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A Guide to Becoming a Pilot

by in Flight Training
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At Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, we know something about what it takes to become a pilot. After all, we’ve been educating and training civilian and military flyers since 1928. Today’s aviation industry is very different from what it was more than eighty years ago. Tomorrow’s aviation industry will be still more different, shaped by technologies now in the testing phase and regulations that have yet to be written. What’s certain about aviation is that it attracts adventurous characters, year after year. Spartan College presents this guide to earning your commercial pilot’s wings, along with career progression options. Step One: Get to Know the FAA The aviation industry in the United States is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a division of the Department of Transportation. The FAA oversees every aspect of the operation of civilian airspace, from the design and manufacture of aircraft to airport operation. It also confers licenses and certifications on pilots, flight instructors, and aviation maintenance technicians. Over the course of your pilot training, you will prepare for many written, oral, and practical tests administered by the FAA to earn your licenses. If you are serious about becoming a pilot, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the FAA before your first flight school course. Visit FAA.gov to read news, training manuals, and other information related to the aviation industry. Step Two: Get a Medical Exam and Student Pilot Certificate Pilots, especially pilots who wish to fly passenger aircraft someday, need to be in good physical condition. The FAA requires all pilots, including student pilots, to receive a medical examination from an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). AMEs are private physicians who receive training and authorization from the FAA. You can locate a nearby AME through the FAA’s AME Database at http://www.faa.gov/pilots/amelocator/. You will initially want a Third-Class Medical Certificate, which is required for student pilots, private pilots, and recreational pilots. The AME will check your

  • Vision, including color vision: You will need 20/40 vision in each eye, with or without correction.
  • Hearing
  • Mental health history
  • General health history: The AME will look for evidence of seizure disorders or other ailments that may affect your ability to fly safely.
  • Blood pressure: Must be under 155/95.

As you progress towards a Commercial Pilot License, you will be re-examined to receive a Second-Class Medical Certificate, which requires vision correctable to 20/20 in each eye. Airline Transport Pilots must have First-Class Medical Certificates. First-class tests cover the same requirements as the third- and second-class, with the addition of an echocardiogram to check heart function. An AME can often issue you a Student Pilot Certificate at the same time as your medical certificate. You will need a Student Pilot Certificate to undertake solo training flights. Step Three: Choose a Flight School Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) describe requirements for flight schools under Part 61 and Part 141. You will often see pilot training programs advertised as one or the other. Both types of school teach what you need to know to take your licensing tests, but they are arranged differently. Part 141 programs are full-time training courses that are vetted and inspected by the FAA. Because they have accreditation, it is possible to apply for federal student financial aid to help pay for your courses when studying at a Part 141 flight school. Part 141 Students can attempt to test for their private certificate after 35 hours of flying, or a commercial license after 190 hours. Part 141 schools are recommended for students who are serious about obtaining a commercial pilot’s license. Part 61 programs are student-directed, usually part-time study programs. These types of flight school are good for students who need to continue working while they pursue their flight licensing. There is no formal ground school in a Part 61 program, so you will need to teach yourself a significant amount of material, or make arrangements to study it with your instructor. You cannot apply for financial aid to help with the cost of attending a Part 61 program. Also, you will need to log more hours of practice flying before you can attempt your licensing tests: 40 hours for private licensing, and 250 for commercial licensing. Step Four: Ground School and Flight Training Your ground school training will cover principles of flight and give you an overview of your duties as a pilot. These include:

  • Pre-flight aircraft inspection inside and outside the plane
  • Understanding hand signals from ground crew
  • Taxiing the aircraft safely in different wind and weather conditions
  • Take-offs, landing, and maneuvers
  • Flying at night or in poor weather
  • Securing the aircraft after flight

You will also take your first practice flights with an instructor assisting you. When your flight instructor decides you are ready to fly solo, he or she will endorse your student certificate. You will keep a logbook, counter-signed by your instructor, showing when you flew, what type of flight it was, and what sort of aircraft you flew in. In addition to meeting the minimum flight hours, you will also need to complete cross-country and night flights before obtaining sign-off to take your exams. Step Five: Climb the Certification Ladder As you progress towards your commercial pilot’s license, you will need to acquire a Private Pilot License and an Instrument Rating. A Private Pilot License allows you to fly recreationally or for personal reasons. You cannot accept compensation for flying when you are a private pilot. You will need to fly for at least 35-40 hours before attempting your test. However, many pilots take as much as 60 hours of flight to be comfortable to test. An Instrument Rating, usually obtained after your private license, shows that you are capable of flying your aircraft using instruments in poor-visibility situations. It is optional, but recommended for maximum employability. You can also obtain Aircraft Ratings for specific kinds of airplanes: single-engine, multi-engine, or jet, for example. Earning these ratings will depend on the types of crafts available at your flight school. After you have obtained these initial qualifications, you can proceed to preparing for a Commercial Pilot License. Step Six: Take Your Tests Your flight instructor will give you a sign-off when she or he feels you are prepared to attempt your commercial pilot exams. To earn your license, you will need to take a 100-question aeronautics exam first. This is known as the “Knowledge Test”. The scores from your Knowledge Test are good for two years. You will need to complete your practical flight exam during that two-year period to obtain your license. An FAA Inspector or Designated Flight Examiner administers your test, which is split into an oral examination and a test flight (known as a “check ride”). Once you have passed your tests, you will receive your Commercial Pilot Certificate. You can now begin looking for work. Step Seven: Gain Experience There are many types of jobs for pilots. Most people think of airline captains. In the United States, you will need at least 1,500 hours of flight experience before you can attempt to earn an Airline Transport Pilot License to compete for airline pilot jobs. Entry-level pilot work includes, but is not limited to:

  • Aerial photography and surveying
  • Crop-dusting
  • Firefighting
  • Search, rescue, and recovery flights

Each aviation job you take offers you the opportunity to develop your skills as a flyer. Even if your ultimate goal is to become an airline pilot, every hour spent in the sky is a step down that road.    

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