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Airplane Pilots

At a Glance

  • Fly 75 to 100 hours a month
  • May work nights, holidays, and weekends
  • Often work under pressure
  • Usually wear a uniform
  • Commercial pilots have a bachelor's degree plus 1,500 hours flight time
  • Take written, oral, and practical exams
  • Most belong to unions

Career summary

Airplane and commercial pilots fly airplanes and helicopters.

Pilots may also be known as commercial airline, helicopter, test, agricultural or cropduster, or executive or corporate pilots.

#From 6188 Pilots and Flight Engineers

Airline pilots fly for airlines that transport people and cargo. Commercial pilots fly for other reasons such as rescue operations, crop dusting, and aerial photography.

Pilots must complete certain procedures before taking off. They must:

Pilots coordinate their flight plan with air traffic controllers. When given the signal by the control tower, pilots taxi the airplane to a runway and take off.

If the flight is rough or bumpy, pilots talk to air traffic controllers about flying at a new altitude. They may need to use instruments to help fly the airplane when visibility is poor.

Once the plane has landed, the pilot taxis the airplane to the gate. They sometimes write a report of the trip and file it with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Commercial airlines usually have at least two pilots on board during flights. The captain is the pilot in command and supervises all crew members. The copilot helps the captain communicate with the tower, monitor flight instruments, and operate controls. On large aircraft a third pilot, called a flight engineer, monitors instruments and makes minor repairs during the flight.

Pilots who fly smaller airplanes may help load the aircraft, handle passenger luggage, and supervise refueling.

Pilots may fly airplanes used for crop dusting, skydiving, and advertising. Some pilots teach people how to fly airplanes. They give exams and flight checks to students who are applying for a pilot's license.

Related careers

This career is part of the Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics cluster of careers.

Related careers include:

Military careers

Job duties

Task list

The following list of tasks is specific to airplane pilots.

Common work activities

Airplane pilots perform the following tasks. These tasks are common to many careers.

Work requirements

Working conditions

In a typical work setting, airplane pilots:

Interpersonal relationships

Physical work conditions

Work performance


Physical demands

Airplane pilots frequently:

It is important for airplane pilots to be able to:

It is not as important, but still necessary, for airplane pilots to be able to:

Skills and abilities

Airplane pilots need to:


Reason and problem solve

Use math and science

Manage oneself, people, time, and things

Work with people

Work with things

Perceive and visualize

Education and training

Educational programs

The programs of study listed below will help you prepare for the occupation or career cluster you are exploring.

Programs of study directly related to this occupation

Other programs of study to consider


To work as an airplane pilot, you typically need to:

Education after high school

Education requirements for pilots vary depending on the type of flying they do. A high school diploma is the minimum requirement. However, most pilots have at least an associate degree and many have a bachelor's degree. Many airlines require a bachelor's degree to work as a commercial pilot.

All pilots learn their flying skills in one of three ways. These are:

Some colleges and universities offer FAA-approved flight training. These programs combine flight training with regular college course work.

Initial training for pilots takes from three to six weeks. This training includes ground school, simulator training, and actual flight. Instructor pilots fly with you at first to make sure you follow all procedures and fly safely. As you gain experience and flight time you fly solo (alone without an instructor) and practice specific flying skills. While you are training, you are issued a student pilot's certificate. The next step after completing initial training is to earn your private certificate. To do this, you must pass a written exam and a flight test with a FAA flight examiner.

Before you can fly for pay, you must earn at least a commercial certificate and an instrument rating. To qualify for the commercial certificate, you must have at least 250 hours of flight time and pass another exam and flight test.

There are many levels of certificates and ratings for different aircraft and flying jobs. Airline pilots must have at least a bachelor's degree. They also must have an Airline Transport certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings. To apply for an Airline Transport certificate you must:

For additional details on flight training and certification, go to the FAA (external link) website.

Work experience

Pilots gather the required flight hours, certificates, and ratings over a period of years. In general, you progress from private pilot to commercial pilot. Later, you advance to airline transport. It takes years of experience and study to reach the highest certificates and ratings.

On-the-job training

Pilots continue to study, train, and take tests throughout their careers. They must maintain their credentials and medical certificates to be able to fly. At first, pilots pay for much of their own training. Later, employers, such as airlines, pay for or provide training to their pilots.

