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Pilot and Flight Engineer Careers, Jobs and Employment Information

Pilot and Flight Engineer Career and Job Highlights

  • Business aviation and regional airlines offer the best career and job opportunities.
  • High paying jobs with national airlines are generally available to pilots who gain qualifying experience with regional and small-commuter airlines.
  • Although a majority of pilots have historically been trained through military service, an increasing number of pilots receive flight training from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified, degree-granting civilian flying schools.

Pilot and Flight Engineer Career Overview and Job Description

As highly trained professionals, pilots operate airplanes and helicopters to provide a wide variety of services. While the majority of pilots work as airline pilots, copilots, or flight engineers, a fifth of all pilots are commercial pilots—a job that entails numerous atypical duties including crop dusting, seed-spreading (for reforestation), aircraft testing, firefighting supervision/assistance, criminal tracking, traffic monitoring, cargo and passenger transport to non-airline serviced areas and rescue and evacuation of wounded persons.

With the exception of some small aircraft, a cockpit crew generally consists of two pilots. In most cases, the aircraft and its crew members are under the command and supervision of the most experienced pilot, referred to as the captain. The duties involved with the aircraft’s operation—including instrument monitoring and communication with air traffic controllers—are shared between the pilot and the copilot, also called the first officer. In some large aircraft, a third pilot—known as the flight engineer—may be present. His duties include the operation and monitoring of numerous systems and instruments, watching for other aircraft and performing minor in-flight repairs and adjustments. However, with the advent of new technology, most aircraft are operated by only two pilots, as many flight tasks can be performed by computerized controls.

Pilots plan their flights carefully prior to departure. Pilots ensure the proper functioning of the engine, controls, instruments and other systems by making a thorough inspection of the aircraft. They also verify the proper loading of cargo and baggage. They gain information about en route and destination weather conditions by communicating with aviation weather forecasters and flight dispatchers. Taking all of this information into consideration, pilots then choose the route, speed and altitude that will provide the safest, smoothest and fastest flight. The commanding pilot or the company dispatcher will normally file an instrument flight plan with air traffic control when the aircraft will operate under instrument flight rules, which govern aircraft operation when visibility is poor. This allows the flight to be coordinated with other air traffic.

Careful coordination between the pilot and first officer is especially required during takeoff and landing—the most challenging elements of flight. For instance, the pilot must concentrate on the runway while the first officer monitors the instrument panel as the plane accelerates for takeoff. Pilots must consider the outside temperature, the aircraft’s weight, the airport’s altitude and the wind speed and direction in order to calculate the speed necessary for the plane to leave ground. The first officer immediately informs the pilot when this speed has been attained, and the pilot raises the nose of the aircraft by pulling back on the controls.

Except in cases of bad weather, the actual flight is comparatively simple. Aided by the flight management computer and autopilot, and monitored by en route air traffic control stations, airplane pilots steer the aircraft along the prepared route. They monitor the plane’s fuel supply, engine condition and hydraulic, air-conditioning and other systems by frequently scanning the plane’s instrument panel. Given certain conditions, pilots may request route or altitude adjustments. For example, if a flight experiences more turbulence than anticipated, pilots may ask air traffic control if better conditions have been reported by pilots at other altitudes. Accordingly, an altitude adjustment may be requested. Pilots may also follow this procedure in order to find a weaker headwind or stronger tailwind, in an effort to increase speed and decrease fuel consumption.

Unlike airplanes, helicopters generally make short trips at low altitudes. Accordingly, helicopter pilots must be continually aware of potentially dangerous obstacles, such as bridges, power lines, trees and transmission towers. Pilots of all types of aircraft must protect against crashes by paying close attention to warning devices that detect accident-causing, sudden wind shifts.

In poor visibility, pilots must depend entirely on their instruments. Altimeter readings indicate an aircraft’s above-ground height, and help pilots to determine if they can fly over mountains and other obstacles in safety. With the help of special maps, pilots can determine their precise position from information given by navigation radios. Pilots can also perform “blind” landings with the help of technologically-advanced equipment that guide the pilot to the runway. After landing, pilots make a full report of their flight for the FAA and for their specific organization.

Pilots may perform numerous non-fling duties, depending on their employment circumstances. Large support staffs generally assist airline pilots, who accordingly have few non-flying responsibilities. Organizations such as charter operators or private businesses generally require more non-fling duties of their pilots. Such pilots may be responsible for loading the aircraft, handling passenger-luggage to ensure a balanced load, and supervising the refueling process. Additional non-flying duties may include flight scheduling, record keeping, arrangement of major maintenance and performance of minor aircraft repairs and maintenance.

Pilots may also work as instructors. Flight instructors teach the principles of flight in regular classroom settings, and teach students how to operate aircraft in dual-controlled helicopters and planes. Certain specially trained pilots act as “examiners” or “check pilots.” These pilots verify the proficiency of pilot’s license applicants and other pilots by occasionally accompanying them on flights.

