How to Become a Pilot: A Complete Guide

By Pilot Institute
Posted on September 18, 2019 - 17 minute read

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

If you’re reading this, you sure wonder how to become a pilot.

In the early days of aviation, becoming a pilot often meant learning to fly through trial and error.

But over a century has passed since the Wright brothers made their momentous flight at Kitty Hawk.

Aviation has made huge strides since that history-defining moment.

Nowadays, you have to undergo comprehensive ground and flight training to become a pilot. You also must pass rigorous written, oral, and practical tests to get your pilot license.

If you’re thinking about starting your aviation career or learning to fly for fun, you came to the right place.


How to Become a Pilot: The Basics

So, what qualifications do you need to become a pilot?

For starters, you need both a license and a medical certificate. That’s almost always the case, with very few exceptions. Sport pilots, for example, don’t need a medical certificate as a valid driver’s license is an acceptable proof of medical competence.

A pilot license, or certificate, has your personal information such as your name, date of birth, and address. It also features details about your pilot privileges, limitations, and the type of aircraft you fly.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the body that regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the US, one of which is pilot licensing.

Pilot certification encompasses several types of licenses, with each having its own set of aeronautical knowledge and flight training requirements.

Here’s a brief overview of pilot licenses in the United States:

  • Student Pilot License: while it’s required before you can fly solo, you don’t need a student pilot certificate to take flying lessons
  • Sport Pilot License: allows you to fly light sport aircraft (LSA), which are small, low-powered aircraft, as well as balloons, gliders, and gyroplanes
  • Recreational Pilot License: similar to sport, but it gives you access to bigger aircraft and more privileges through instructor endorsement
  • Private Pilot License: lets you fly aircraft for non-commercial purposes, but not for compensation or hire
  • Commercial Pilot License: permits you to get paid for certain operations such as banner towing, photograph, and agricultural applications
  • Air Transport Pilot License: qualifies you to work for the airlines and is the holy grail of pilot licenses!
  • Remote Pilot License: required for flying unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones

A medical certificate displays physical details about you, including your weight, height, and eye color. Its purpose is to verify you’re physically and mentally able to pilot an aircraft.

Before you start your flight training, you’d be wise to get a medical certificate to ensure you have no health conditions that may prevent from becoming a pilot.

To become a pilot, you must also complete both ground school and flight school to become eligible for a license.

In ground school, you learn aviation theory, which includes subjects like aerodynamics, meteorology, and navigation.

You may complete your ground training through an approved ground course at a pilot school, lessons with a flight instructor, or a home-study course on your own. The ground school gives you the aeronautical knowledge to operate an aircraft safely and pass the knowledge test for the issuance of a pilot license.

Another option to consider for ground training is online ground school. For example, offers both commercial drone pilot and airplane private pilot courses.

After completing the necessary training, you then have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test and a practical test to obtain your pilot license.

A knowledge test is an FAA-designed assessment tool to make sure you have the required aeronautical knowledge. The number of questions for each knowledge test varies depending on the license or rating sought, but they’re all multiple-choice exams. In all tests, the passing score is 70.

In almost all cases, passing the knowledge test is a prerequisite for a practical test (or checkride). The practical test consists of an oral exam and a flight test, which are both administered by an FAA inspector or designated examiner.

Of course, all the aforementioned information relates to civil aviation.

But as you surely know, civil aviation constitutes only one form of aviation.

How to Become a Pilot: The Military Route

Want to become a pilot while serving your country? If that sounds like you, joining the armed forces is a great option.

The United States Armed forces consist of five branches; the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Each branch includes a military aviation division, which includes fighter jets, transport airplanes, and helicopters among several other types of aircraft.

While it has advantages and drawbacks, it’s hard to argue that a military pilot career is an illustrious one.

But the army life isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  It’s also hard to get into the military, to begin with.

Wondering what it takes to become a pilot in the military?

Here’s the rundown.

