Editor’s note: this article was updated in November 2021 to include links to some new articles.
Network, meet my friend Mario. We met one night at our kids’ Cub Scout meeting. I was about to randomly mention to the crowd of parents that I’m a pilot anyway…because, I don’t know if you’ve heard but I’m a pilot…and when I saw that Mario was holding a copy of AOPA Pilot magazine I really couldn’t help myself.
Mario said that he’s retiring from his career in law enforcement and thinking about becoming a professional pilot…at an age greater than 50. By the time the scout meeting ended, I think I’d cured him of any doubts. He recently completed his Private Pilot Certificate and is working on his Instrument Rating. He loves flying and is excited about the prospect of a second career as an airline pilot.
Mario realizes that he’s late in life to be starting at zero hours, but he’s realistic about his career progression potential. His attitude has him set up to really enjoy this second career, and I’m very excited for him.
I’ve noticed a few people in similar situations asking around online if it’s realistic to start a second career as a professional pilot later in life. My answer is a resounding “YES!” with a couple caveats. This post is intended to outline what you need to do to get started.
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. I apologize for not doing it sooner, and I hope there’s still time for it to help!
Phase 1 – First Steps
- If you want to become an airline pilot, you’ll eventually need a 1st Class FAA Medical Certificate. Before you spend a lot of money on flight training, you should go to an FAA-approved Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) and get a physical done. You can find one on this FAA website. The market price for this exam is $85-135.
If, for some reason, you can’t qualify for a 1st Class Medical, ask about a 2nd Class instead. You can still fly for corporate, charter, and private bizjet owners on that medical and enjoy a great career.
- You need to look up all the flight schools in your area. I recommend limiting yourself to a 30-minute drive if possible, because it’s tough to commute a long way for flight training. Any half-decent flight school will offer a 30-minute introductory flight for about $99. You should do one at every flight school you’re considering. Read this post for a list of things to look for at each flight school. You’re trying to identify a place that has safe, well-maintained aircraft, decent prices, and people with good attitudes.
- Choose the best flight school and do your Private Pilot’s License. (This same post discusses the price range you can expect to pay for this.) If you want to be a professional pilot you have to complete this step no matter what, and this is a good way to make sure that you actually enjoy flying and don’t suffer from extreme airsickness. Your pilot’s license never expires, so even if you decide you don’t want to be a professional pilot afterall, you’ll be able to fly for fun for the rest of your life.
Phase 2 – More Ratings
Once you make it through your Private Pilot’s License, you’ll need to earn a bunch of other ratings before you can start getting paid to fly. Specifically, you at least need:
- Instrument Rating
- Commercial Pilot – Airplane Single Engine Land
- Commercial Pilot – Airplane Multi Engine Land
- You should also consider earning Single- and Multi-Engine Airplane and Instrument Airplane Flight Instructor Ratings.
That’s a lot of flight of flight training, and it’s not cheap. If your local flight school is a good one, you can potentially stay with them for all of these ratings.
However, one of the reasons you only committed to doing Private Pilot with them is that you needed to get a feel for their attitude, scheduling, billing, and reliability. If you have issues with any of those, you might consider moving on to a different flight school.
Your local place is probably a small operation that operates under Part 61. You may want to look for a Part 141 school that can do all of these ratings as a package deal for a set price. You’ll pay extra, but they should have more aircraft and instructors, meaning more reliability for you.
If you have the ability to relocate, even temporarily, I’m a big fan of long-time TPN sponsor, Mil2ATP for professional flight training. Don’t let the name scare you off, they love teaching all-civilian pilots. They’re a big enough operation that you won’t have to worry about delays for grounded aircraft or a lack of instructors. At the same time, they’re small enough that you’ll get attentive, personalized service from them.
For a younger pilot, I would suggest the possibility of temporarily relocating to get this flight training done as rapidly as possible. You probably have a family established in a specific area, a day job, or both. This may limit your options on flight schools, and that’s okay. Choose a place as close to home as possible so the commute impacts your family as little as possible.
It’s easy to let life get in the way of flying, but it’s important to realize that flying skills are perishable. You need to fly at least twice a week when you’re starting out, through 4-5 days (or evenings) per week would not be too much. Any less than twice a week and you’ll regress so much between lessons that it will take you much longer and cost you a lot more to complete your training.
We also need to note that mandatory retirement for Part 121 airline pilots is age 65. The sooner you can get through training, the more time you’ll have to enjoy professional flying. The sooner you get to the airline level, the sooner your quality of life will become enjoyable. If you’re committed to this path, you need to find ways to make flying a high priority.
