Choosing Your Path—Part Two: Learning to Fly the Civilian Way

BogiDope, FedEx B-757 on the ramp.

In Part One of Choosing Your Path, we explored the benefits and the obligations that come with learning to fly in the military.  Military flying is rewarding, valuable to the nation, and definitely the most economically frugal option available to those who want to turn flying into a career.  But, it isn’t for everyone.

Maybe you are enlisted or non-rated prior service and are looking to make your airline dreams a reality in the shortest time possible.  Maybe the military just isn’t your thing—family commitments or other responsibilities make the prospect of lengthy deployments and frequent moves a bit more onerous than you’d like.  Or, like the author of this piece, perhaps you are just a smidge too blind without your glasses to get through the Air Force medical exam.  No matter what your reasons are, there are plenty of options available in the civilian world to get your pilot career underway.

As we mentioned in Part One of this series, there has never been a better time to start flying and make it a career.  According the latest Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook, 214,000 pilots will be needed to fill the ranks at the airlines in the next 20 years.  There is a shortage, and the airlines are already feeling the pinch.  Many regional airlines are offering significant financial hiring incentives to qualified applicants.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves; this article is about how to get started.  There are as many paths to the cockpit as there are people who are interested.  This article will offer a few tips that will make the journey less bumpy, and will give you a chance to compare the civilian experience with the military one.

The Structure of the Industry

It is important to first understand that not all airlines are created equal, and you can’t expect to take the civilian training route and end up on a wide body at Delta right out of the gate.  There are but a few major airlines, or airlines that pay like major airlines:  Delta, American, United, Southwest, Alaska, FedEx and UPS.  These airlines are the “brass ring” for many pilots.  They offer eye-popping compensation packages and excellent quality of life.

Beneath this premier level is a tier of regional airlines; there are a great many of these, but some of them are: Piedmont, PSA, Air Wisconsin, Skywest, Republic, Mesa, Trans States… The list goes on and on.  If you’ve never heard of these airlines, don’t feel bad.  They operate smaller regional jets and turboprops painted in the colors of their parent carrier, sometime with the words “express” or “connection” painted on the side.  Regional airlines pay less and the pilots work harder; this will likely be your first airline gig as a civilian.

In between the two tiers is a multitude of small airlines that operate jets of many sizes in niche markets.  The pay and quality of life at these airlines is as variable as the names they go by.

First Steps

So now that we have a handle on the structure of the airline business and understand that the regionals are the first paying airline job we can expect to have, we have to figure out how to get that first airline job.  Many major airlines require a college degree.  If you don’t have one, get one!  It makes you more competitive in the long run and makes for something of a backup plan if things don’t pan out.  You can study for a degree in something even while you fly; there is no reason to put this off.  This is doubly true if you are a veteran and have access to educational funds through the Montgomery GI Bill.  You earned that money, so use it!

Leaving college aside, choosing a flight training facility is the first concrete step that you’ll take to getting to that first airline job.  There are hundreds of places to learn to fly in the United States; but if flying professionally is your goal, you should select a school that specializes in professional pilot training.  These schools are certified as “pilot schools” by the FAA under a set of regulations known as FAR Part 141; they offer government approved curriculums that will enable you to complete your training in the minimum amount of time.  Many of them are acceptable to the VA for the use of GI Bill funds; if you are prior service, this is a huge benefit that will save you a ton of money in the long run.

In training, you will begin by earning a private pilot certificate.  This will be followed by an instrument rating, a commercial pilot certificate, and finally a certified flight instructor certificate.  Here’s the thing:  Just because you have a commercial pilot certificate does not mean you can go out and fly airliners.  Federal law requires that the airlines only hire pilots who can qualify to hold the highest available level of pilot certificate, an airline transport pilot certificate.  To obtain this certification, you not only must complete a rigorous course of study, but you must have 1,500 hours of total flight time.  Since you can earn a commercial certificate with as little as 250 hours, you’ll need to find some way to build the additional time.  Buying time renting an airplane isn’t going to be an option unless you have an unlimited bank account.  Therefore, being a fight instructor will probably be your first paying flying job.

With this in mind, try to find a flight school that offers two things:  guaranteed flight instructor jobs for their graduates and some sort of hiring agreement with regional airlines.  This will give you a career path from the start, and will allow you to plan your timetable with some element of certainty.

