If someone decides to become a professional pilot - meaning an airline or business jet pilot in the USA - what does it cost to get the certifications and ratings and build enough hours to become employable? Let's assume that the person is starting from scratch and works through private, instrument, commercial and ATP qualifications.

I'm thinking of a scenario where someone already has a career and income but decides to change to flying and is able to invest the necessary time and money. Of course this could include other commercial flying jobs along the way - like crop dusting or banner towing - but the idea would be to eventually reach a position that pays a decent salary. "Decent" isn't very precise but I mean something much higher than the low regional salaries mentioned in this question.

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    Take into consideration the emotional effect of moving from a senior position into a very junior position. At age 35 my first wife terminated our 16 year marriage, and I decided, what the hell, and decided to go fly. This eventually put me in the right seat of commuter airlines being captained by guys and gals the age of my children. It also put me in the position of having to sit by quietly when captains worried about the possible impact of potential careers with major carriers would do things inimical to the welfare of the commuter airline they were working for at the time. Really maddening. – Terry Jan 23 '14 at 3:14
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    If you want to keep that love for flying...don't become a professional pilot. – fbynite Jan 23 '14 at 10:19
  • About 4 - 5 years of your life if you're lucky. A marriage if you are not. Plus a few dollars – Radu094 Jan 24 '14 at 19:58
  • One thing to consider: a new airline pilot fresh off his ATPL checkride can expect to make just \$20,000 a year as the First Officer of a regional jet or turboprop, which is the entry-level position for airlines. If you already have a career that pays well enough for you to get into flying for recreation, the move to professional pilot is a jump off a cliff salary-wise. NetJets pays better (starting salaries about \$87k) but you will face very stiff competition. Other opportunities include corporate jet pools and being on a billionaire's personal payroll. – KeithS Jul 31 '15 at 17:24
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The cost from 0 to ATP can be highly variable. An easier number to quantify is 0 - Commercial/CFI.

Even the cost of 0 - Comm/CFI can vary, but there are a few accelerated programs that offer this. One service (I'm not advertising, so I'm not naming them) offers a program that lasts 150 days and costs $65,000* + checkride expenses. You start with nothing and end up with single/multi commercial, an instrument rating and your CFI/MEI/II along with 100 hours multi-engine time. This particular program (and others like it probably) hires their instructors from within, so there is a possibility for multi-instruction -- but you won't be making much money for it.

The cost of commercial to ATP is harder to nail down because of the possibilities that open up post-commercial.

  • On the high end, you could just rent or buy time to ATP mins, but that could cost a fortune.

  • On the low end you could work to ATP mins and make some money.

A good way to make money with a fresh commercial/cfi ticket is to instruct. There are also jobs like banner towing or pipeline/powerline patrol you could do, but you probably still need to build time beyond commercial mins to be competitive for those jobs. You also mention cropdusting, but keep in mind many of those ops are turbine powered ag-cats and you won't be competitive there with a fresh commercial ticket.

*You can do it cheaper but I'm giving these numbers because a fast but expensive program may appeal to a career changer.

Well.. There's not a real easy answer to this question. Starting a career in aviation is no small undertaking. Large aviation universities like Embry-Riddle really are a good as they say, but the focus is more on getting a degree along side your flying. Most airlines require a 4 year degree, but they don't care in what field, they just want to know that you have a good foundation and the commitment to complete your higher education. That said, if you already have a degree, then you might want to shop around for a place that can focus more on flying and less on the classroom. If you don't have a degree, then you could consider a large Aviation University, but its not cheap, and it might be until retirement to reap the dividends. Also know, that smaller flight schools run professional pilot programs and can give a more focused study path.

Fair warning, just to get a private,instrument,commercial,multi-engine,ATP certificates will take at least a year if you're highly motivated, but probably longer. Add school, if needed, and you're at 3-4 years before you can even enter the workforce. Then, after recent legislation, the time required to be a co-pilot with an airline has soared, forcing pilot's to find hours elsewhere. Generally as a flight instructor which could take another year or three to accumulate enough time to get hired by an airline. Finally after you get planted in the right seat of that airliner, it takes another 3 or 4 years of low seniority grunt work to break 30k in pay. Mandatory retirement is now 65. So now after 9-12 years, your finally an airline pilot, but not much time till retirement. If you want to fly, and have a desire for aviation, then you should have no problem, you just won't get rich.

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