I’ll be honest, getting all these ratings will probably cost $50,000-$90,000, depending on where you live and what type of program you go through. My friend Mario has looked at a variety of ways to help fund his training, from taking a loan from his 401k, to using his pension to cover the expenses, and beyond. You may need to consult with a financial planner to help find a way to make this work.
I wrote a 5-part series on ways to reduce or mitigate the costs of flight training and building hours. It’s targeted at younger pilots, but most of the principles will still be useful to you. Here are the links:
- Part 1 – Start out as a Glider Flight Instructor (CFI-G)
- Part 2 – Become a Sport Pilot Instructor (SPI)
- Part 3 – Maximizing the effectiveness of your training, scholarships, and choosing the right school.
- Part 4 – Teaching Drone Pilot Ground School as a side-hustle can more than pay for your flying bills.
- Part 5 – Consider serving in the Civil Air Patrol as part of getting access to less-expensive flying.
- Part 6 – Consider becoming a CFI
(You can still become a CFI-G or SPI if you already have your Private Pilot License and reap benefits from getting paid for that instructing long before you have enough hours for a Commercial ASEL.)
After writing that series, I discovered an outstanding Scholarship Calendar on a website called Blonds in Aviation. You should thank Meira for putting it together. If she ever attends a pilot gathering, she’d better drink for free or you’ll hear from me about it! You should comb through this list and apply for every possible scholarship.
Phase 3 – Building Hours
Once you at least have Commercial Pilot Certificates for Single- and Multi-Engine aircraft, you can start “building hours” in earnest. You need a total of 1,500 flight hours to earn your Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate and become an airline pilot. (That figure may be reduced to 1,250 or even 1,000, depending on the training program you choose. Here’s a decent summary of the details.)
You certainly have the option of just buying or renting aircraft and taking your friends flying for the next 1,250 hours, but that gets expensive. At best, you can only split the cost of flying equally among your passengers, and you cannot provide any kind of “scheduled” service. You’re better off looking for a job.
The most common way for pilots to get paid to fly is flight instructing. This industry-sized revolving door has served many pilots well. Giving primary flight instruction is hard work, and it can get monotonous. However, it’s the easiest, most approachable way to get hours. If you think you’d enjoy it, you should consider it. If it sounds awful to you, it will be. Just try something else.
Outside flight instructing, there are many entry-level flying jobs out there. Some possibilities include:
- Oil pipeline patrol
- Flying for a parachuting operation
- Towing gliders
- Towing banners
- Flying aerial tours for an established operator
- Being a pilot for a private aircraft owner
- Flying for a corporate flight department or Part 135 operator
You need to join a Facebook group called Corporate Aviation Job Listings. I see listings for these types of jobs and more on there every week. It’s okay to sign up now and start getting a feel for what’s out there now.
Many of these jobs can be done part-time or as a side-hustle. If you’ve been able to save up some money, you could potentially quit your old job to pursue flying full-time. (I wrote an entire book that can help you get started on that path!) However, I’m a little conservative when it comes to my family’s care & feeding. I’d try to find things I could do part-time before jumping in with both feet.
You’ll have about 250 hours when you earn your Commercial certificates. I would expect to fly an absolute maximum of about 100 hours per month at a busy CFI job. This means you’ll need at least a full year to earn the hours for your ATP after you get your Commercial.
While you need to make sure to balance life and family with this new pursuit, you need to fly as much as you can! Getting that ATP as soon as possible is key to your long-term Quality of Life. Don’t be proud about what jobs you take or what they pay. As long as it’s a safe operation and the pay is fair, go for it!
Many aspiring pilots live in areas with very few employment opportunities. I always encourage them to consider relocating for any safe flying job that promises to pay reasonably and give them a lot of hours. We’ve already decided this may not be realistic for you, so do your best. That said, some of these jobs are seasonal. Could your family spare you for a month or three? Some of these jobs aren’t normally seasonal, but if they need pilots badly enough you might be able to work something out. The airlines are hiring like crazy right now, so many of these entry-level pilot jobs are wide open.
Phase 4 – Regional Airlines
As you approach the hours required for an ATP, you can start applying to regional airlines. AirlinePilotCentral.com is a fantastic place to research these companies and compare your options.
Marc Himelhoch is a former F-16 pilot and long-time sponsor of The Pilot Network. He’s written a fantastic book called Cockpit2Cockpit that should serve as your guide for preparing your airline applications. His book is focused on people who did their first career as military pilots, but much of his advice still applies to people like you who did their first careers in other industries.