The law requires that airline pilots fly no more than 100 hours per month or 1000 hours per year. The majority of airline pilots average about 75 hours of flight time per month, and dedicate a further 75 hours to non-flying responsibilities. Pilots rarely have a “set” work schedule, often working several days and then resting several days. Since most flights involve overnight layovers, the majority of pilots spend significant time away from home. Airlines provide hotel accommodations, a meal and expense allowance and transportation between the airport and hotel for pilots who are away from home. Because most airlines provide flights throughout the entire day and night, work schedules can be erratic. Seniority generally dictates flight assignments.

Inconsistent schedules are normal for commercial pilots as well: they may fly as few as 30 hours one month and as many as 90 hours the next. Commercial pilots tend to have significantly less free time than airline pilots because of their many non-flying duties. However, most commercial pilots—with the exception of some business pilots—do not make many overnight trips away from home. Nonetheless, they may work unusual hours. Depending on weather conditions and the availability of students, flight instructors may follow irregular or seasonal work schedules. Instructors often work on weekends and in the evenings.

Many airline pilots experience fatigue known as “jet lag.” This syndrome, caused by extensive flight through numerous time zones, particularly affects international pilots. The FAA mandates that pilots receive at least 8 hours of continuous rest during the 24 hours prior to completing their flight duty in order to prevent excessive pilot exhaustion and any resulting hazardous flying conditions. Test pilots test the flight performance of new and experimental aircraft—a job that is occasionally dangerous. Crop dusting pilots are also encounter dangerous conditions in the forms of toxic chemical exposure and irregular landing areas. Helicopter pilots who work with the police or with rescue agencies also encounter the risk of personal harm.

Pilot and Flight Engineer Training and Job Qualifications

An FAA issued commercial pilot’s license and instrument rating are required of all pilots paid to transport cargo or passengers. Likewise, a commercial pilot’s certificate and helicopter rating are required for all helicopter pilots. Such licenses require that applicants be at least 18 years old and have 250 or more hours of flight experience. The completion of certain FAA-approved flight school programs may reduce the amount of required flight experience. Prospective pilots must also pass a rigorous physical examination, which verifies that applicants are in general good health, have 20/20 aided or unaided vision, good hearing, and no performance-impairing handicaps. Successful completion of a written exam testing applicants’ knowledge of navigation techniques, FAA regulations and the principles of safe flight, as well as a demonstration of flying proficiency to FAA-authorized examiners, are also require of all applicants.

Pilots must be rated by the FAA to fly by instruments in order to fly in conditions of low visibility. This rating may be obtained by pilots who complete105 hours of flight experience, including 40 hours of “flying by instruments.” A specific written exam and demonstration of proficiency are also required of all pilots interested in being rated to fly by instruments.

To fly for an airline, a pilot must meet further qualifications. In order to obtain the necessary airline transport pilot’s license, prospective airline pilots must be at least 23 years old and have completed no fewer than 1500 hours of flight experience, including instrument flying and night flying. They must also successfully complete written and flight examinations approved by the FAA. Depending on their specific employment, most new airline pilots also have a minimum of one advanced rating, such as specific aircraft-type or multiengine aircraft ratings. Many airline companies also require pilots to pass psychological and aptitude tests, which help determine a pilot’s ability to make quick and accurate decisions in pressure situations. All pilot’s licenses remain valid as long as a pilot meets physical and flying-ability requirements dictated by Federal and company regulations. These requirements are verified through periodic exams.

The United States military has provided a consistently significant flow of trained civilian pilots. Because of their extensive experience with jet aircraft and helicopters, military-trained pilots are typically preferred by civilian pilot employers. This is mostly due to the considerable actual flying experience military pilots receive in their training. Prospective pilots who have not received military training may become pilots through flight school attendance or through lessons provided by personal FAA-certified flight instructors. There are approximately 600 civilian flight schools that have been certified by the FAA, in addition to a number of universities that reward pilot training with credit toward a degree. In the near-term, it is unlikely that military-trained pilots will increase in proportion to the growing demand for civilian pilots. Accordingly, the future should see an increase in pilots trained by FAA-certified schools.

Although high-school graduates are occasionally employed by some small airlines, the vast majority of major airlines require no less than 2 years of college experience, and generally favor college graduates. Indeed, most civilian pilot applicants hold a college degree. As this trend continues, an increasing number of employers are requiring that all applicants have a college degree.

Airline pilots generally begin their career as either a first officer or flight engineer, according to their aircraft type. In some cases, employers prefer applicants who have already obtained a flight engineer’s license; often, however, airlines will offer flight engineer training to those who only have a commercial license. Pilots often obtain passenger-transport experience with small regional or commuter airlines before qualifying for higher paying jobs with large, national airlines.

