A pilot could...
|Rescue lost or injured people and transport them to hospitals.||Dust crops to kill pests and fungi that damage fruits and vegetables.|
|Test new military or commercial aircraft for handling, speed, and safety.||Fly food and drinking water supplies to areas devastated by earthquakes.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||Pilots fly airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft to accomplish a variety of tasks. While the primary job of most pilots is to fly people and cargo from place to place, 20 percent of all pilots have more specialized jobs, like dropping fire retardant, seeds, or pesticides from the air, or helping law enforcement rescue and transport accident victims, and capture criminals. Pilots enjoy working and helping people in the “third dimension."|
|Key Requirements||Good physical and mental condition, organized, meticulous, alert, logical, with excellent communication skills and a love of travel and adventure|
|Minimum Degree||Bachelor's degree|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Physics, computer science, algebra, geometry, algebra II, English; if available, applied technology, foreign language|
|Projected Job Growth (2010-2020)||Much Faster than Average (21% or more)|
|Interview||Read these interviews to meet a co-pilot, a helicopter pilot, and a test pilot.|
Training, Other Qualifications
All pilots who are paid to transport passengers or cargo must have a commercial pilot’s license with an instrument rating issued by the FAA. Helicopter pilots also must hold a commercial pilot’s license with a helicopter rating.
Education and Training
Although some small airlines hire high school graduates, most airlines require at least 2 years of college and prefer to hire college graduates. In fact, most entrants to this occupation have a college degree. Because the number of college-educated applicants continues to increase, many employers are making a college degree an educational requirement. For example, test pilots often are required to have an engineering degree.
Pilots also need flight experience to qualify for a license. Completing classes at a flight school approved by the FAA can reduce the amount of flight experience required for a pilot’s license. In 2006, the FAA certified about 600 civilian flying schools, including some colleges and universities that offer degree credit for pilot training. Initial training for airline pilots typically includes a week of company indoctrination; 3–6 weeks of ground school and simulator training; and 25 hours of initial operating experience, including a check-ride with an FAA aviation safety inspector. Once trained, pilots are required to attend recurrent training and simulator checks once or twice a year throughout their career.
Depending on the type of aircraft, new airline pilots start as first officers or flight engineers. Although some airlines favor applicants who already have a flight engineer’s license, they may provide flight engineer training for those who have only the commercial license. Many pilots begin with smaller regional or commuter airlines, where they obtain experience flying passengers on scheduled flights into busy airports in all weather conditions. These jobs often lead to higher paying jobs with bigger, national, or major airlines.
Companies other than airlines usually require less flying experience. However, a commercial pilot’s license is a minimum requirement, and employers prefer applicants who have experience in the type of craft they will be flying. New employees usually start as first officers, or fly less-sophisticated equipment.
Nature of the Work
Watch this video to see test pilots from two different companies, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman, compete in a "fly-off" contest to see which plane the Air Force will choose to build.
Pilots are highly trained professionals who fly airplanes or helicopters to carry out a wide variety of tasks. Most are airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers who transport passengers and cargo. However, 1 out of 5 pilots is a commercial pilot involved in dusting crops, spreading seed for reforestation, testing aircraft, flying passengers and cargo to areas not served by regular airlines, directing firefighting efforts, tracking criminals, monitoring traffic, and rescuing and evacuating injured persons.
Before departure, pilots plan their flights carefully. They thoroughly check their aircraft to make sure that the engines, controls, instruments, and other systems are functioning properly. They also make sure that baggage or cargo has been loaded correctly. They confer with flight dispatchers and aviation weather forecasters to find out about weather conditions en route and at their destination. Based on this information, they choose a route, altitude, and speed that will provide the safest, most economical, and smoothest flight. When flying under instrument flight rules—procedures governing the operation of the aircraft when there is poor visibility—the pilot in command, or the company dispatcher, normally files an instrument flight plan with air traffic control so that the flight can be coordinated with other air traffic.
Takeoff and landing are the most difficult parts of the flight, and require close coordination between the two pilots. Unless the weather is bad, though, the flight itself is relatively routine. Airplane pilots, with the assistance of autopilot and the flight management computer, steer the plane along their planned route and are monitored by the air traffic control stations they pass along the way. They regularly scan the instrument panel to check their fuel supply; the condition of their engines; and the air-conditioning, hydraulic, and other systems. Pilots may request a change in altitude or route if circumstances dictate. They must also monitor warning devices designed to help detect sudden shifts in wind conditions that can cause crashes.
Pilots must rely completely on their instruments when visibility is poor. On the basis of altimeter readings, they know how high above ground they are and whether they can fly safely over mountains and other obstacles. Special navigation radios give pilots precise information that, with the help of special charts, tells them their exact position. Other very sophisticated equipment provides directions to a point just above the end of a runway and enables pilots to land completely without an outside visual reference. Once on the ground, pilots must complete records on their flight and the aircraft maintenance status for their company and the FAA.
The number of nonflying duties that pilots have depends on the employment setting. Airline pilots have the services of large support staffs and, consequently, perform few nonflying duties. However, because of the large numbers of passengers, airline pilots may be called upon to coordinate handling of disgruntled or disruptive passengers. Also, under the Federal Flight Deck Officer program airline pilots who undergo rigorous training and screening are deputized as federal law enforcement officers and are issued firearms to protect the cockpit against intruders and hijackers. Pilots employed by other organizations, such as charter operators or businesses, have many other duties. They may load the aircraft, handle all passenger luggage to ensure a balanced load, and supervise refueling; other nonflying responsibilities include keeping records, scheduling flights, arranging for major maintenance, and performing minor aircraft maintenance and repairs.
