Commercial Pilots Overview

Many commercial pilots gain valuable flight training in the military, but more and more are earning college degrees and taking flight training courses from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified schools. Newly hired pilots working for major airlines usually start with about 4,000 hours of experience and those jobs see the greatest competition due to better pay and benefits.

Nature of the Work for Commercial Pilots

Commercial Pilots

Commercial pilots fly airplanes or helicopters. They make up 34 percent of all aircraft pilots. Commercial pilots don’t work for major airlines or even regional airlines. Instead, they may test aircraft, direct firefighting efforts, monitor traffic, dust crops, spread seed for reforestation, track criminals or evacuate injured persons.

On small aircrafts commercial pilots may work alone, but typically two pilots make up the crew in the cockpit. Usually the more experienced pilot will take on the role of captain supervising other crew members. The copilot is often called the first office. Together they share flight duties, communicate with air traffic control and monitor instruments. New technology now performs many flight tasks and pilots rely more heavily on computerized instruments and controls.

Commercial pilots are responsible for planning their flights before departure. They must check their aircraft to ensure systems are functioning as they should. In addition they must check the cargo load. Working with flight dispatchers and aviation weather forecasters, commercial pilots choose a route, speed and altitude that will provide the most economical and safest flight according to current weather conditions. When there is poor visibility they must fly under instrument flight rules.

Usually takeoff and landing are the most challenging parts of flying and require both pilots to coordinate. Unless there is bad weather, the rest of the flight is routine. They use the flight management computer system and autopilot to steer the plane along the planned route. Commercial pilots must scan the instrument panel to check on hydraulic systems fuel supply, engines and more. Occasionally they may make a change in altitude if they hit turbulence or want to find a weaker headwind to conserve fuel for example. When flying helicopters, commercial pilots’ biggest concern is typically to watch for dangerous obstacles such as low flying aircraft, bridges, power lines, trees and transmission towers.

When visibility is poor, commercial pilots must rely solely on their instruments including altimeter readings, special navigation radios and other sophisticated equipment that can help them get on the ground without an outside visual reference.

Commercial pilots may have to perform nonflying duties such as loading the aircraft, supervising refueling, keeping records, arranging for major maintenance, scheduling flights and performing minor maintenance and repair to aircraft.

Commercial pilots face job hazards that are different from other aircraft pilots. For example, those who are test pilots, check the flight performance of experimental or new planes are in a dangerous position. Crop dusting commercial pilots rarely land on a regular landing strip and may be exposed to the toxic chemicals they’re spraying. Some helicopter pilots work in rescue and police work, and they’re at risk for personal injury. Hearing loss from prolong exposure to the aircraft’s engine noise is a job risk for all pilots including commercial pilots.

Flying can cause mental stress as commercial pilots are responsible for a safe flight and must respond immediately when there is a problem.

The work schedules of commercial pilots are often irregular. They may fly 30 hours one month and 90 the next. Commercial pilots often have many nonflying responsibilities as well so they don’t have much free time compared to aircraft pilots. Overnight hours away from are rare aside from corporate flight department pilots, though odd hours are common. When working for companies that own a fleet of planes, commercial pilots may have a regular schedule.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Commercial Pilots

Military training is common for pilots, but more and more are earning college degrees and enrolling in flight training schools certified by the FAA. Commercial pilots paid to transport passengers or cargo must be licensed as a commercial pilot.

A few small airlines will hire high school graduates, but most prefer employees with atleast 2 year college degrees. Most commercial pilots have college degrees and as this becomes more common, employers are also increasingly making it an educational requirement. Commercial pilots should study aeronautical engineering, physics, English and mathematics.

Flight experience is also necessary to be licensed. The Armed Forces can provide these flight hours, however more pilots are now attending flight schools or taking FAA-certified courses. The flight school route can reduce the amount of experience needed for a pilot’s license.

Also for the license, commercial pilots must be at least 18 years old and have logged 250 hours of flying time. A strict physical exam covering eyesight, hearing and physical handicaps that could impair performance along with a written exam are also required. They must be rated by the FAA to fly by instruments when they must fly during low visibility.

New commercial pilots typically start as first officers or flight engineers. Usually a commercial pilot’s license is the minimum requirement to get a job and most employers prefer commercial pilots to have experience in the type of aircraft they’ll be flying.

Commercial pilots may be able to advance to other flying jobs. They may fly charter plans or corporate planes for example.

Top 10 Most Popular Airline/Commercial/Professional Pilot and Flight Crew Schools

1. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University - Online School (Online School)
2. Aerosim Flight Academy (Sanford, Florida)
3. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach (Daytona Beach, Florida)
4. University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, North Dakota)
5. Utah Valley University (Orem, Utah)
6. Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, Michigan)
7. Green River Community College (Auburn, Washington)
8. Metropolitan State College of Denver (Denver, Colorado)
9. Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas)
10. San Juan College (Farmington, New Mexico)

See All Airline/Commercial/Professional Pilot and Flight Crew Schools

Online School: Embry Riddle Aeronautical University - Online School

Employment and Job Outlook for Commercial Pilots

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow about as fast as average (increase 7 - 13%).

About 39,200 commercial pilots are employed. They may fly cargo or executives in airplanes or helicopters. Others fly small planes for air-taxi companies that travel to smaller airports not served by major airlines. Commercial pilots may also work for a variety of businesses conducting sightseeing trips, inspecting pipelines, dusting crops and more.

Jobs for commercial pilots should grow at an average rate over the next decade. Jobs at the major airlines are tough to get, but commercial pilots should have an easier time finding work. The most experience pilots will usually find the best opportunities.

Jobs with air cargo carriers are expected to increase as security requirements for shipping freight on passenger jets are becoming stricter, plus there’ s a growth in electronic commerce and a greater demand for global freight. Commercial pilots will also find new jobs in on-demand air taxi, commuter, business and corporate travel. Jobs will also arise as workers retire or leave the occupation for other reasons. Commercial pilots are required to retire at age 65.

Commercial pilots are often affected by the economy. During recessions, fewer flights are needed so airlines and businesses my have to temporarily cut back it’s staff of commercial pilots.

Earnings and Salary for Commercial Pilots

The median annual salaries for commercial pilots are $65,840. The highest 10 percent earn more than $120,550, the lowest 10 percent earn under $32,520 and the middle 50 percent earn between $46,330 and $88,050.

Annual Salary for Commercial Pilots

On average, Commercial Pilots earn $65,840 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $32,520/yr $46,330/yr $88,050/yr $120,550/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook