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I'm contemplating a mid-life career change. I made some money in another industry, and now have the luxury of choosing a job that pays less, but provides enjoyment and satisfaction. I suspect being a professional pilot could be the ticket. I'm currently an active glider pilot with 300+ hours, and I am just loving it! I learned to fly gliders very quickly and I am confident that I could learn to fly powered aircraft quickly as well. Fortunately, I can afford the training and the cost of building up hours, potentially in my own plane.

I know it takes a long time to work up to flying an airliner, but I'm not sure that's even what I want to do. Flying smaller planes appeals to me more.

Am I crazy to try to start a piloting career at my age (45)? Is the system going to be biased against an older trainee like myself? Should I go to an aviation college? Will I ever make a decent salary given how many working years I have left? Also, see the question in the title. Thanks.

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    $\begingroup$ Challenges? Coming up with \$60,000+, spending 6+ years getting your ATPL and working as a CFI to build hours only to be 12 years from mandatory retirement and being relegated to working as a first-officer for low-paying regional airlines. I'm not saying "don't do it", but certainly don't do it for financial reasons. The first 5-8 years of an airline pilot are extremely hard (low paying). Many pilots share apartments to get by. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Aug 13 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ Which country are you in? $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Aug 14 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ I'm in the USA. $\endgroup$ – Ben H Aug 14 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer Did you read the question? He's not trying to get rich here... quite the opposite. $\endgroup$ – Apologize and reinstate Monica Aug 14 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe consider survey flying for an exploration company. Travel and meet interesting people (some of whom may want to kill you). $\endgroup$ – Spehro Pefhany Aug 15 at 15:08
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You aren't crazy. People have started later than you and been successful. However, age does bring additional challenges, which one could argue is an ageist bias of sorts.

The first is age itself. Part 121 carriers have a mandatory retirement age of 65. That puts a hard limit on a potential airline career in terms of seniority and wages. There is no hard limit for other flying jobs, at least for domestic flying. Int'l rules are a bit tricky when you pass 60.

The second is medical. Even if you are in great health for your age, you likely have significant medical history that will need to be documented and reviewed, which can delay getting even the class 3 medical certificate you will need to solo in an airplane and take the PPL test. To fly commercially, you will need to pass a class 2 and, for the airlines, a class 1. And you have to keep passing them every 24, 12 or 6 months for as long as you want to keep flying. As we all know, health inevitably declines with age, so there is a soft limit on how long your career will last.

The third is cognitive decline. While it's not impossible to teach an old dog new tricks, it does take longer. Your training will probably take longer than someone half your age, though your glider experience should mitigate that somewhat.

There is no need for an aviation college. Some airlines still require a bachelor's degree, but they don't care what subject it is in or where it is from (as with most jobs). Other airlines may prefer one but don't require it, and non-airline jobs may not even ask.

It will be difficult to get the seniority you need to get the highest-paying airline jobs; you may well hit mandatory retirement before you reach what you consider a "decent" salary based on your previous career. Other jobs, such as charters, may have higher initial pay but less opportunity for advancement, which might be a better fit for your timeline. Others may have more flexibility, such as part-time instructing or being a ferry pilot. There are a wide variety of jobs to choose from to fit your lifestyle priorities.

Your apparent financial status, though, has one significant advantage: if you can buy your own plane to train in, you can get it done for much less money, and you can probably get it done much faster too, if you can find a CFI with enough free time. Many people who have done this even report selling the plane at a profit when they're done.

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Time

All other things aside all commercial part 121 pilots have a finite end date, starting at 45 means you are going to be ~20 years behind the young guys. Since the FAA mandates retirement from part 121 operations at 65 you have 20 years left but let's look at that a bit more practically. Assuming you pay for all your own training and don't need to go the CFI route to build hours you could conceivably finish your 1500 ATP hours in a year's time if you flew full time and the weather gods were nice to you. However that's not really realistic for all kinds of reasons, weather, mechanical, practical etc. So let's say you get there in a modest 2 years. Now you're 47...

At 47 you are applying to the airlines, still need to actually pass your ATP exams, and then they need to type you into one of their aircrafts, that's simulator time and ground school time for the airline which is by no means free and takes time - this means you are getting older. They are investing in you and in their eyes they can now only get 17 years or less out of that investment unlike the young guys they may have for longer. A regional may be interested but expect long grueling days and pay on the lower side of things.

You are also starting at the bottom of the seniority tree. If you are accustomed to a nice self sufficient lifestyle now you, should not expect that working at a regional for the first few years.


There are lots of other flying jobs that are not bound by the 65 year old limit, they may be a bit more transient in nature but you can still get into a high performance airplane and be having fun. You can fly for a part 135 charter operation, be a flight instructor, tow banners, tow gliders, crop dust, fly sight seeing flights, etc. One job that I have spoken to a few professional pilots about that seems like a sweet deal is being on staff flying a corporate jet for a company, the hours tend to be decent, you end up flying some fast metal and going cool places.

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    $\begingroup$ An alternative to flying passenger airliners could be a cargo airline like Atlas. Might well be a better start for a career than the regionals. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 14 at 4:08
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Aside from the career advice (there is in fact an increasingly desperate shortage of pilots as the baby boom wave retires - you should do it if you really want it, and if you you pay attention when travelling you will spot a surprising number of starting-late 50+ copilots on the Regionals), the biggest challenge is something that surprised me when I took a jet type course at 53 (it was a unique and unusual circumstance with a private operator).

Young whipper snappers learn and memorize data effortlessly, but tend to take longer to master motor skills (think about how clumsy teenagers are). Older-timers tend to the opposite; acquiring and retaining motor skills comes more easily, but memorizing the insane volume of stuff you have to memorize in a type course comes harder. I trained with a much younger guy on my type course - he crashed the sim on the first V1 cut (engine failure), I didn't have a problem with it. However, I had a terrible time remembering everything though, and always felt one step behind, because a type course is 80% memorizing crap and 20% stick-and-rudder skills.

At 45 you are not really an old timer but are starting to get there and may find that absorbing information is the tougher part (already flying gliders, the stick and rudder aspect will be effortless anyway). Even the private course these days has a mind boggling amount of information content (I did my private in the mid 70s and my ground school was a two weekend, unfortunately named "crash course" - you could never do that today).

So, be ready for that.

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  • $\begingroup$ They still offer crash courses for the aviation theory exams for your PPL. But they now take 2 WEEKS full time rather than 2 weekends. Interesting way to spend your summer vacation, I was seriously considering it until I got my medical denied partway through training. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 14 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ For the memory issue there is Anki. It is absolutely terrific for learning checklists by heart. I use it with the independent Android client. $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Aug 14 at 6:56
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting I hope they use a name other than "crash course". :-/ $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 14 at 9:58
  • $\begingroup$ That actual name they used was "intensive ground school". Crash course was more of an informal name you might say. It worked if you took the exam right away after, and if you started flight training right away to start using the knowledge. When I did my private, in 1975, we didn't do any radio nav, or hood. $\endgroup$ – John K Aug 14 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby yeah, they call it the "ppl brainwash". $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 15 at 3:28

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