Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes or helicopters. Airline pilots fly for airlines that transport people and cargo on a fixed schedule. Commercial pilots fly aircraft for other reasons, such as charter flights, rescue operations, firefighting, aerial photography, and crop dusting. Pilots spend a considerable amount of time away from home because flights often involve overnight layovers. Those who fly international routes may experience jetlag. Many have variable schedules.
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Pilots typically do the following:
For all but small aircraft, two pilots usually make up the cockpit crew. Generally, the most experienced pilot, the captain, is in command and supervises all other crew members. The copilot, often called the first officer, shares flight duties with the captain. These duties include communicating with air traffic controllers, monitoring instruments, and steering the plane.
Before departure, pilots plan their flights carefully, checking various systems on the aircraft and making sure that baggage and cargo have been loaded correctly. They also confer with air traffic controllers to learn about weather conditions and to confirm the flight route.
Takeoffs and landings are the most difficult parts of the flight and require close coordination between the pilot and copilot. Once in the air, the captain and first officer usually alternate flying each leg of the flight. After landing, pilots must fill out records that document their flight and the maintenance status of the plane.
Commercial pilots employed by charter companies usually have many more non-flight duties. For example, they may schedule flights, arrange for maintenance of the plane, and load luggage to ensure a balanced weight.
Pilots who fly helicopters must constantly look out for trees, bridges, power lines, transmission towers, and other dangerous obstacles.
Regardless of the type of aircraft, all pilots must monitor warning devices that detect sudden shifts in wind patterns.
Many pilots learn to fly in the military, but a growing number now earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from a civilian flying school. All pilots who are paid to transport passengers or cargo must have a commercial pilot's license and an instrument rating. To qualify for a commercial pilot’s license, applicants must be at least 18 years old and have at least 250 hours of flight experience.
Military veterans have always been an important source of experienced pilots because of the extensive training and flight time that the military provides. However, an increasing number of people are becoming pilots by attending flight school or taking lessons from a federally certified instructor.
In addition, most airline companies require at least two years of college and prefer to hire college graduates. In fact, most pilots today have a bachelor’s degree. Because the number of college-educated applicants continues to increase, many employers are making an undergraduate degree an entry-level requirement. Preferred courses for airline pilots include English, math, physics, and aeronautical engineering.
Because pilots must be able to make quick decisions and react appropriately under pressure, airline companies will often reject applicants who do not pass psychological and aptitude tests.
Once hired by an airline, new pilots undergo additional company training that usually includes 6-8 weeks of ground school and 25 hours of additional flight time. After they finish this training, airline pilots must keep their certification by attending training once or twice a year.
Applicants must also pass a strict physical exam to make sure that they are in good health, must have vision that is correctable to 20/20, and must have no physical handicaps that could impair their performance. In addition, they must pass a written test that includes questions about safety procedures, navigation techniques, and federal regulations.
To fly during periods of low visibility, pilots must be rated to fly by instruments. They may qualify for this rating by having at least 40 hours of instrument flight experience. Pilots also must pass a written exam and show an examiner their ability to fly by instruments.
Currently, airline captains must have an airline transport pilot certificate. Applicants must be at least 23 years old, have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, and pass written and flight exams.
Furthermore, airline pilots usually maintain one or more advanced ratings, depending on the requirements of their particular aircraft. All licenses are valid as long as a pilot can pass periodic physical, eye, and flight examinations.
Many civilian pilots start as flight instructors, building up their flight hours while they earn money teaching. As they become more experienced, these instructors can move into jobs as commercial pilots. Commercial pilots may begin their careers flying charter planes, helicopters, or crop dusters. These positions typically require less experience than airline jobs require. Some commercial pilots may advance to flying corporate planes. In nonairline jobs, a first officer may advance to captain and, in large companies, to chief pilot or director of aviation. However, many pilots use their commercial experience as a steppingstone to becoming an airline pilot. Airline pilots may begin as flight engineers or first officers for regional airline companies.
Pilots must speak clearly when conveying information to air traffic controllers. They must also listen carefully for instructions. They must be able to see clearly and judge the distance between objects. They must watch many systems at the same time. Even small changes can have significant effects, so they must constantly pay close attention to many details. They must regularly watch over gauges and dials to make sure that all systems are in working order. They must be able to identify complex problems and figure out appropriate solutions. When a plane encounters turbulence, for example, pilots assess the weather conditions, select a calmer airspace, and request a route change from air traffic control.
Because warning signals can appear with no notice, pilots must be able to respond quickly to any impending danger. They work closely with air traffic controllers and flight dispatchers. As a result, they need to be able to coordinate actions on the basis of the feedback they receive.
In 2010, most airline pilots—about 85 percent—worked for airline companies; the remainder worked for the federal government or express delivery companies. Commercial pilots are typically employed by charter companies, private businesses, flight schools, and hospitals.
The median annual wage of airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $103,210 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) Among airline pilots, the lowest 10% earned less than $54,980, and the top 10% earned more than $166,400.
The median annual wage of commercial pilots was $67,500 in May 2010. Among commercial pilots, the lowest 10% earned less than $34,860, and the top 10% earned more than $119,650.
In addition, airline pilots receive an expense allowance, or “per diem,” for every hour they are away from home, and they may earn extra pay for international flights. Airline pilots also are eligible for health insurance and retirement benefits, and their immediate families usually are entitled to free or reduced-fare flights.