Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers

Pilots may fly airplanes or helicopters, but most of them are airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers. Thirty-four percent of pilots are commercial pilots who may dust crops, spread seed, test aircraft, or do police or rescue work.

There are usually two pilots in the cockpit.

  • The captain, the most experienced pilot, supervises all other crew members.
  • The copilot or first officer shares flying duties with the captain, and some large aircraft also have a flight engineer.

The most difficult parts of the flight are takeoff and landing, when the pilots must work closely together. Captains and first officers then alternate flying for the entire voyage. The flight is usually routine unless there is bad weather. If they encounter rough weather, the pilot may request a change of altitude from air traffic control. Helicopter pilots must watch for trees, power lines, and other obstacles as well as low-flying aircraft. When visibility becomes poor, a pilot must rely totally on instruments to know exact location and to land safely.

The amount of non-flying duties a pilot may have depends on the company. Some airline pilots are deputized as federal law enforcement officers who are issued firearms to protect the cockpit against hijackers and other intruders. Charter or business pilots may have to load the aircraft and perform some maintenance. Some pilots are flight instructors, while others train to be examiners who check other pilots to ensure proficiency or licensure.

Most pilots spend a lot of time away from home. Airline pilots spend approximately 360 hours a month away from home, but the airlines give them accommodations and allowances for meals, etc. The FAA requires airline pilots to have at least eight hours of uninterrupted rest in the twenty-four hours before finishing their flight duty to avoid fatigue, which may compromise the safety of a flight.

Commercial pilots face many types of job hazards. Crop dusters may be exposed to toxic chemicals, and helicopter pilots involved in police and rescue work risk personal injury. All pilots have the potential of hearing loss from the constant noise of the aircraft engines.

FAA requirements allow airline pilots a limit of one hundred hours flying time per month, one thousand hours per year. Most pilots work several days on and several days off, at all hours of the day and night, with assignments based on seniority. Commercial pilots also have flying hours that vary widely from month to month. They do not have as much free time as airline pilots, but they usually return home at night. Flight instructors often have variable and seasonal work schedules, including frequent nights and weekends.

Qualifications and Advancement
Most airlines prefer to hire college graduates as pilots. Pilots also need flight experience to qualify for a license. Many earn flying hours in the military, but more and more are becoming pilots by attending FAA-certified flight schools. New airline pilots also undergo training by their employer. To qualify for an FAA pilot’s license, an applicant must have at least two hundred and fifty flying hours and be at least eighteen years old. The applicant must pass a strict physical examination to ensure good health, 20/20 vision with or without correction, good hearing, and no physical handicaps that would interfere with performance. Applicants must pass a written exam on safe flying techniques and FAA regulations, as well as demonstrate flying aptitude to FAA examiners. Pilots must also be rated by the FAA to fly by instruments during periods of low visibility. Captains must also have an air transport pilot’s license.

Many pilots begin working with small airlines, which may lead to higher paying jobs with bigger airlines.

  • At major airlines, newly hired pilots usually have about four thousand hours flying experience.
  • Companies other than airlines require less flying experience, but a commercial pilot’s license is essential.

Advancement for pilots is generally limited to other flying jobs. Some pilots start as flight instructors who may move on to chartered flights, work with small transportation firms, or fly corporate planes. Only a small number get flight engineer jobs with the airlines. In the airlines, advancement usually depends on seniority according to union contracts.

Job Outlook and Earnings

As the population grows and the economy expands, there will be more demand for air travel, and airlines will need more pilots. Job opportunities are expected to be best for experienced pilots at regional and low-cost carriers. There will be an increased need for air cargo carriers as well. Some new jobs will come from business, commuter, and corporate air travel.
Pilots who want jobs at the major airlines will face strong competition. Military pilots will have an advantage because of greater flying experience. There will also be a need to replace pilots leaving the profession and those retiring at the mandatory age of 65.
Median annual wages of airline pilots are around $112,000, and median wages of commercial pilots are approximately $65,000. Airline pilots are usually eligible for life and health insurance, retirement, and disability. More than half of all aircraft pilots are members of unions, most of them belonging to the Airline Pilots Association, International.