Since we’re being honest with ourselves, let’s admit that the regional airlines may be the upper limit of your career progression, depending on your age. This isn’t a bad thing. Most regional airlines have pilots who will never move on. They’re senior, so they enjoy great Quality of Life. The pay can reach a respectable six figures, and they enjoy their jobs. I know of many regional pilots who live in base and are home most nights.
Knowing this, choosing regional airlines will drive you do a decision point. If you live near an airport that serves as a base (or “domicile”) for an airline, I’d definitely put them at the top of your list. I generally advocate that every airline pilot consider avoiding a commute if at all possible. However, you have a lot of options here.
You may want to stay put and fly for a local airline. Depending on where you live, you may have options for moving up to larger airlines too. (More on this later.)
You may decide you’d like to eventually work for another airline, regional or otherwise. It’s okay to start out at one airline and switch. Here’s a post about doing that at major airlines, but the principles apply at regional carriers as well. Don’t be afraid to spend some time flying at a local regional to build some experience and then move on later.
Since you’re serious about this as a second career, you may consider moving the whole family to work for a specific airline. If you’ve already been in the workforce for a while, maybe your kids are close to leaving home anyway. Maybe moving to a place with lots of airline options will put your closer to your kid’s college or post-collegiate location. This is something to discuss, in depth, with your whole family. Don’t rush the decision.
While you could stay at the regional airlines for the rest of your career, you’re not limited to that. Let’s look at an optional Phase 5.
Phase 5 – LLC and Major Airlines
I regard the US airline industry as having six “major” airlines: United, American, Delta, Southwest, FedEx, and UPS. In the past it’s taken a pilot 7-10 years in the regionals or military to be competitive for jobs at one of these majors. I think that timeline is going to get shortened in the near future, but I won’t make any promises. If you have enough time, you could make one of those majors your ultimate goal.
Even with just a few years at a major airline you can enjoy a great career. At 2 years with my company I was in the top third of First Officers on the B717 in Atlanta. At 3 years with my company I was the #9 FO on the A220 in NYC. My quality of life in those positions was outstanding. At about 3 years and 2 months, I was awarded a Captain seat on the A220 in NYC. I think it’ll be possible to get that seat even sooner in the coming years. If you look at the mandatory retirement numbers for major airlines on APC, you’ll see that seniority progression will slow down sometime in the next 10 years, but even at the bottom it will be about as good as it has been for the past few years.
There are an unlimited number of posts about how to be competitive for one of these carriers. At a minimum, I recommend you shoot for 2,500 hours total time, with 1,000 hours of multi-engine turbine PIC as a regional airline pilot. Those aren’t hard and fast rules, and I know of pilots who have been hired at these companies with fewer hours. However, you should at least strive for this goal.
Although the major airlines are great places to work, there are some other airlines you can get to even sooner. Sometimes referred to as “national” or “LLC” carriers, I group the following companies into a second tier of airlines:
- Sun Country
And that’s just part of the list.
I don’t think of these a second-tier companies because they’re necessarily worse than those I think of as majors. I group them here mostly because they’re smaller companies, and (except for the cargo carriers) they don’t fly widebody aircraft. They may serve some international destinations, and the Airbus A321XLR is going to make that market increasingly interesting, but the scope of their operations is a lot smaller than that of the six “majors.”
These companies don’t offer pay and benefits quite as good as the majors, but they’re a step up from the regionals on all fronts. They all fly A320-series, B737s, or larger aircraft. Some of them have pay rates that are competitive with the majors. The cargo carriers like Atlas and Kalitta even offer the chance to fly big metal like the B747 around the world.
Although it may be a stretch for a second career pilot to get to a major airline with enough time to really enjoy it, I think it’s definitely possible to enjoy a career at one of these second-tier carriers. It should be possible to get on with them after just a year or two as a regional airline FO.
I’ve written about a fantastic flow-through program that exists between Silver Airways and Frontier. I’d also consider flying for Cape Air on my way to JetBlue. Despite the drama that you commonly hear about Atlas, I have several friends flying for them who really enjoy it.
These carriers probably have more long-term pilots than the regional airlines, but they still serve as a stepping stone for many pilots to get to the major airlines. If you choose to stay at one of these carriers, this means your seniority and Quality of Life could progress a lot more quickly than they would at a major. That is potentially a huge advantage in your case.
