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When it comes to becoming a professional pilot, there is a myriad of positions an individual can pursue. Despite the variety, the three most common career paths within the profession include the military, airline, and corporate.  

Corporate pilot and airline jobs typically require college degrees to start off. Individuals often begin their path to becoming a professional pilot by obtaining their four-year degrees, often in a non-aviation field. After acquiring required pilot certificates, ratings, and required flight training, individuals are typically qualified to fly for compensation and can pursue one of the following career paths.

Airline

When it comes to the airline career paths, pilots will typically flight instruct until they have garnered enough flight time. Once enough flight time is acquired, pilots can be considered for hire by regional airlines. Pilots hired by a regional airline will start off as First Officer (co-pilot) and can work their way up to the Captain’s seat.

While some pilots are content to remain at a regional airline, others may desire to move on to larger cargo or passenger airlines. Pilots seeking this move will generally need to gain experience in a turbojet powered aircraft as a Captain. Captains accrue between 1500-2000 flight hours, or roughly two to four years of experience. This experience, considered a minimum amount of experience for the job, can certainly help a prospective candidate appear more competitive at a larger carrier. However, the wait for a position hinges on many variables, some of which include qualifications, the economy, and the number of job applicants. While some waits for a position can be short, others can occasionally take ten years or more.

Corporate

Similar to airlines, corporate career paths require experience, often flight instructing. In the corporate career path, the jobs available to pilots with less experience are often the least desirable positions with low pay and “on call” requirements. Some corporate departments only allow their pilots only a few days off per month, which makes it difficult to navigate work-life balance.

Despite this, lower corporate pilot jobs will enable pilots to build up flight time and experience to be able to apply for more desirable positions that provide better salaries and benefits. These more desirable jobs include working for a fractional corporate jet operator or piloting advanced business jets for established flight departments.

Military

As most, if not all, pilot positions require a bachelors degree, students looking to become pilots may apply to military academies. While these academies will pick up the tab, they are also competitive programs to get into and are rigorous and demanding in practice. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs offer another path for those interested in becoming military pilots.

Individuals pursuing their piloting path through enrollment in military academics, pursuing ROTC, Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), or by joining a Reserve or Guard unit after college graduation will often go into military active duty. These commitments require flexibility, dedication—as commitments often last over a decade—physical maintenance, and participation in military exercises. While these conditions may be strenuous, serving as a military pilot provides good benefits, a reliable paycheck, quality training, and the ability to retire with a pension and other health benefits.