The Costs

Learning to fly in the civilian world is not cheap.  Getting started in this career as a civilian will require a significant outlay of money in terms of cash and loans to get you through.  How much the cost will be depends on the school you choose and whether or not you are also earning a college degree.

If you already possess a degree, or plan to work on that once you are hired at a regional airline, a course of study at an FAR Part 141 school will cost between $49,000 and $75,000.  Costs at four year universities that also offer professional pilot programs are rather startling:  It can cost as much as $48,000 per year for tuition plus another $15,000 to $25,000 per year in flight costs.  In the university flight school environment, you could easily spend $200,000 over four years.

While the price tag is most certainly one that induces a serious case of sticker shock, it is important to remember that there are opportunities to defray some of these costs.  Most university programs have merit and need based scholarships available, and many FAR Part 141 flight schools also have way of finding financial assistance for their students.  If you are a veteran, you can use the Montgomery GI Bill to help cover the price of admission to your aviation career.  Many students in both systems secure loans to help them pay for the cost of training to fly.

The Timeline

If civilian airline flying is your goal, the civilian route offers the fastest track to the right seat at a major airline.  A motivated student of average aptitude can typically complete all their ratings up to flight instructor in about a year and a half.  After that, it is simply a matter of time; if you are able to work as an instructor at a busy school, you should be able to accrue the 1,500 hours you’ll need to apply for that airline job within another year and a half.  So, if you are not going the university flying route, you can reasonably expect to see an airline interview within one to two years after becoming an instructor.

Obviously, the university route takes a little bit longer.  Certain collegiate flight programs are approved by the FAA to allow their graduates to test for the airline transport pilot certificate with less time; if you complete at least 30 credit hours at the institution, you can get an airline transport pilot certificate with as little as 1,250 hours of flight time.  Therefore, five years from your first day of class at a four year college to an airline is realistic for a university flight program grad—unless that graduate is especially motivated and attends summer sessions as well.

That First Airline Job

Once you’ve acquired the requisite certificates, ratings and flight time, the next step is to get that very first airline job.  There is some good news here; there is currently a huge need for regional airline pilots and that need is set to continue will into the 2020’s.  In fact, some regional airlines are offering bonus of up to $10,000 for new pilots; that’s something that takes a little bit of the sting out of what is normally mediocre pay at the regionals.

From your first day on the property at a regional airline, your focus should be on moving on to a major airline.  Many regionals now offer “flow through” programs to their partner major airlines that is based on seniority; once you have enough time in service, you simply move up to the majors—not interview and no fuss.  The time that this takes to happen is highly variable and will depend on economic conditions, but five year flow through times will not be unusual in the not too distant future.

The Paycheck

As we mentioned above, the very first paying flying job you will likely have will be as a flight instructor.  The point of this job, other than to teach people how to fly safely, is to build time to get to the airlines; very few instructors make this job a long lasting career.  Flight instructor pay isn’t fantastic, but you won’t starve either; expect to make somewhere between $20 and $30 per hour on average.  You’ll only be paid when you are flying, so fly a lot!  After taxes, your paycheck will likely be somewhere south of $30,000 per year.
When you move on to that first regional airline, the pay picture improves somewhat.  Not only will you enjoy benefits like sick time, but you will probably make more per hour than you did as a flight instructor—and while you are still only paid when you are flying, the time is predictable and not dependent on students showing up.  Your W2 will probably reflect a total income of somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000 for your first year of employment at a regional airline; if you choose to go to a regional that offers a signing bonus you can add between $5,000 and $10,000 to that number.  Pay raises occur yearly at the regionals and are based on contractual rates, typically one to four percent increases.  In this hiring environment, you may upgrade to Captain in  as little as two years; as a regional Captain you can expect somewhere between $65,000 and $80,000 per year.


A flying career can be achieved by either the civilian route or through military service, and there are significant advantages and drawbacks to each.  The civilian route is likely a faster trip to the end goal at a significant economic cost, while the military route offers a fiscally stable route that takes up to 12 years.  The choice you make depends on your individual goals, financial status, health, and not a small amount of luck.  Make sure that you do your homework and ask plenty of questions.  Good luck!

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