Presently, the United States is undergoing a shortage of airline pilots. For the first time since 9/11, virtually all companies, from flight schools to the majors, are hiring. If you have ever thought about becoming a professional pilot, the time is now.
If you would like to pursue an aviation career, the first step is to get a college degree. Most companies do not require a specific course of study, but do require a bachelor's degree. Since aviation is an inherently unstable industry, my recommendation is that you major in something other than aviation. If you have a physical problem or lose your job in an industry downturn, this will make it easier to transition to another career.
After earning your degree, you will need to obtain a commercial pilot license for multi-engine airplanes. A commercial license requires 250 flight hours and an instrument rating. Typically, students earn a private pilot license first, then an instrument rating, then a commercial license.
Aside from military training, there are two main routes to a commercial pilot license. The first option is to go to a local airport and find a flight school there. The second option is to enroll at a large training academy. There are advantages and disadvantages to both options.
Local flight schools, normally called FBO (fixed base operator) schools, are more convenient and less expensive. You don't have to move or take time off from work to attend. You can work on your own schedule and your own budget. FBO training also offers more real world experience than academy training. You will find different aircraft, different instructors with different perspectives, different weather, and different places. Most academies are located in Sun Belt areas like Florida or Arizona, so your exposure to bad weather is limited.
Disadvantages are that the training might not be oriented towards professional flying and the instructors are of unknown quality. Some FBO instructors are excellent and some are not. Some are retired jet pilots and some have never flown anything larger than a Cessna 172. Some are very professional and others are only building time to go to an airline. Speak to current students and find an instructor that is right for you.
Flight training academies are expensive and may require you to quit or take a leave of absence from your job, but they also have some important advantages. You can complete your training at an academy much faster than at an FBO. Zero time students can obtain a commercial license in as little as nine months. Because academy instructors are standardized, you can be sure that the quality of your training will be high, regardless of who you fly with. Many academies also have placement programs or offer interview opportunities for graduates.
Academy training is similar to airline training in many ways, and this can help you later in your career. Academies use checklists that are similar to those found in jet aircraft. Additionally, academies will expose you to flight simulators. Simulators are used extensively in the airline interview process and in airline training.
An additional consideration is that academy graduates often log more multi-engine time than FBO pilots. The normal progression for an FBO pilot is to earn a single-engine commercial license then add a multi-engine rating. In the academy where I taught, the normal syllabus called for a private multi-engine license first. The student then flew multi-engine airplanes while working on his instrument rating. Finally, they would add the commercial license. This means that academy students have many more multi-engine hours on their resumes. This looks good to prospective employers. Other than that, the license that you will receive from training at either school is the same.
My personal recommendation, based on instructing at FBOs and academies, is to start flying at an FBO. Earn your private license at an FBO and see if flying is for you. Continue to fly and build some cross-country flight time, which is a requirement for the instrument rating. If you continue to believe that an aviation career is for you, transfer to an academy when you have a private license and twenty to thirty hours of cross-country time. This will give you the advantage of more standardized training for your instrument and multi-engine training, while giving you the real world experience of FBO flying for the first part of your training. At the same time, you will save thousands of dollars.
Depending on the job market when you get your license, you may need to build flight time to be attractive to the airlines. If you are lucky, the airlines will be facing a pilot shortage and will hire you as soon as you get your license. If you are not lucky, you may spend years building time.
The most common way to build flight time is to earn a Certified Flight Instructor license and teach others to fly. This is not for everyone. To be a good instructor, you have to be a good communicator as well as being a good pilot. Others might find jobs flying freight in twin-engine piston airplanes or flying as a First Officer for a charter company. Forest fire patrol, aerial photography, traffic reporting, and flying on personal business are other ways to build flight time while earning money. Groups like the Civil Air Patrol and the US Coast Guard Auxiliary don't pay, but do allow you to build time at low cost. Opportunities to earn Pilot-in-Command (as opposed to Second-in-Command or First Officer) or multi-engine flight time look best on your resume.
When you get close to the minimum flight times found on the websites of your target airlines, start sending out resumes. Your first airline job will probably be with a regional airline flying turboprops or regional jets. These companies pay poorly for the first couple of years, but allow you to earn hundreds of hours of jet time each year. Job fairs, such as those put on by Air Inc. (jet-jobs.com) are are excellent ways to meet airline recruiters and get interviews.
Entry level jobs in aviation pay poorly and require long hours. Find professional pilot mentors to find out what the career is really like before you start the journey. If possible, save a large nest egg to pay for training and help you through the early years. Avoiding large debts early on can help minimize your stress level later.
Professional aviation is a fun career. The view from the office window is great and it definitely beats working for a living. Plan your career and make good choices and it will be a source of enjoyment for years to come.