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Airplane Pilot Job Description, Career as an Airplane Pilot, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training Varies—see profile

Salary Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Pilots fly aircraft of all sizes, transporting passengers and cargo across the state and around the world. They are responsible for the safety of the airplane, its passengers, the crew, and any cargo on board.

Most pilots work for major airlines that carry passengers and cargo. Airlines require two pilots in the cockpit flying the plane: the captain and the copilot, also known as the first officer. Before a flight, they examine the airplane's control equipment, checking each item off a list. After determining the weather and flight conditions, the captain has their flight plans approved by the air traffic controllers. Meanwhile, the copilot charts the airplane's route and computes the flying time. By radio the captain then requests that the aircraft dispatcher give permission for them to taxi, or begin moving, to the runway. After receiving clearance for takeoff, the pilots accelerate the plane down the runway until it achieves lift and is airborne.

Once the plane is in the air, it usually flies itself by an electronic automatic pilot. The captain and copilot regularly report to air-route control stations by radio, reporting any problems they may have. They receive information about the

Airplane pilots are responsible for the safety of their plane, passengers, crew, and cargo. (© Svenja-Foto/zefa/Corbis.)

weather and any traffic in their part of the sky. Near their destination airport, the captain rechecks the landing gear and requests clearance to land from the air traffic controllers. In poor visibility the landing may be performed entirely by instruments. After landing, the pilots must file a flight report. The plane is then turned over to the maintenance crew.

About one out of five pilots do not work for major airlines. Test pilots, for example, fly new or experimental planes to examine their flight performance and safety. Check pilots or pilot examiners regularly observe other pilots to review their flying ability. They are employed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and by large airlines. Business pilots fly aircraft—usually smaller jets—owned by private companies. Between flights, they may be in charge of maintenance. Agricultural pilots, or crop dusters, fly planes that drop chemical fertilizers and pest killers on crops. They sometimes work as firefighters, flying over forest fires to drop chemicals that douse flames.

Helicopter pilots fly over highways to report on traffic conditions and accidents. Others provide ambulance services, help fire departments extinguish fires, and assist rescue operations in wilderness and mountain areas. Private companies hire helicopter pilots to provide commuter services.

Education and Training Requirements

Most employers prefer college graduates for the job. Test pilots are usually required to have engineering degrees.

All pilots who are paid to transport passengers or cargo must have commercial pilot's licenses. Applicants must be at least eighteen years old and have at least 250 hours of flight experience. Fewer hours of flight experience are required of applicants who participate in certain FAA-approved flight schools. Applicants must also pass strict physical examinations to determine that they are in good health and have both good hearing and vision correctable to 20/20. The FAA also administers two tests for the license: one is a written test to check knowledge of FAA rules, navigation techniques, and the principles of safe flight; the other is a demonstration of flying skills, including flying by instruments, for an FFA check pilot. Licenses are granted for certain classes and types of airplanes. For example, all pilots must have ratings for the class of plane they can fly (such as single-engine, multiengine, or seaplane) and for the specific type of plane (such as DC-9s or Boeing 747s).

Some pilots need additional qualifications. For example, pilots must have instrument ratings to fly airplanes entirely by instrument when visibility is poor. The FAA rating requires that pilots have forty hours of experience in instrument flying. Helicopter pilots must have special helicopter ratings.

Airline pilots also need airline transport licenses. To qualify, pilots must be at least twenty-three years old and have a total of fifteen hundred hours of flight time, including night and instrument flying. Commercial pilots also need restricted radio operator's permits from the Federal Communications Commission. They must also pass psychological and aptitude tests.

The armed forces provide excellent pilot training. Flying can also be learned at one of the six hundred FAA-certified civilian flying schools. Either kind of training satisfies the flight experience requirements for commercial licensing.

Once hired, airline pilots must undergo a week of company orientation; three to six weeks of ground school and simulator training; and twenty-five hours of operating experience, culminating with a check ride with an FAA pilot examiner. Pilots must participate in additional training and simulator checks once or twice each year.

Getting the Job

Most airline pilots begin as flight engineers, who are stationed in the cockpit and make certain that the aircraft and all the instruments are in good working order. After one to five years, they can advance to first officer. The best opportunities for new airline pilots are with smaller, regional airlines.

Flight schools can offer job placement assistance in airline and commercial flying. Internet job sites as well as the FAA Web site also provide job listings.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Pilots are at the top of their profession, although they can advance through seniority: those who work for the same companies for many years receive higher pay and better routes. Some pilots take jobs as pilot examiners or airline administrators. Other pilots open their own flying schools. A few become air traffic controllers.

Employment of professional pilots is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. As smaller, no-frills airlines continue to grow and as the amount of cargo shipped by air expands, demand for pilots should increase. However, most passenger airlines have more qualified applicants than they have positions available, so competition is stiff. Jobs are likely to go to those pilots who have logged the greatest number of flying hours and have the most licenses and ratings. Those with military experience also have an advantage.

Working Conditions

Airline pilots work about sixteen days a month. They usually spend fewer than seventy hours a month actually flying, with the remaining time spent performing nonflying duties. By FFA rules, pilots may not fly more than one hundred hours per month or one thousand hours per year. The majority of flights involve layovers away from home.

While aircraft are usually clean and comfortable, the job involves considerable risk. For example, commercial pilots on international routes suffer from jet lag—a disorientation and fatigue caused by many hours of flying through different time zones. Test pilots have particularly dangerous jobs: if the planes they fly do not operate properly, they can be seriously injured or killed. Agricultural pilots often work with toxic chemicals.

Although flying does not involve much physical effort, pilots are subject to stress and must always be alert to make decisions quickly. They work under constant pressure, because they are responsible for the safety of their aircraft, passengers, and cargo. They can lose their jobs at any time if they do not pass demanding physical examinations.

Earnings and Benefits

Pilots are paid according to the type, size, and speed of their airplanes and the number of hours and miles they fly. They receive extra pay for night work and for international flights. In 2004 the median salary of all airline pilots was $129,250 per year. Some senior captains of very large aircraft earned more than $200,000 per year. Many airline pilots are members of unions.

The median salary for commercial pilots was $53,870 per year. The most experienced commercial pilots earned more than $110,070 per year.

Where to Go for More Information

Air Line Pilots Association, International
1625 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20036
(703) 689-2270

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
421 Aviation Way
Frederick, MD 21701-4756
(301) 695-2000

Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations
1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Ste. 6646
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 756-2956

Benefits vary by employer, but usually include paid vacations, sick leave, retirement plans, and health and life insurance. Airline pilots and their immediate families can fly at reduced airfare. Living accommodations and allowances are provided when airline pilots are away from home.

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