I just became a pilot after spending $80,000 on flight school. Here's what the intense training program was like.

·7 min read
Pilots in cockpit
"I don't see myself being anything other than a pilot," one 32-year-old commercial pilot said (not pictured). Shutterstock.com
  • A 32-year-old commercial pilot (who asked to remain anonymous) shared what training was like.

  • They went through instruction during the pandemic and recently were hired.

  • They say demand is higher than ever for pilots but standards for training remain stringent.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with a 32-year-old commercial pilot from Wayne, NJ, about training to be a pilot during the pandemic. They've asked to remain anonymous, but Insider has verified their identity and employment. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I'm a 32-year-old commercial pilot and recently landed a job as a first officer with a regional airline in the US. Despite the US pilot shortage, the airlines are not skimping when it comes to safety - and my time in training is a testament to that.

I started my career in the Marines working with F-18's. That's what really lit the fuse for me. During that time I was not a pilot but helped support the F-18 squadron. Thanks to the Marines GI Bill and some financial aid from my parents, I was able to afford flight school.

The first thing you do when determining whether to go to flight school is a discovery flight

They take you up in the plane and show you how it works and to see if you're comfortable in the air and on the controls. If you decide you want to move forward, you pay out of pocket - per flight, or for the whole program.

You can go as often or as little as you want - one time a week, four times a week. It depends on how available you are and how quickly you want to graduate from the program.

As an aspiring commercial pilot, you need to go through several steps before you're able to take to the skies professionally

You start as a student pilot, then once you've flown for a minimum of 35 hours, you can take the test to receive your Private Pilot License (PPL). Once you get your Private Pilot License, you're able to fly small aircrafts that are less than 12,500 pounds, and it doesn't require any additional ratings. (Editor's note: 35 hours is the minimum if you go through an FAA Part 141 program, 40 if you go through a Part 61 program.)

It's like when you get your driver's license - you can drive a small car, but you can't drive a semi-truck.

After that, you need your Instrument Rating (IR), which means you can read the gauges in the plane and fly in the clouds. This rating teaches students how to fly the aircraft solely based off of instruments inside the aircraft while communicating with air-traffic control (ATC).

Finally, after 250 hours you're eligible to receive your Commercial Pilot License (CPL). (Editor's note: This can be 190 hours if go through a Part 141 program.)

You can get a CPL to fly single-engine or multi-engine planes for pay or hire, but you'll need a multi-engine rating to fly a jet aircraft at one of the major airlines.

It took me about a year from the first time I flew to the time I became a flight instructor

Working as a flight instructor is typically how most aspiring pilots get their required hours in once they earn their CPL. It took another two years before I had enough hours to be hired by an airline. (Editor's note: Major airlines won't hire pilots that don't have enough hours to qualify for an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATP), which can range from 750 to 1,500 hours.)

I was in the middle of my flight instructor training when COVID-19 hit, which caused it to take longer than usual to finish my required flight hours.

For me, flight school cost about $80,000

It could be less or more depending on how fast you go through the program and the type of program you choose. I went to flight school full time and did not have a job during that time.

For context, a pilot for a commercial airline might have a starting salary of around $40,000, but it could range to upwards of $200,000 by the time you retire.

I currently work for one of the regional airlines in the US, which means we're contracted for certain routes on major partner airlines you've heard of

My flight school, Paragon Flight Training, has relationships with the regional airlines. Before the pandemic, these airlines would recruit new graduates from the program. This was halted during COVID-19. Now, aspiring pilots from the flight school can find pilot jobs online and at airshows around the US.

Once I completed my hours, I heard back from my current company within a month or two. Although receiving your hours and ratings are the bare minimum to be considered for a job at a commercial airline, when hiring they also look at moral character.

They look for someone they can sit in a cockpit or flight deck with, someone they can fly with

They feel safe being with you and can hold a conversation with you.

Some of the questions they ask are technical based questions related to aviation, such as flight rules, aeronautical charts, and flight scenarios. A technical question could be, "You are at 15,000 feet and need to be at 8,000 feet in 30 miles going 200 knots: When should you start descending?" Some are human resource questions, such as, "If you and your captain had a disagreement, how would you settle this disagreement?"

They also look at your driving record. They want to make sure you aren't a reckless driver, that you don't have any DUI's. They do a background check, looking at previous employers and your credit. Everything is to make sure nothing is going to compromise a flight - that you'll never be unsafe about it.

Once you've been hired, company training consists of three months of classes, five days a week

I'm at the beginning, so right now it's mostly paperwork. After that it will be simulator training to make sure you know the aircraft properly - this is standard procedure for all airlines.

Once in-class and simulator training is done, we'll take our Airline Transport Pilot Exam. This is required to transport passengers and the final step before we take to the skies.

I won't get into an actual plane with passengers until January

I'll be flying as a first officer, and my job is to assist the captain and make sure the aircraft flies safely. Once we do start flying, we have to come back once a year to make sure there are no new updates we need to know about - that we still know how to fly this type of plane correctly. You get retrained to make sure you're doing everything safely.

Training is very specific - you have to go over each item, and you can't rush through. Pilots working on their licenses can be working on flight maneuvers, cross-country flight planning, learning how to read weather, and learning systems of an aircraft.

During the pandemic, airlines temporarily stopped hiring

Now they need pilots more than ever. Everyone wants to fly again, so they're looking for all the pilots they can get.

But despite the shortage, they still have the same standards. You can't get around that.

As a pilot instructor I taught students as young as 13, but my classmates ages range upwards of 50

And they aren't all flight instructors either - there are pilots from other airlines that accepted a new job, and new pilots who recently switched careers. Medical doctors, financial advisors - some people just don't want to work behind a desk. Another classmate worked for a major airline corporate side and wanted to make a change. They can't see themselves in a career like that for long. There's a wide range of people that get into this.

As for me, as soon as I worked with the F-18's I knew this was what I wanted to do. I don't regret it at all. I don't see myself being anything other than a pilot.

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