By Jordan Bullock CFI, Boeing 737 Pilot
Being a pilot can be a lucrative career. It’s no secret that pilots, especially well experienced ones, are paid handsomely. Within our society, being a pilot is a well respected field of work. Airline pilots are treated in the same social hierarchy as Doctors and Lawyers. This is due to the basic understanding that most people have, that being a pilot not only requires a unique skillset, but a mental strength and aptitude that allows one to stay focused when emergencies happen at 38,000 feet.
Becoming a pilot is the hard part. Oftentimes, prospective students have no idea where to start or how to achieve their goal of getting paid in the sky. Having been a flight instructor, I’ve become accustomed to the typical question of, “How much does it cost to become a pilot?”. To answer that, let's first take a look at the recent history of pilots.
Historically, most professional pilots have come from the military. Post World War II, airline travel was in its infancy. As it became more and more popular, experienced veterans were brought in. Post Vietnam war is maybe even more of an example of this as airline flying was in its heyday. Most pilots then came from the military and likely had many combat hours.
In the 90’s and 2000’s, a majority of pilots at the legacy airlines were former military in some way as well. As the military pilots have dwindled, civilian pilots became more and more common. It’s not entirely rare to have a cockpit on a commercial airline flight composed of a crew with zero military experience.
As mentioned above, traditionally airline pilots had amassed thousands of hours before arriving at the airlines to fly paying passengers. This allowed the FAA to require a mere commercial pilot license (250 hours) to be employed by the airline, however it was extremely unlikely that one was flying for an airline with anything less than a couple thousand hours of flight time. This all changed after the Colgan Air Flight 3407.
The Colgan incident changed aviation. It forced the FAA to create the ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) license which requires 1,500 hours of flight time. Holding an ATP is now a requirement to work at an airline within the United States. This new license requirement has ushered in a golden age of aviation.
Type of Training
To figure out how much becoming a pilot costs, we need to differentiate between two types of schools. First, you have part 141 schools. These schools abide by FAR Part 141, and typically leave a student with not only all their pilot licenses through CFI, but usually a Bachelors of Science in an aviation related field. These are full time college programs and thus, cost in the six figure range, oftentimes much more. The program is structured down to every detail and usually has large class sizes and newer fleets.
For the sake of this article, we will discuss only the Part 61 path and costs associated with that. Part 61 is basically your mom and pop flight schools. The ones at local, usually non towered, airports with dinged up 172’s and Archers. Every hour requirement and specific flight requirement is in Part 61, which is what most licenses are issued under.
To begin, we will assume we are an aviation student looking at the costs, starting from zero hours. Let’s start out by looking at a local flight school in the Tampa Bay area. The cost of a Cessna 172 is $166 ($165.44 but again, rounding up) an hour with an instructor fee of $85 ($84.48, but let's round up) an hour. This includes the club rate, which would be a no brainer for a prospective student. Let's assume the student will be finishing their private time at the national average, around 60 flight hours total, with 50 hours of flight instruction time. So in plane rental costs only, it comes out to $9,960, plus the instruction costs of $4,250 and we come out to $14,210.
To be conservative, we should probably have an extra 10 hours of ground flight instruction onto this; so we come out to $15,060. This is just for a private pilot license. This does not include an iPad (not required but recommended) or examiner fee.
With a private license, you are well on your way to becoming a professional. Once you get your commercial license, you’re legally allowed to get paid to fly! The best way to figure out how much it costs to obtain a commercial license is basing your flight time on 250 hours and your instruction time at 100 hours, that should cover any IFR training and ground school as well. So, using the same numbers as above: 250 hours of flight time will cost $41,500 and 100 hours of instruction will cost $8,500. You’re looking at a grand total of $50k to reach your goal. That’s on par with a 4 year college tuition.
All in all, it's extremely expensive to become a pilot. But, not many people get to have an office at the flight levels, much less a well paying one! In this article we’ve broken down the basic costs of getting your pilot license, but so many factors influence what you will pay. Above all, it’s the individual study habits that play the biggest role. In my experience as a CFI, the best student I ever had came fully prepared from day 1; he had already studied and prepped almost every lesson he could find online, he was early everyday and did all his own walkarounds before our time together, and he had already possessed a private pilot level of knowledge before his first hour in the air (shoutout Max!). All this and he spent just over $12k for his private (in 2021). The big takeaway is preparation is key, and the more prepared you are the cheaper it will be in the long run!
By Jordan Bullock CFI, Boeing 737 Pilot
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