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Aircraft Pilots

Pilots are skilled, highly trained professionals who fly airplanes and helicopters to carry out a wide variety of tasks. Most pilots transport passengers, cargo, and mail, while others dust crops, spread seed for reforestation, test aircraft, and take photographs. Helicopter pilots are involved in firefighting, police work, offshore exploration for natural resources, evacuation and rescue efforts, logging operations, construction work, and weather station operations.

Except on small aircraft, two pilots usually make up the cockpit crew. Generally, the most experienced pilot (called captain) is in command and supervises all other crew members. The copilot or first officer assists in communicating with air traffic controllers, monitoring the instruments, and flying the aircraft. Most large aircraft have a third pilot in the cockpit--the flight engineer or second officer--who assists the other pilots by monitoring and operating many of the instruments and systems, making minor inflight repairs, and watching for other aircraft. New technology can perform many flight tasks, however, and many aircraft are now designed to fly with only two pilots.

Before departure, pilots plan their flights carefully. They confer with dispatchers and weather forecasters to find out about weather conditions enroute and at their destination. Based on this information, they choose a route, altitude, and speed that should provide the fastest, safest, and smoothest flight. When flying under instrument flight rules, the pilot in command must file an instrument flight plan with air traffic control so that the flight can be coordinated with other air traffic.

Before taking off, pilots thoroughly check their planes to make sure that the engines, controls, instruments, and other systems are functioning properly. They also make sure that baggage or cargo has been loaded correctly.

Takeoff and landing are the most difficult and dangerous parts of the flight and require close coordination between the pilot and copilot. For example, as the plane accelerates for takeoff, the pilot concentrates on the runway while the copilot scans the instrument panel. To calculate the speed they must attain to become airborne, pilots consider the altitude of the airport, outside temperature, weight of the plane, and the speed and direction of the wind. The moment the plane reaches takeoff speed, the copilot informs the pilot, who then pulls back on the controls to raise the nose of the plane.

Unless the weather is bad, the actual flight is relatively easy. Pilots steer the plane along their planned route and are monitored by the air traffic control stations they pass along the way. They continuously scan the instrument panel to check their fuel supply and the condition of their engines. Pilots may request a change in altitude or route if circumstances dictate. For example, if the ride is rougher than expected, they may ask air traffic control if pilots flying at other altitudes have reported better conditions. If so, they may request a change. This procedure also may be used to find a stronger tailwind or a weaker headwind to save fuel and increase speed.

If visibility is poor, pilots must rely completely on their instruments. Using the altimeter readings, they know how high above ground they are and can fly safely over mountains and other obstacles. Special navigation radios give pilots precise information which, with the help of special maps, tells them their exact position. Other very sophisticated equipment provides directions to a point just above the end of a runway and enables pilots to land completely "blind."

Once on the ground, pilots must complete records on their flight for their company and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Airline pilots have the services of large support staffs and consequently perform few nonflying duties. Pilots employed by careeres that use their own aircraft, however, usually are the careeres' only experts on flying and, consequently, have many other duties. They may load the plane, handle all passenger luggage to insure a balanced load, and supervise refueling. Other nonflying responsibilities include keeping records, scheduling flights, arranging for major maintenance, and performing minor maintenance and repair work on their planes.

Some pilots are instructors. They teach their students the principles of flight in ground-school classes and demonstrate how to operate aircraft in dual-controlled planes.

A few specially trained pilots employed by the airlines are "examiners" or "check pilots." They periodically fly with each airline pilot and copilot to make sure that they are proficient.

Working Conditions

By law, airline pilots cannot fly more than 100 hours a month or more than 1,000 hours a year. Most airline pilots fly an average of 80 hours a month and work an additional 80 hours a month performing nonflying duties. The majority of flights involve layovers away from home. When pilots are away from home, the airlines provide hotel accommodations and an allowance for expenses. Airlines operate flights at all hours of the day and night, so work schedules often are irregular.

Pilots employed outside the airlines often have irregular schedules; they may fly 30 hours one month and 90 hours the next. Since these pilots frequently have many nonflying responsibilities, they have much less free time than airline pilots. Except for career pilots, most pilots employed outside the airlines do not remain away from home overnight. They may work odd hours, however. Instructors, for example, often give lessons at night or on weekends.

Airline pilots, especially those on international routes, often suffer jet lag-- disorientation and fatigue caused by many hours of flying through different time zones. The work of test pilots, who check the flight performance of new and experimental planes, may be dangerous. Pilots who are crop dusters may be exposed to toxic chemicals and often do not have the benefit of a regular landing strip. Helicopter pilots involved in firefighting or police work are particularly subject to personal injury.