The bottom line is that you should not feel like your overall career progression is limited based on your compressed timeline. If you’re 55 or older, the major airlines may not be an ideal option, but one of the national/LLC carriers absolutely can be. If you’re any younger, realize that many military pilots retire and start out at a major airline around age 45 or later. You could still have more than enough time to knock out Phases 1-4 and still enjoy a decade at a major. If not, there are still lots of other great carriers out there.
Although the FAA requires Part 121 airline pilots to retire at age 65, that doesn’t have to be the end of your professional flying career. Once you start creeping in Corporate Aviation Job Listings you’ll see lots of cool flying jobs with ridiculously high qualification requirements. They’ll ask for 5000+ hours of jet time for an entry level corporate jet position.
The young, starving aviators of our country are (rightfully) frustrated by these kinds of requirements. However, for a post-airline-career pilot, 5000 hours is chump change. If you’re interested in flying past age 65, there is no shortage of corporate and private bizjet jobs for you to choose from. It takes some strategy and networking to break into that world, but you will absolutely have the chops to apply for those jobs.
The best thing about this type of flying is that it doesn’t have to be full-time. My last hurrah for the US Air Force was a deployment flying the Bombardier Global Express in Afghanistan. I did my simulator training at CAE in Dallas, and our instructors were constantly talking about picking up contract flying jobs as a side-hustle. Operators frequently need a person to fill in for a trip and will pay a minimum of $1,300 per day, plus expenses. That pay rate is the top of the bizjet pay scale, but even smaller jets tend to pay well. If you can find a way to get a type rating on a common type of bizjet, or two, you can absolutely find part time work.
If you’ve been applying Pilot Math to fill up a Treasure Bath during your first two careers, your investments should have no problem covering your family’s basic needs in “retirement.” At that point, freelance bizjet flying becomes a fun side-hustle that you do because you enjoy it. The $800-1500 daily rate you charge just becomes a huge pile of beer money.
If you seriously consider changing careers to become a professional pilot, you will encounter no shortage of naysayers. They’ll tell you that flying for a regional airline sucks no matter what. They’ll tell you that you’re too old to learn something new. They’ll tell you that robots will be flying jets and stealing all pilot jobs in the next 10 years.
(Sorry, I had to pause my writing because I’m laughing so hard at that one. I’m working on a full post about why that one is such a joke. Edit: here’s a link to the start of that 3-part series.)
Some of the criticism that the naysayers throw at you will be true. Regional airline flying jobs aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. However, being able to approach that job with the mindset of “I’m excited to do this. I’m going to be here for the long-term, so I’m going to figure out how to use the system I have to maximize my Quality of Life” can absolutely make it a good career.
One of the loudest naysayers I’ve ever encountered was a former pilot named Josh. I feel really bad for him. He was a regional airline pilot at an extremely difficult time for our industry. His experience was so bad that he gave up on flying altogether and found a job driving a desk. I discuss (and refute most of) his complaints in a BogiDope post that you definitely need to read before you start down this career path.
That post focuses on pilots who will eventually make it to a major airline. While I believe that many second-career pilots can make it to the majors, you may need to temper my enthusiasm in the context of being a long-term regional pilot, or someone who intends on ending up somewhere like Spirit of JetBlue. That’s not a bad thing, but realize that the numbers and my effusive praise for major airline Quality of Life will need to be tempered ever so slightly.
If after reading my post and Josh’s post you find yourself giving in to the pessimism and feeling an overwhelming sense of dread, then pursuing a second career as a pilot may not be for you. However, if my refutation of his context-lacking complaints has you feeling excited or optimistic, then I think you have the potential to love a flying career.
I hope, for your sake, that you’ll at least continue putting thought into this possible career change. If you find that you enjoy flying and you maintain the right perspective, it has the potential to be a wonderful opportunity for you. No matter what type of airline you fly for, if you stick around and get senior, you will have incredible power over your schedule and Quality of Life. I believe that any pilot can reach a point where he or she is surprised at how much money he or she earns for so little work.
Resources for You
The Pilot Network exists to help every pilot reach his or her goals in aviation, whether they are recreational, professional, or something else. I hope you’ll consider joining our free Facebook group and/or our subscription-only Community Website. Don’t forget to check out our podcast, magazine, the TPN-Go mobile app (Apple: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/the-pilot-network-go/id1458486452 or Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.tpngo.app), and consider coming out for our annual conference, TPNx.
Don’t hesitate to post questions. I promise you’ll get a variety of feedback within hours, if not minutes. If you don’t want to show your cards or make things public, feel free to reach out to me on TPN’s social media platforms, or get in contact with me here.
Thanks for reading; I hope this helped. Let us know what else we can do to get you flying!