General Requirements

Becoming a military pilot requires high levels of physical fitness, pilot aptitude, and academic qualifications. Generally speaking, you need to meet the following requirements to become eligible for a military pilot position:

  • United States citizenship
  • Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution
  • Good health, physical fitness, and visual acuity

You also need to have personal traits, such as discipline, to be a good fit in the military.

Training Process

To become a military pilot, you must pass rigorous testing, selection, and training. Although varying slightly between branches, US military pilots often go through the following steps:

  • Complete a basic officer commissioning program through the attendance of a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program at a civilian college, an Officer Candidate School, or a US military Academy
  • Score highly on the aviation aptitude or selection test, which includes five subsets: mathematical and verbal, mechanical comprehension, aviation and nautical, spatial perception, and a survey gauging interest in aviation
  • Pass initial and specialized pilot training, which consist of ground school and flight instruction

Once you complete your training, you’ll then continue flying while rising through the ranks. And who knows, maybe become a five-star general one day.

Military Perks

It’s prestigious to be a pilot in the US Armed forces. You gain the respect of your servicemen, American citizens, and people all over the globe.

It also grants you the opportunity to travel around the world while on military missions, training courses, and overseas service.

A military pilot career requires a commitment of many years, but after your release, your experience will give you an edge if you want to pursue a career in civil aviation.

How to Become a Pilot: The Fun Path

Many aviation enthusiasts take the civilian path to realize the dream of flying aircraft.

Civil aviation includes the commercial air transport of passengers, cargo, and mail. It also encompasses general aviation, which represents the private transport and recreational flying part of aviation.

If you’re looking to fly aircraft for fun, then you probably want to consider getting either a sport or a recreational pilot license.

While each has its limitations, both licenses give you the opportunity to fly with minimal investment of time and money.

Sport Pilot

First introduced in 2004, the sport pilot certificate is a newcomer to the aviation scene. Its purpose is to make flying more affordable for hobbyists, which is evident as it doesn’t require a medical certificate. You may get the license with a valid driver’s license instead.

The minimum age to apply for sport pilot license is 17, or 16 for gliders and balloons. You also must receive proper ground training, log at least 20 hours of flight time, and pass knowledge and practical tests to obtain the license.

The sport pilot license is one of the very few certificates that don’t require a medical. As a sport pilot, you only need a valid driver’s license to show medical competence.

Sound good, right?

But as great as a sport license seems, it is quite limiting. You may only fly light-sport aircraft (LSA), including airplanes, gliders, and balloons.

The next option may suit you better if you want to fly bigger aircraft.

Recreational Pilot

A recreational pilot license is similar to the pilot license, but it offers more privileges, allows you to fly larger airplanes, and enables you to get several endorsements.

Similar to sport, you must be at least 17 years old to apply for a recreational pilot license. After completing ground training and logging a minimum of 30 flight hours, you must then pass knowledge and practical tests to obtain the license.

Moreover, having a student or sport pilot certificate is a prerequisite to get a recreational pilot license.

The license has quite a few restrictions, but unlike sport, you may lift those limitations through instructor endorsement. The endorsements allow you to operate in controlled airspace, pilot complex aircraft, and fly at night among other aviation activities.

Remote Pilot

Here comes the newest pilot license, which the FAA first introduced in 2016. Remote pilots fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, for recreational or commercial purposes. Some of their uses include photography, surveillance, and even coverage of sporting events.

With an exponential increase of drones in the US, the FAA designated a whole part of the federal aviation regulations for UAV flight. Part 107 titled “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems” covers definitions, operating rules, and certification of remote pilots.

To obtain the license, you must be at least 16 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test, or complete an initial training course if you already have a Part 61 pilot license. You also have to pass a recurrent online training course or knowledge test every two years to keep your license valid.

Many restrictions apply when flying UAVs, especially for commercial use, which include where, when, and how you fly drones.

Flying for fun is for hobbyists, but many budding pilots dream of launching an airline career.