Although flying does not involve much physical effort, the mental stress of being responsible for a safe flight, no matter what the weather, can be tiring. Particularly during takeoff and landing, pilots must be alert and quick to react if something goes wrong.


Civilian pilots held about 85,000 jobs in 1990. About 9 out of 10 salaried pilots worked for the airlines. Others worked as flight instructors at local airports or for large careeres that use their own airplanes or helicopters to fly company cargo and executives. Some pilots flew small planes for air taxi companies, usually to or from lightly traveled airports not serviced by the airlines. Others worked for a variety of careeres performing tasks such as crop dusting, inspecting pipelines, or conducting sightseeing trips. Federal, State, and local governments also employed pilots. Several thousand pilots were self- employed.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

All pilots who are paid to transport passengers or cargo must have a commercial pilot's license issued by the FAA. Helicopter pilots must hold a commercial pilot's certificate with a helicopter rating. To qualify for these licenses, applicants must be at least 18 years old and have at least 250 hours or more of flight experience. They also must pass a strict physical examination to make sure that they are in good health and have 20/20 vision with or without glasses, good hearing, and no physical handicaps that could impair their performance. Applicants must pass a written test that includes questions on the principles of safe flight, navigation techniques, and FAA regulations. They also must demonstrate their flying ability to FAA examiners.

In addition to a commercial license, pilots who have to fly in bad weather must be licensed by the FAA to fly by instruments. Pilots may qualify for this license by having 40 hours of experience flying by instruments, passing a written examination on procedures and FAA regulations covering instrument flying, and demonstrating their ability to fly by instruments.

Airline pilots must fulfill additional requirements. They must pass FAA written and flight examinations to earn a flight engineers license. Captains must have an airline transport pilot's license. Applicants for this license must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience including night and instrument flying.

All licenses are valid as long as a pilot can pass the periodic physical examinations and test of flying skills required by Government and company regulations.

Flying can be learned in military or civilian flying schools. Either kind of training satisfies the flight experience requirements for licensing. The FAA has certified about 1,225 civilian flying schools, including some colleges and universities that offer degree credit for pilot training. Military pilots gain substantial experience on jet aircraft and helicopters, which airlines and many careeres prefer. Having lost many pilots to the airlines in recent years, the Armed Forces are offering financial incentives to curb the high rate of attrition. More pilots are expected to stay in military flying, forcing the airlines to hire a higher percent of general aviation pilots. Pilots hired by airlines must be high school graduates; however, most airlines require 2 years of college and prefer to hire college graduates. In fact, most entrants to this occupation have a college degree. Because pilots must be able to make quick decisions and accurate judgments under pressure, airline companies reject applicants who do not pass required psychological tests.

New airline pilots usually start as flight engineers. Although airlines favor applicants who already have a flight engineer's license, they may train those who have only the commercial license. All new pilots receive several weeks of intensive training in simulators and classrooms before being assigned to a flight.

Companies other than airlines generally do not require as much flying experience. However, a commercial pilot's license is required, and companies prefer applicants who have experience in the type of plane they will be flying. New employees generally start as copilots. Test pilots often are required to have an engineering degree.

Most helicopter pilots are trained in the military. Military pilots only have to pass the FAA 'military competency' examination in order to be licensed as a commercial helicopter pilot. Because of insurance requirements, most commercial companies require that helicopter pilots have 1,500 hours of flying time. If a pilot does not accumulate that time flying in the military, it is difficult to get a job in the commercial sector.

Advancement for all pilots generally is limited to other flying jobs. Many pilots start as flight instructors, building up their flying hours while they earn money teaching. As they become more experienced, these pilots occasionally fly charter planes and perhaps get jobs with small air transportation firms, such as air taxi companies. Some advance to career flying jobs. A small number get flight engineer jobs with the airlines.

In the airlines, advancement usually depends on seniority provisions of union contracts. After 5 to 10 years, flight engineers advance according to seniority to copilot and, after 10 to 20 years, to captain. Seniority also determines which pilots get more desirable routes. In a non airline job, a co-pilot may advance to pilot and, in large companies, to chief pilot in charge of aircraft scheduling, maintenance, and flight procedures.

Job Outlook

Due to an expected shortage of pilots, the job outlook for pilots should be favorable in the coming years. Employment growth coupled with an expected wave of retirements will provide many job openings for pilots.

