It’s a pilot’s job to get passengers and cargo safely to their destinations. Pilots must adhere to many federal regulations and company policies that are designed to make flying as safe as possible. We review the weather for the route, the fueling and loading of the aircraft, and make sure the aircraft is in a safe condition to fly.
There are a multitude of pilot jobs. Major airlines fly very large airplanes with passengers and/or cargo across the country and around the world. Regional airlines generally fly smaller planes on shorter routes. Part 135 Passenger and Cargo operators generally fly turboprop airplanes and connect smaller communities. You can become a certified flight instructor (CFI) and teach others how to fly. Some people choose to become aerial applicators, or “crop dusters,” and provide service to our nation’s agriculture. There are many other opportunities as well!
To be an airline pilot in the United States, you need to be 23 years old, or 21 with a restricted license. To become a private pilot, your first step on the journey, you need to be 17. You can start flight training at any age and fly a plane by yourself at 16.
All pilots start out as student pilots learning the basics of flying an airplane and generally progress through more advanced stages of training. There are many stepping-stone ratings to achieve to eventually become a pilot at an airline. The first rating is private, followed by instrument, commercial, and multiengine ratings. Many people also become certified flight instructors and teach others while building experience toward working at an airline. There are also many other methods of building experience. Many schools across the country can help you on your way to achieving your goals.
It is always best to come very prepared, which helps with being relaxed as well. Be courteous and professional, and dress appropriately. Usually in airline hiring, you aren’t competing against the other candidates for one or two positions. The airline would like to hire all of those interviewing, provided you meet the standards of that company. If you have an interview, they want to hire you!
All pilots have a “base” or “domicile” from which they start their trips. Some common bases are New York (LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark); Chicago, Ill.; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, Calif.; and Seattle, Wash., to name just a few.
Fee-for-departure, or commonly referred to as “regional” airlines, generally fly shorter routes to smaller markets, such as Chicago O’Hare to Columbus, Ohio. Fee-for-departure airlines generally cover a large portion of North America, from Canada to Mexico and the Caribbean and the lower 48.
Major airlines like Delta Air Lines and United Airlines fly domestically, or within the United States, but generally fly larger planes on longer routes to larger cities. Major airlines also fly internationally, such as New York JFK to London Heathrow.
Flight-time limits for two-pilot crews are eight or nine hours of flying time, depending on when your workday starts. Augmented crews (three to four pilots) can fly longer and make longer international flights possible. Duty-time limits for two pilots also depend on the time of day that you start and how many flights you operate in a day. For instance, if you start your day before 5 a.m. and fly five flights, your day can only be nine hours long from start to finish. If you start after 7 a.m. and only fly two flights that day, your duty day can be up to 14 hours long. Pilots can extend their day due to unforeseen circumstances (weather, maintenance, etc.) by up to two hours if they feel they are fit to safely continue. After that, pilots are unable to legally continue and cannot operate any flights until they receive a rest period.
A pilot’s schedule can come in many forms. For most pilots, our trips will leave on one day of the week, and we will fly for four days and go home on our last day. Each of those three nights in between are spent at hotels in what are called “layover” cities. A regional pilot may start in Chicago, Ill., and overnight in Pittsburg, Pa.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Omaha, Neb., before returning home on day four. A pilot for a major airline might leave Chicago and overnight in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami before returning home. Long-haul pilots will fly one leg to another country, layover for a day or more, and fly back. Most pilots will work for four days and then have three days off. This results in an average of 15 days off a month.
Pilot pay varies, but most pilots are paid from the moment the door is closed until the door is opened at the destination. This is called a “block” of time. Most pilots fly about 80 hours of block time a month. This time does not include all the time spent at the airport or preparing for departure. However, a pilot’s hourly wage is designed to take all that extra work into consideration.
Per diem is money provided for incidentals (e.g., food) while you are on a trip. Per diem is generally paid continuously for every hour you are away from base, even while you are sleeping! It generally starts around $1.70/hour and goes up based on company and domestic/international rates. It may not sound like much, but it’s common to be paid for over 300 hours of per diem per month!