Military training

The military trains people to be airplane pilots, airplane navigators, and helicopter pilots. You need a bachelor's degree to enter any of these training programs. Training lasts two years for airplane pilots and one to two years for helicopter pilots. Airplane navigators receive six to 12 months of training.

Flying for the military is the best preparation for this occupation. In the military, you receive a level of training that is difficult to get or afford as a civilian. You fly high performance aircraft under all types of weather conditions. You also fly thousands of hours in jet or turbine-powered aircraft similar to commercial civilian aircraft.

Helpful high school courses

You should take a general high school curriculum that meets the state's graduation requirements. You will be required to take both math and science classes to graduate.

Helpful electives to take in high school that prepare you for this career include:

The courses listed above are meant to help you create your high school plan. If you have not already done so, talk to a school counselor or parent about the courses you are considering taking.

You should also check with a teacher or counselor to see if work-based learning opportunities are available in your school and community. These might include field trips, job shadowing, internships, and actual work experience. The goal of these activities is to help you connect your school experiences with real-life work.

Join some groups, try some hobbies, or volunteer with an organization that interests you. By participating in activities you can have fun, make new friends, and learn about yourself. Maybe one of them will help direct you to a future career. Here are examples of activities and groups that may be available in your high school or community.

Things to know

Pilots must have a license to get a job. Employers look for applicants who have experience in the type of aircraft they will fly. Most airlines require pilots to have at least an associate degree. However, they prefer to hire applicants who have at least a bachelor's degree.

Employers also look for pilots who are physically and emotionally healthy. They want pilots who will stay calm and remain levelheaded under pressure. Airlines may require applicants to pass psychological, aptitude, and drug tests. They also test applicants' vision and hearing.

When jobs with major airlines are scarce, a four-year college degree in engineering and 2,000 to 3,000 hours of experience in multi-engine jets, plus an instrument rating, are needed to realistically compete for openings. Experience in jet and turbine-powered aircraft is highly valued. After starting as a copilot for major airlines, advancement to pilot or captain usually takes an additional five to 20 years. Some employers of flight instructors prefer applicants with a college degree and FAR Part 141 training approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

TV stations that employ helicopter pilots may require 1,500 to 2,000 hours of helicopter flight time plus an associate degree. Some stations also prefer pilots with previous experience in radio or TV news, traffic reporting, or law enforcement. Military pilot experience can be beneficial. A bachelor's degree in journalism is also helpful.

Alternative entry route

Companies other than airlines generally require less flying experience. Many pilots start out as flying instructors to build up their flying hours while they teach. They apply to work for charter services after completing at least 500 hours of flight time. Charter services prefer applicants who already have a Certified Flight Instructor for Instrument (CFII) rating. The next step from charter flying is usually commuter airlines before progressing to major airlines.


Find ways to gain flight experience and time. Make sure you enjoy flying. Gather information and develop contacts in the industry by talking to pilots who are doing the type of flying you would like to pursue.

Costs to workers

Costs for pilots may include licensing fees, uniforms, and union dues, which are a percentage of earnings. Most airplane pilots are members of the Air Line Pilots Association. Airplane pilots may belong to one of three unions. Other costs may include moving to another home base.


All pilots who are paid to transport passengers or cargo must have a commercial pilot's license. For more information about licensing requirements, contact:

Federal Aviation Administration (external link)

#use national plus local pesticide info

Agricultural pilots that apply pesticides to croplands must be licensed by the State.

For information on pesticide application licensing, contact:

Washington State Department of Agriculture, Pesticide Management Division (external link)
PO Box 42560
Olympia, WA 98504-2560

#checked 2/28/08, cj. & 3/2/09 lh & 2/6/12 & 2/4/14, 1/31/18 cj.

Job listings

Listed below are links to job categories from the National Labor Exchange that relate to this career. Once you get a list of jobs, you can view information about individual jobs and find out how to apply. If your job search finds too many openings, or if you wish to search for jobs outside of Washington, you will need to refine your search.

To get a listing of current jobs from the WorkSource system, go to the WorkSource website (external link).


Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers (SOC 53-2011)

Pay Period
Washington Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $119,990 $183,170 (2) (2) (2)
    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $129,137 $192,132 (1) (1) (1)
    Vancouver Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
United States Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $65,690 $94,380 $140,340 (2) (2)

(1) Wage estimate is not available.
(2) Wages are greater than $90/hour or $187,200/year.