Many pilots who were hired in the late 1960's during the last major boom in the air transportation industry will be subject to mandatory retirement soon. In addition, the military, which in the past provided the majority of pilots, has increased its benefits and financial incentives in an effort to retain pilots. Thus, the military is expected to be a diminishing source of supply in the future. Also, many pilots who were laid off because of the recession during the early 1980's are now employed--further reducing the available supply of qualified pilots. As a result, the oversupply of qualified pilots that resulted in keen competition for jobs in the past is diminishing, and the developing shortage of pilots is expected to continue well into the future. College graduates who have experience flying jet aircraft and who have a commercial pilot's license and a flight engineer's license are expected to have the best opportunities for jobs with the major airlines. Older pilots who are seeking a second career may find particularly good job opportunities with commuter and regional airlines.

Employment of pilots is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. While computerized flight engineering systems may reduce the demand for flight engineers, the expected growth in airline passenger and cargo traffic--created by increases in population and income--will create a greater need for more airliners, pilots, and flight instructors. Employment of career pilots is expected to grow more slowly than in the past as more careeres opt to fly with regional and smaller airlines serving their area rather than buy and operate their own aircraft.

Aircraft pilots understandably have a strong attachment to their occupation since it requires a substantial investment in specialized training and offers very high earnings. Generally, a relatively small proportion of pilots leave the occupation each year. However, because of the large number of retirements expected through the year 2000, replacement needs will be the primary source of job openings.

Employment of pilots is sensitive to cyclical swings in the economy. During recessions, when decline in the demand for air travel forces airlines to curtail the number of flights, airlines may temporarily furlough some pilots. Commercial and corporate flying, flight instruction, and testing of new aircraft also decline during recessions, adversely affecting pilots employed in those areas. Earnings

Earnings of airline pilots are among the highest in the Nation. According to the Future Aviation Professionals of America, the average salary for airline pilots was about $84,800 a year in 1990; for flight engineers $44,525; for copilots, $68,900; and for captains, $113,500. Some senior captains on the largest aircraft earned as much as $175,000. Earnings depend on factors such as the type, size, and maximum speed of the plane, and the number of hours and miles flown. Extra pay is given for night and international flights. Starting salaries for flight engineers averaged about $19,100 a year in 1990.

Generally, pilots working outside the airlines earn lower salaries. Average salaries for chief pilots ranged from about $44,525 to $75,250 a year in 1990, according to a survey conducted by the National career Aircraft Association; for captains/pilots, $45,600 to $61,500; and for copilots, $29,700 to $38,200. Usually, pilots who fly jet aircraft earn higher salaries than non-jet pilots.

Airline pilots generally are eligible for life and health insurance plans financed by the airlines. They also receive retirement benefits and, if they fail the FAA physical examination, disability payments. Some airlines provide allowances to pilots for purchasing and cleaning their uniforms. As an additional benefit, pilots and their immediate families usually are entitled to reduced or free fare transportation on their own and other airlines.

Most airline pilots are members of the International Airline Pilots Association (AFL- CIO). Those employed by the major airlines are members of the Allied Pilots Association. Some flight engineers are members of the Flight Engineer's International Association (AFL- CIO).

Related Occupations

Although they are not in the cockpit, air traffic controllers and dispatchers also play an important role in making sure flights are safe and on schedule, and participate in many of the decisions pilots must make.

Sources of Additional Information

Information about job opportunities in a particular airline, and the qualifications required, may be obtained by writing to the personnel manager of the airline. Addresses of airline companies are available from:

Air Transport Association of America, 1709 New York Ave. NW., Washington, D.C. 20006.

For Information on airline pilots, contact:

International Airlines Pilots Associations, 1625 Massachusetts Ave. NW., Washington, D.C. 20036.

For information about the duties as well as the physical and education requirements for airline pilots and flight engineers, request Pilots and Flight Engineers, publication GA- 300-122 (include a self-addressed mailing label), from:

U.S. Government Printing Office, Library and Statutory Distribution Service, 5208 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria, VA. 22304.

For a copy of List of Certificated Pilot Schools, write to:

Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402

For information about job opportunities, contact:

Future Aviation Professional of America, 4291 J. Memorial Dr., Decatur, Ga. 30032. (This organization may be called toll free at 800-JET-JOBS.)

For information about job opportunities in companies other than airlines, consult the classified section of aviation trade magazines and apply to companies that operate aircraft at local airports.


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