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A Day in the Life of a Pilot

The job of an airplane pilot carries considerable charm, prestige, responsibility, and risk. An airline pilot can find himself in a different time zone, climate, and culture every day. As one notes: “It’s like a new and different expedition every time...a new and exciting world to discover and journey through.” Pilots literally have the lives of their passengers in their hands. The physical and mental demands are rigorous. The ability to remain calm under pressure and having perfect vision, hearing, and coordination are crucial requirements. Roughly 60 percent of all pilots are employed by commercial airlines, the most visible and widely known job available to pilots. Such professional visibility and prestige come with significantly more responsibility and a better pay scale. Commercial airline pilots fly large passenger planes often with 200 or more people aboard. There are several important safety steps that a pilot must take before every flight: Checking and filing flight plans, securing the approval of the air traffic control personnel of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and checking weather and flight conditions. The airline pilot or captain is assisted in his job by a crew consisting of a co-pilot, a flight engineer, and a flight attendant. Sometimes the crew is extended to include an additional co-pilot and a navigator. Another important “member” of the crew is the automatic pilot, an electronic device which is programmed to fly the plane. Even when the automatic pilot is on, it is the captain’s responsibility to remain alert to problems that may affect the plane. During the flight, the pilot and co-pilot maintain radio contact with ground control stations to report on altitude, speed, weather conditions, and a host of flight details. With minimal retraining, the commercial pilot can make the transition to other areas of aviation. Helicopter pilots are used by television networks and radio stations to deliver traffic and accident reports. They are also used for air-taxi service, sightseeing operations, mail delivery, and rescue services. Agricultural pilots are involved in farm maintenance techniques such as crop dusting, fertilization, insect, and weed control. To make such a transition, the pilot would have to learn about the proper use and transportation of chemicals. Pilot instructors teach company airline pilots regulations and procedures. Chief pilots supervise the training of new pilots and handle other administrative work; test pilots test new planes; executive pilots are employed by large corporations that own or lease planes for company use.

Paying Your Dues

At least two years of college are preferred for those seeking entry to this profession. FAA-certified military and civilian flying schools provide adequate practical and classroom training and some colleges and universities offer degree credit for pilot training. Prospective pilots must work long and hard at accumulating required flying time. They must be focused and determined to complete the various stages of what is a rigorous routine to an ultimately satisfying career. In the long run seniority counts in this profession, so young pilots are advised to buckle their seat belts, enjoy the ride, and keep racking up those hours. Applicants for the commercial airplane pilot’s license must have 250 hours of flying time and successfully complete rigorous testing, including a physical examination, a written test given by the FAA and a practical test. Before receiving an FAA license, pilots must be rated according to the kind of plane they can fly-single-engine, multi-engine or seaplane-and for the type-Boeing 707 or 747. Airplane captains must also have an airline transport pilot’s license, for which a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time including night flying and instrument time are required. Most pilots start out as flight engineers, a position which usually requires 500 to 1,000 hours of flying time. In addition to an instrument rating by the FAA, flight engineers obtain restricted radio telephone operators’ permits from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). From here it is a long haul, in the vicinity of five to fifteen years, before being named captain.

Present and Future Outlook for Pilot Careers

Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first airplane pilots when their craft stayed up for 12 seconds at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. The field has expanded considerably since then. The Lockheed brothers built early commercial planes in 1913. Charles Lindbergh became the first American to cross the Atlantic by plane in 1927, and TWA’s regular transatlantic service was inaugurated twenty years later. Now, more than half of all pilots are employed by commercial airlines and, as commerce steadily expands, an even greater number will be able to secure employment. Competition will decrease and a possible shortage develop as aging pilots retire and new openings are created. Business or executive pilots, on the other hand, will face fewer job prospects as more companies under tighter budget controls opt to travel commercially rather than operate their own planes.

Quality of Life


The pilot, who has probably started out as a flight engineer, is ready to move up to co-pilot, though his/her company may not be ready for the move. Flight engineers generally spend two to seven years in the position before moving up to co-pilot. Their main professional concern is amassing flying hours, including night flying and instrument time, to make it to the next position.


The pilot/flight engineers are now within easy reach of being promoted to co-pilot if they have not yet been. Pilots rarely switch companies or careers at this point if they want to become captains.


Pilots with ten years of experience and thousands of miles of flying time should be a captain by now or within five years of becoming one. They have seniority and this is an important asset. Should they seek employment elsewhere, they will lose this seniority and have to work their way up from the bottom again. Pilots must be tenacious if captaincy is their goal.