Commercial pilots (SOC 53-2012)

Pay Period
Washington Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $47,800 $62,560 $92,140 $146,340 $185,450
    Kennewick-Richland Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $43,734 $60,845 $71,216 $124,457 $180,646
    Olympia-Tumwater Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $38,283 $45,570 $54,857 $75,177 $112,466
    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $61,458 $77,826 $128,750 $172,094 $208,507
    Spokane-Spokane Valley Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $58,756 $70,226 $86,400 $102,394 $114,907
    Vancouver Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $36,994 $42,704 $53,489 $84,610 $124,680
United States Hourly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Monthly (1) (1) (1) (1) (1)
Yearly $44,660 $61,950 $82,240 $115,280 $160,480

(1) Wage estimate is not available.

Wages for airplane pilots depend on the type and size of the airplane flown. Pilots may earn extra pay for night and international flights.

Most airline pilots are members of a union. Those who work for one major airline join the Allied Pilots Association. The rest belong to the Airline Pilots Association, International. Some flight engineers join the Flight Engineers' International Association.

Pilots usually receive benefits such as life and health insurance and a retirement plan. Pilots receive an expense allowance for every hour they are away from home. Airlines may provide allowances to purchase and clean uniforms. Pilots and their immediate family members may receive free airline travel.

Employment and outlook

Washington outlook

The table below provides information about the number of workers in this career in various regions. It also provides information about the expected growth rate and future job openings.

Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers (SOC 53-2011)

Location Current employment Growth over 10 years Annual openings
Washington 1,909 29.1% 16.1% 319
    Island, San Juan, Skagit, and Whatcom Counties 21 0.0% 14.6% 2
    King County 1,796 31.2% 19.6% 311
    Kittitas, Klickitat, Skamania, and Yakima Counties 13 15.4% 13.8% 1
    Pierce County 37 2.7% 15.2% 3
    Spokane County 20 10.0% 13.9% 2
United States 83,600 4.5% 5.2% 9,100

Commercial Pilots (SOC 53-2012)

Location Current employment Growth over 10 years Annual openings
Washington 1,121 17.7% 16.1% 152
    Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Grant, and Okanogan Counties 78 32.1% 13.4% 14
    Asotin, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Stevens, Walla Walla, and Whitman Counties 31 9.7% 8.6% 3
    Clallam, Jefferson, and Kitsap Counties 26 19.2% 11.9% 3
    Clark, Cowlitz, and Wahkiakum Counties 21 38.1% 15.2% 4
    Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, and Thurston Counties 62 17.7% 14.1% 9
    Island, San Juan, Skagit, and Whatcom Counties 68 32.4% 14.6% 11
    King County 361 10.5% 19.6% 42
    Kittitas, Klickitat, Skamania, and Yakima Counties 94 8.5% 13.8% 11
    Pierce County 155 26.5% 15.2% 24
    Snohomish County 81 25.9% 12.4% 12
    Spokane County 73 26.0% 13.9% 11
United States 40,700 7.6% 5.2% 4,600

National employment

Most pilots work for commercial airlines. Some work as flight instructors at local airports. Pilots also work for companies that transport cargo or fly tourists on sightseeing trips.

Major employers:

National outlook

Jobs for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers are expected to grow over the next ten years. Most openings for airline pilots will be a result of pilots retiring. Job prospects for commercial pilots including air ambulance services will remain very good. 

Competition will be strong for pilots of major airlines. The best opportunities are for pilots who have flown the most advanced airplanes. Pilots with military experience may also have an advantage.

Other resources

Air Line Pilots Association, International (external link)
1625 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 800
Washington, DC 20036
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (external link)
421 Aviation Way
Frederick, MD 21701
Airlines for America (external link)
1275 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Suite 1300
Washington, DC 20004
Civil Air Patrol, National Headquarters (external link)
105 South Hansell Street, Building 714
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112
Federal Aviation Administration (external link)
800 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20591
Helicopter Association International (external link)
1920 Ballenger Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22314
International Society of Women Airline Pilots (external link)
723 South Casino Center Boulevard, 2nd Floor
Las Vegas, NV 89101
Museum of Flight (external link)
9404 East Marginal Way South
Seattle, WA 98108
Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Union (external link)
1750 New York Avenue NW, 6th Floor
Washington, DC 20006
Washington Pilots Association (external link)
1100 Bellevue Way NE
STE 8A PMB 397
Bellevue, WA 98004


Career cluster

Career path

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