How to Become a Pilot: The Career Mode

Most likely, you’re here to know how to become a pilot so you can fly for an airline one day.

Becoming an airline pilot is the pinnacle of a professional pilot’s career.

Getting there is far from smooth sailing, though.

So, how to go about launching an airline career?

You have three options, enroll in a pilot school, attend an aviation university, or join a cadet pilot program.

Let’s go through each option.

In a pilot school, you get all the required ground and flight instruction to become a pilot. Whether you fund the training yourself or through a student a loan, you’re looking at a hefty amount of cash. Depending on the pilot school you go, getting your CPL would set you back anywhere from $40,000 to over $70,000.

An aviation university or college offers either a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree while simultaneously training you to become a pilot. Majors include aviation management, meteorology, and aerospace engineering among many other fields of study. A degree often gives you an edge when applying for airline jobs, and it also broadens your career options.

Cadet programs provide a clear path to an airline job or at least a very good chance of landing one.

How so?

Airlines guarantee an interview, or a job offer, for graduates of their cadet programs. After you pass the training, interview, and assessments, air carriers offer you either a first officer job at a subsidiary regional airline or a flight instructor position at their own or partner pilot school.

Here’s an overview of cadet pilot programs at the US’s largest airlines:

  • American Airlines Cadet Academy: While not an offer of employment, American Airlines guarantees an interview with one of their regional carries after completion of the cadet program
  • Delta Propel – Collegiate Pilot Career Path: The program leads to a job offer for successful candidates. The job could be flying aircraft for one of Delta’s connection carriers, air national guard, or a job-share flight instruction position
  • Southwest Airlines Destination 225°: It offers cadet, university, military, or employee pathway to gain the skills needed to become a Southwest first officer. However, it doesn’t guarantee employment even after successful completion of the program
  • United Airlines Career Path Programs: United guarantees an interview with one of their select United Express carriers. If hired, you’ll get to fly until you reach the required flight time to enter United’s hiring pool
  • JetBlue’s Gateway Select: They’ll make you a job offer once selected, contingent on the successful completion of the Program. You accrue flight hours working as an instructor with their partner, CAE

But as with any career, you start from humble beginnings.

Student Pilot

Taking flight lessons doesn’t require obtaining a license; however, you must have a student pilot certificate before flying an aircraft solo.

To get your student pilot certificate, you must meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Be at least 16 years of age (or 14 years for the operation of a glider or balloon)
  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language

While the issuance of a student pilot certificate requires only those two prerequisites, you must meet the minimum aeronautical knowledge and experience requirements to solo in an aircraft. You need to pass a knowledge test and receive appropriate flight training to get you ready to fly alone.

The process of obtaining the certificate is simple. You only need to submit an application through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website or by paper to a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). Within three weeks, you should receive your license by mail.

As student pilots have very few privileges and many limitations, your student pilot certificate is only the first step on your way to becoming a pilot.

Private Pilot

The private pilot certificate allows you to carry multiple passengers, but not for hire. However, you and your passengers may share the flight costs.

The minimum age for applying for a private pilot license (PPL) is 17 years, or 16 to fly gliders or balloons. A student, sport, or recreational pilot license is also a prerequisite for getting a PPL. Additionally, you must have at least a third class medical certificate.

In addition to ground instruction, you need flight training to get your PPL. Depending on the pilot school you go to, your flight training consists of 35 to 40 flight hours at a minimum. However, the national average indicates that most pilots need 60 to 75 flight hours.

Once you meet the aeronautical knowledge and flight experience requirements, you must pass knowledge and practical tests to become a licensed private pilot.

Some pilots are happy with getting their PPL, however, most view it as one of several steps leading to an airline career.

So, what’s the next step? Well, you have to get a higher certification.

Commercial Pilot

If you’re looking to work for an airline, you have to get a commercial pilot license (CPL).

With a CPL, you’re one step closer to an airline career.