An airline pilot’s preliminary training involves one week of company indoctrination and between 3 and 6 weeks of simulator and ground school training. Initial training also requires 25 hours of initial operating experience, including a check ride accompanied by an FAA aviation safety inspector. After initial training, and once they have attained “on-line” status, pilots must attend biannual simulator and training checks for the duration of their career.
Most non-airline employers of pilots do not require as much flying experience as airlines. But such organizations always require at least a commercial pilot’s license, and generally favor applicants who are experienced with the job’s specific aircraft. New pilots are normally assigned to less sophisticated aircraft, or begin as first officers of more complex equipment. A degree in engineering is often required of test pilots.

Pilots in all situations are generally limited in their advancement opportunities to other flying jobs. Pilots often begin their careers as flight instructors, which allows them to earn money while increasing their flight hours. With increased experience, these pilots may gain employment with small air-transportation companies, such as air-taxi firms, while others may advance to flying corporate aircraft. Occasionally, such pilots become flight engineers with major airlines.

Advancement within the airlines generally depends on seniority provisions, as defined in union contracts. Normally, flight engineers become first officers after 1 to 5 years (according to seniority), and first officers become captains after 5 to 15 years. Seniority also dictates which pilots fly the more sought-after routes. As in the airlines non-airline pilots have the opportunity to advance from first officer to pilot, but in the case of some larger companies, pilots may also become chief pilots or directors of aviation, with responsibilities including aircraft flight procedures, scheduling and maintenance.

Pilot Job and Employment Opportunities

The passenger airline industry is currently experiencing great volatility. Some airlines adding routes and services based on increased passenger traffic, while other airlines are making significant cutbacks. Despite this volatility, aircraft pilot employment is expected to increase at an equal pace as the rest of the job market through 2012. Also, as economies and populations grow, the demand for air travel should increase in the long run. But short-term employment of pilots is by and large responsive to cyclical economic changes. In time of economic recession, for example, airlines may temporarily layoff some pilots in response to decreased demand for air travel.

The events of September 11, 2001 caused an immediate and severe depression of air travel. Many airlines consequently had to reduce their number of flights, layoff pilots and, in some cases, declare bankruptcy. Notwithstanding, regional and low-fare airlines continued to hire new pilots. Job opportunities will likely continue to be more widely available with the faster-growing regional and low-fare airlines than with the more familiar major airlines. With the continued growth in security requirements for passenger airline freight-shipping, as well as increases in e-business, more job opportunities should also be available with air cargo carriers.

Major airlines generally receive significantly more pilot applicants than are needed, causing substantial competition for employment. In addition to competing against other new applicants, major airline applicants must also compete with laid off pilots for employment. Pilots who have the most flight experience with more sophisticated aircraft normally have the best chances. Accordingly, military pilots are frequently at an advantage. Nevertheless, before September 11, 2001, some airlines reported an increasing need for pilots qualified to operate the most complicated aircraft. As such, prospective pilots who have the most FAA licenses will have a competitive advantage when the job market improves. In the meantime, small airlines and corporate employers provide more prospects for pilots.

Job opportunities for flight engineers are expected to decrease through 2012, as old planes that require flight engineers are replaced by new planes that require only two pilots. Also, as airlines replace small planes with larger ones and emphasize faster turnaround times by adopting the low-fare carrier model, pilots should experience improvements in productivity and efficiency, spending more time in the air than on the ground.

Historical Earnings information

Pilots and flight engineers earn widely varying salaries according to their positions as airline pilots or commercial pilots. Airline pilots’ salaries are generally quite high, and vary according to size, type and maximum speed of the aircraft, as well as the number of flight hours. For instance, jet aircraft pilots generally make more than turboprop pilots. International and night flights often offer pilots and flight engineers additional pay. The 2002 median annual earnings of airline flight engineers, copilots and pilots were $109,580. 10 percent made less than $55,800, while over 25 percent made more than $145,000.

In 2002, annual earnings for commercial pilots had a median of $47,970. 50 percent made between $33,830 and $70,140. Ten percent of commercial pilots earned less than $26,100, and ten percent earned more than $101,460.

Most airlines finance life and health insurance plans for their pilots. Airlines also provide their pilots with retirement benefits and disability payments in the case of a failed FAA physical examination. Pilots are also allocated a “per diem,” which is an expense allowance that correlates directly with the amount of time pilots spend away from home. Certain airlines also offer pilots a stipend for uniform purchase and cleaning. Pilots also receive the added benefit of free or discounted air travel for themselves and their immediate families.

In excess of fifty percent of all pilots belong to unions. The Airline Pilots Association, International serves the union needs of nearly all the major airlines, with the exception of one airline, whose pilots belong to the Allied Pilots Association. The Flight Engineers’ International Association provides union services to some flight engineers.