificate will form part of your future license.

Not medically fit, no license.

It is valuable to check that you meet the requirements before investing in flight training. Fortunately, you’ll have no problems if you are in an average standard of health.

Here’s a link to the FAA website, where you can see approved medical examiners in your area.

6) Apply for a Student Pilot Certificate

As you’ll have seen from our above license requirements, all licenses require you to fly solo.

And here’s the thing.

The FAA doesn’t let just anyone fly an airplane on their own.

While you are receiving flight training, you’ll need a student certificate. (In simple terms, this is very similar to a provisional driving license for an automobile).

You will need this license if you are to go solo.

You can read more about student pilot certificates here. To help you out, this is the form that you will need to fill out and submit to gain a student license.

7) Start Studying

Want to know the truth about becoming a pilot?

The actual flying is the easy bit. (Oh, and it’s also fun).

The hard work and major stumbling block for most is the theory.

Here’s our number one tip for getting ahead in theoretical flight training…

Study, and study hard.

Rainy days, busy times, and general life will all get in the way of you being in the airplane, but that doesn’t mean your flight training needs to stop.

You can complete the required theory for your pilot’s license at home.


Well, here’s a great way for starters.

8) Start Flight Training

Let’s get all pilot-y and do a checklist: –

Got the medical? Check!

Found a flight school? Check!

Got a student license? Check!

Had a good read-around of some theory subjects? Check?

Well, in that case, you might just actually want to go ahead and book some flying lessons!

In all categories of a license, there is a requirement to complete a minimum number of ‘in aircraft’ hours with and without an instructor. And you can’t do one without the other!

Once you begin flight training, the licensing requirements and areas you need to complete will become much clearer.

So, what are you waiting for?

9) Pass Your Checkride

Once you’ve completed the minimum requirements and reached a suitable standard, it will be time for the big day.

That being?

Your check ride. You can consider this a ‘driving test’ in an airplane. It will be conducted by a licensed FAA examiner watching you conduct a flight as the pilot in command.


Want to know what is great about this day?

Provided you pass (and we have every faith in you), you’ll be the official holder of a genuine pilot’s license. All that hard work will have paid off, and you’ll be able to take friends and family aloft as the Captain.


Becoming a Pilot – FAQ

Pilot training and licensing requirements can be somewhat tricky. In truth, the FAA, as a legislative organization, tends to write in ‘legalese’, making a straightforward answer difficult. Here at Pilot Institute, our aim is to make flying simple. Here are some of the questions we get asked all the time: –

Is It Hard to Become a Pilot?

It isn’t hard to become a pilot. There are several common ‘barriers’ some of which are significant, but many are anecdotal. Flying doesn’t require you to be an astronaut. However, it does require a little dedication and consistency. If you can learn to drive a car, you can fly an aircraft.

Can Pilots Wear Glasses?

Pilots can wear glasses. Aviation medicals are designed to ensure that people fit an ‘average’ standard of health. The FAA knows that many people need glasses. If you don’t have significant visual problems that interfere with your day-to-day life, glasses are no problem.

You can see more details of the FAA medical requirements here.

What is a ‘Cross Country’ Flight?

Cross-country flight refers to a qualifying flight used as part of licensing requirements. The FAA gives variable distances depending on the license. However, a simple way to think of a cross-country flight is one that lands at an airport different from where you took off.

How Much Does Pilot School Cost?

Pilot school costs vary depending on the license you seek. For a ‘cheap’ license, you could find sports pilot licenses cost around $4000. At the other end of the scale, commercial pilot licenses can cost well more than $30,000! Commercial flying is a serious business and comes with a serious price tag.

How Many Years Does It Take to Become a Pilot?

The years to become a pilot can vary depending on the license. With good weather and aircraft availability, it is easily possible to qualify for a recreational or private pilot license in a month! Especially if you’ve completed the theoretical study before flying. Commercial licenses can take as little as 18 months!

However, the above doesn’t represent the averages and is definitely a best case.

The truth is that how many years (or months) it will take depends on how hard you work, how lucky you are with the weather, and your natural ability.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Be a Pilot?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need academic qualifications to be a pilot. You can gain a pilot’s license if you have a good command of English and can pass the required theoretical and practical tests. However, this generally requires a decent standard of general education.

School does matter, well, kind of…

Many concepts and theories are easier to understand if you have a good grasp of other subjects, such as mathematics and physics. While they aren’t a mandatory requirement, it doesn’t hurt to have some knowledge of basic elementary subjects under your belt before embarking on flight training.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a pilot is an option that is readily available to many people. With a solid plan, a little research, and some great background support, it is likely simpler than you think. Got other questions other than how to become a pilot? Why not check out our blog? There are lots of simple yet interesting explanations…

It’s the same principle in our online flying courses!

Scored % on their FAA Exam