As a commercial pilot, you may get paid for certain aviation activities such as banner towing, photography, and even skydiving flights.

You must be at least 18 years old, have a PPL, and a second class medical certificate to apply for a CPL.

You also need to receive proper ground schooling either through an instructor or a home-study course.

Furthermore, you must get an instrument rating before the issuance of your commercial license.

Your flight time requirement varies depending on the pilot school. Part 61 schools have the minimum at 250 flight hours, while it’s 190 at Part 141 schools.

Like the PPL, you must also pass knowledge and flight tests to get your license.

Airline Transport Pilot

As the name suggests, the airline transport pilot license (ATPL) is what you need to act as a flight crew-member in scheduled airline operations.

Getting your ATPL is far from easy, though.

It requires meeting the highest standards of aeronautical knowledge, piloting ability, and flight experience of any pilot license.

A commercial pilot license with instrument rating and a first class medical certificate are perquisites for an ATPL. You must also be 23 years of age, receive appropriate ground training, and pass an aeronautical knowledge test before you’re ready for a checkride.

Oh, and just 1,500 hours of flight time.

No big deal, right? You must be scratching your head wondering how on earth you’d log that many hours.

But don’t worry. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

To log those hours, you start with an entry-level pilot job, which could be flight instruction, banner towing, or pipeline patrol. While such jobs offer low pay, you only need them to get to the minimum flight hours for an ATPL.

That’s for an unrestricted ATPL, but there’s more to it.

Age and flight time requirement may become lower depending on a couple of factors: your education and whether you have a military flight experience.

If you meet the requirements for either, the license becomes a restricted ATPL.

First, the minimum age is 21 years for an r-ATP certificate.

If you hold an associate’s degree with an aviation major, you’ll only need 1,250 hours. If it’s a bachelor’s degree, though, that number goes down to 1000.

Current of former US military pilots require only 750 flight hours for an r-ATP certificate.

What’s the difference between an ATP and an r-ATP?

A restricted ATP license allows you to act as an airline first officer, or copilot. On the other hand, a full, unrestricted ATPL permits you to be an airline captain, or pilot in command.

Once you meet both the age and flight time requirements, you’re issued an unrestricted ATP without further examination.


Okay, we need a preface here.

Pilot certification consists of two main elements: category and class.

A category is a broad classification of aircraft, such as airplane, rotorcraft, and glider. A class groups aircraft with similar operating characteristics within a category. The “single-engine land” is a class within the airplane category, for example.

Additionally, your pilot license may include a rating, which is a statement that places special conditions, privileges, or limitations.

Several kinds of ratings exist, but the three most common are the following:

  • Instrument Rating (IR): During low visibility, like flying through fog, you must know how to navigate using your aircraft instruments. To do so, you must have an instrument rating, which requires ground training, flight instruction, and passing a knowledge test and a checkride.
  • Multi-engine Rating (ME): This rating allows qualifies you to fly aircraft with more than one engine. Although getting your ME doesn’t require a knowledge test, you must be knowledgeable about the aircraft’s performance, limitations, and flight characteristics. Especially with regards to single-engine operations.
  • Type Rating (TR): A “type” means a specific make and basic model of aircraft, like a Boeing 737, which entails specialized training. The type rating training includes studying aircraft systems, normal operations, and emergency procedures that are unique to one type of aircraft.

At first, you often start with a job that only requires a commercial pilot license with instrument and multi-engine ratings.

Thereafter, you log hours until you get your ATPL, which allows you to work for an airline.

Beyond that, you continue flying as a first officer for several years before becoming an airline captain.

Having discussed the ways in which you can become a pilot, you definitely need to know about the medical aspect of becoming one.

How to Become a Pilot: Medical Certification

Almost every pilot license requires a valid medical certificate to demonstrate medical competence to fly an aircraft.

In aviation, being medically competent means that you’re able to perform the necessary tasks to pilot an aircraft safely.

Evidently, different pilot licenses require meeting different minimum health and fitness requirements.

Medical certificates come in three classes, first, second, and third. Special issuances and restrictions may also apply in some cases.

How to Get a Medical Certificate

Getting your medical certificate is quite simple.

You first must complete an official FAA application form on MedXPress. Thereafter, you need to pass a flight physical examination conducted by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME).

The flight physical examines the following:

  • Eye
  • Ear, nose, throat, and equilibrium.
  • Mental health
  • Neurological conditions
  • Cardiovascular system
  • General medical conditions

If you meet the minimum requirements for the certificate sought, the AME will issue you one.

First Class

You need a first class medical to become an airline pilot, which requires meeting the highest medical standards of all the classes.

The medical requirements for a first class are the same as those for a second class certificate.

Well, almost.

The only difference is that you show normal heart function through an electrocardiogram once after reaching the age of 35 and annually after 40.

Without getting into too many details, the validity of a first class certificate is 12 months if you’re under 40 years of age and 6 months if you’re older than 40.

Second Class

If you hold a commercial pilot license, then you must have at least a second class medical certificate.

Mainly, the medical standards for a second class certificate entail meeting the following requirements:


  • Distant visual acuity of 20/20 or better and near vision of 20/40 or better in each eye separately, with or without corrective lenses

Ear, nose, throat, and equilibrium

  • The ability to hear conversational voice in a quiet room at a distance of 6 feet, using both ears
  • Acceptable results of pure tone audiometric testing of unaided hearing acuity
  • No disease or condition of the ear, nose, or throat that interferes with flying or with clear and effective speech communication
  • No disease or condition that causes, or may cause, vertigo or a disturbance of equilibrium

Mental Health

  • No medical history or diagnosis of personality disorder, psychosis, bipolar disorder, or substance dependence

Neurological Conditions

  • No medical history or diagnosis of epilepsy, seizures, disturbances of consciousness, or losing control of nervous system functions

Cardiovascular system

  • No medical history or diagnosis of myocardial infarction, angina pectoris, coronary heart disease, cardiac valve replacement, permanent cardiac pacemaker implantation, or heart replacement

General medical conditions

  • No medical history or diagnosis of diabetes mellitus that requires insulin or any other hypoglycemic drug for control
  • No organic, functional, or structural disease, defect, limitation, medication, or treatment that interfere with the ability to fly the aircraft safely

Second class certificates are valid for 12 months.

Third Class

The third class certificate is quite similar to the second class certificate.

What differentiates the two is the visual acuity requirement, which is less stringent for a third class.

Instead of a 20/20, you only need 20/40 distant vision.

The third class certificate is good for 5 years if you’re under 40 years and for two years if you’re older than 40.

Special Issuance

You might think, and rightfully so, that missing any requirement would deny you a medical certificate.

But it’s not true.

The FAA made a provision for special issuance of medical certificates, which comes in two flavors:

  • Authorization: to a person who does not meet any all the requirements of any of the three classes
  • Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA): to a person whose disqualifying condition is static or nonprogressive

In both cases, a federal air surgeon must confirm that you’re capable of performing airman duties without endangering public safety.


Restrictions apply to color vision deficient pilots, and those requiring glasses or lenses to meet the required visual acuity of their medical certificate.

If you wear glasses, a limitation is put on your medical stating that you must wear corrective lenses. In the case of color blindness, a pilot’s medical typically restricts night flight or by color signal control.

The Bottom Line

Knowing how to become a pilot involves learning the qualifications, requirements, and the process of obtaining a pilot license.

That process may take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few years, though.

You can fly for fun in a matter of weeks, which is how long it takes to get a sport or a recreational pilot license.

But you need a few years to become an airline pilot.

Joining the military is another way to fly aircraft, but it’s not for everyone.

Whichever path you choose, flying aircraft inducts you in an exclusive club. And although you may never break a record or set a new milestone in aviation, you definitely get to experience what the early aviators felt back in the day.

So, are you ready to take your first flight lesson?

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