Some pilots are flight instructors. They teach their students in ground-school classes, in simulators, and in dual-controlled planes and helicopters. A few specially trained pilots are examiners or check pilots. They periodically fly with other pilots or pilot’s license applicants to make sure that they are proficient.
Most pilots spend a considerable amount of time away from home because the majority of flights involve overnight layovers. When pilots are away from home, the airlines provide hotel accommodations, transportation between the hotel and airport, and an allowance for meals and other expenses.
Airline pilots, especially those on international routes, often experience jet lag—fatigue caused by many hours of flying through different time zones. To guard against pilot fatigue, which could result in unsafe flying conditions, the FAA requires airlines to allow pilots at least 8 hours of uninterrupted rest in the 24 hours before finishing their flight duty.
Commercial pilots face other types of job hazards. The work of test pilots, who check the flight performance of new and experimental planes, may be dangerous. Pilots who are crop-dusters may be exposed to toxic chemicals and seldom have the benefit of a regular landing strip. Helicopter pilots involved in rescue and police work may be subject to personal injury.
Although flying does not involve much physical effort, the mental stress of being responsible for a safe flight, regardless of the weather, can be tiring. Pilots must be alert and quick to react if something goes wrong, particularly during takeoff and landing.
FAA regulations limit flying time of airline pilots of large aircraft to a maximum of 100 hours a month or 1,000 hours a year. Most airline pilots fly an average of 65 to 75 hours a month and work at least an additional 65 to 75 hours a month performing nonflying duties. Most pilots have variable work schedules, working several days on, then several days off. Airlines operate flights at all hours of the day and night, so work schedules often are irregular. Flight assignments are based on seniority; the sooner pilots are hired, the stronger their bidding power is for preferred assignments.
Commercial pilots also may have irregular schedules, flying 30 hours one month and 90 hours the next. Because these pilots frequently have many nonflying responsibilities, they have much less free time than do airline pilots. Except for corporate flight department pilots, most commercial pilots do not remain away from home overnight. But, they may work odd hours. However, if the company owns a fleet of planes, pilots may fly a regular schedule.
Flight instructors may have irregular and seasonal work schedules, depending on their students’ available time and the weather. Instructors frequently work in the evening or on weekends.
On the Job
- Check aircraft prior to flights to ensure that the engines, controls, instruments, and other systems are functioning properly.
- Contact control towers for takeoff clearances, arrival instructions, and other information, using radio equipment.
- Start engines, operate controls, and pilot airplanes to transport passengers, mail, or freight according to flight plans, regulations, and procedures.
- Monitor engine operation, fuel consumption, and functioning of aircraft systems during flights.
- Consider airport altitudes, outside temperatures, plane weights, and wind speeds and directions to calculate the speed needed to become airborne.
- Order changes in fuel supplies, loads, routes, or schedules to ensure safety of flights.
- Obtain and review data, such as load weights, fuel supplies, weather conditions, and flight schedules to determine flight plans and identify needed changes.
- Plan flights according to government and company regulations, using aeronautical charts and navigation instruments.
- Use instrumentation to pilot aircraft when visibility is poor.
- Check baggage or cargo to ensure that it has been loaded correctly.
- Request changes in altitudes or routes as circumstances dictate.
- Choose routes, altitudes, and speeds that will provide the fastest, safest, and smoothest flights.
- Coordinate flight activities with ground crews and air traffic control, and inform crew members of flight and test procedures.
- Write specified information in flight records, such as flight times, altitudes flown, and fuel consumption.
- Teach company regulations and procedures to other pilots.
- Instruct other pilots and student pilots in aircraft operations.
- Co-pilot aircraft, or perform captain´s duties if required.
- File instrument flight plans with air traffic control so that flights can be coordinated with other air traffic.
- Conduct in-flight tests and evaluations at specified altitudes and in all types of weather to determine the receptivity and other characteristics of equipment and systems.
- Rescue and evacuate injured persons.
- Supervise other crew members.
- Perform minor aircraft maintenance and repair work, or arrange for major maintenance.
- Fly with other pilots or pilot-license applicants to evaluate their proficiency.
- Plan and formulate flight activities and test schedules and prepare flight evaluation reports.
- Pilot airplanes or helicopters over farmlands at low altitudes to dust or spray fields with fertilizers, fungicides, or pesticides.
- Check the flight performance of new and experimental planes.
Companies That Hire Pilots
Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...
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- Into the Wild Blue Yonder: The Science of Launching an Airplane by Catapult
- Let's Go Fly a Kite!
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- The 'Ultimate' Science Fair Project: Flying Disk Aerodynamics
- The Wright Stuff: Using Kites to Study Aerodynamics
- Up, Up, and Away in Your Own Hot-air Balloon!
- Which Wing Design Creates the Greatest Lift?
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- Wild Winds: Detecting Turbulence Around Structures
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Do you have a specific question about a career as a Pilot that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- Federal Aviation Administration: www.faa.gov
- O*Net Online. (2009). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved May 1, 2009, from http://online.onetcenter.org/
- 74flateric (username) at YouTube.com. (2007, December 11). Northrop and Lockheed Test Pilots Remembering ATF Fly-Off. Retrieved August 10, 2009, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3ghmQ_Ts30
- Cislunar Aerospace, Inc. (1998, January 19). People Who Fly 'Em. Retrieved August 10, 2009, from http://wings.avkids.com/Careers/fly.html
- Cislunar Aerospace, Inc. (1998, January 19). People Who Test and Inspect 'Em. Retrieved August 10, 2009, from http://wings.avkids.com/Careers/test.html
We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:
- Northrop Grumman