Nearly all airlines have trips that do not get you back to your home every day. Pilots “lay over” in other cities and are provided per diem and a hotel for the time they are there. It is a great opportunity to see a place you may never have been, enjoy time with your crew, and rest for the next day of flying.
The airline handles and pays for accommodations for crewmembers when they are on a trip. Many pilots do not live where they are based and choose to commute. Generally, if pilots need to travel and stay away from home when they are not on a trip, they are responsible for their own accommodations.
Pilots wear a uniform to help distinguish themselves as a profession, something that was taken from the military culture. On a practical level, it distinguishes a pilot from other airport staff. A passenger may easily identify a crewmember based on their uniform and seek out more informed answers if they have any concerns.
Epaulettes are the stripes you see on a pilot’s shoulders on his or her dress shirt. Stemming from military times, epaulettes are an easy way to distinguish rank between pilots. Commonly, only three or four stripes are used: three signifying a first officer and four for a captain.
Pilots’ flight bags contain their electronic flight bags. Tablet computers have replaced bulky, heavy, and inefficient paper charts and manuals. Additionally, we bring along everything we could potentially need in flight. While each pilot brings slightly different items, most bring a headset, flashlight, pens, and any additional charts, paperwork, or information they may want. Pilots are also required to carry certain documents including their pilot’s license and medical.
The electronic flight bag, or “EFB” for short, has replaced dozens of pounds worth of paper charts in our flight decks. Whatever chart, map, or manual a pilot previously used paper for, is now loaded on an iPad or other electronic tablet. One set of paper backups is still maintained in the cockpit.
There are two types of schedules: line holder and reserve. Line holder schedules are published monthly, with specific trips on certain days. A reserve schedule has days off and days where a pilot is “on call” to fill in for sick, displaced, out of position, or many other scenarios where a pilot is needed on short notice. Pilots know “where” to fly thanks to the flight plan, a joint venture between the pilots, dispatcher, and air traffic control, plotting a route that is efficient and safe.
A flight plan is the document that has plotted points, distances, fuel figures, weather information, and more, giving a step-by-step plan for the flight. It is designed and approved as a joint venture between the pilots, dispatcher, and air traffic control, plotting a route that is efficient and safe.
Autopilot is able to fly the plane from just after takeoff until just before landing. Some airplanes have the ability to autoland as well. While autopilot is commonly used at cruise, the engagement of the autopilot is largely up to the flying pilot, and they may fly by hand to their liking. Autopilot relieves the workload in high-density settings, such as high traffic, bad weather, an abnormal situation, or even emergency. The autopilot enables pilots to better diversify their attention and operate safely without being task-saturated.
Most modern aircraft flown in the United States have two pilots in the flight deck. One is the captain, who is legally responsible for the flight. The other is the first officer, who is equally qualified to the captain, but does not retain the legal right to the flight.
Flights beyond 8 and 12 hours have three and four pilots and operate with rotational break schedules on long-haul flights.
The captain sits on the left side of the cockpit, and the first officer sits on the right. Unless, however, a new captain is being certified in the aircraft. In that case, two captains may fly the same flight, with one occupying the right seat.
The flight crew is made up of the pilots and flight attendants working the flight.
Steering an airplane is accomplished by manipulating the flight controls. Airplanes today have either a control yoke (or a sidestick) and rudder pedals. Once in the air, aircraft pitch up or down by pulling the yoke or sidestick back or pushing it forward. This in turn adjust the elevators on the back of the aircraft, which make it climb or descend. Aircraft roll left or right by turning the yoke left or right. This in turn adjusts the ailerons on the wing to make it roll left or right. The rudder pedals control the rudder on the back of the aircraft. This makes the aircraft yaw left or right.
In flight, pilots are in constant communication with air traffic control (ATC). ATC is responsible for separation of traffic and ensuring proper routing and spacing for all airplanes. They give instructions to pilots for heading, speed, and altitude. Pilots verify it is a safe instruction and comply by radioing back the instruction. Many airplanes today also keep pilots in touch with their company and dispatch offices, as well as emergency medical services in the event of a sick passenger.
A medical is an FAA-required examination that every pilot must pass. There are three different categories of medical—the highest being first class, which is required of airline pilots. Depending on age, exams are every 6 to 12 months.
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