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Pilots Enjoy Breathtaking Views and Plentiful Job Options

2 female pilots

Since the Wright brothers’ historic takeoff from Kitty Hawk in 1903, many of us have grown up with dreams of working in aviation. The possibilities for trained pilots are varied—from piloting huge passenger jets across the ocean to guiding small aircraft for police, fire and medical operations—and the job prospects are higher now than ever.

“Airlines are experiencing a shortage of pilots because most of the baby boomers are starting to retire,” says Gabrielle DiSanza, a flight instructor at Liberty University. “So right now there is a desperate need for pilots in the regionals, in the majors, all over aviation.”

To address this need, Liberty offers Bachelor degree programs that prepare students to be professional pilots, including the required pilot licenses.

“The first half of my day might be sitting in a classroom,” says Harley Holman, one of DiSanza’s students who is majoring in Aeronautics. “And then the second part is where I have class in an airplane.”

The training involves lots of learning on the ground about the physics and safety involved in flight. When those concepts are mastered, students take to the sky. Computerized flight simulators are also used to help students work on specific details without spending time or fuel on an actual flight.

“Right now is a phenomenal time to consider becoming a pilot as your choice of career,” says DiSanza.

“Airplane pilot is a hot job because of the amazing benefits it offers,” says Holman, “and the unique experiences that you can’t get at any other job in the world.”

What does it take to become a pilot?
To earn a private pilot’s license (for recreational flight of small aircraft) you would need to take a basic course, pass an exam and then log 40 hours of flight time. To fly a small aircraft professionally, you would need 250 hours of flight time. To fly a passenger jet, you would need much more specialized training and 1,500 hours of flight time.

What kinds of employers are looking for pilots?
Lots of them! The biggest employers of pilots are major airlines, which hire them to safely transport people from place to place. Major cargo companies like UPS and FedEx also hire them to fly planes full of packages from one location to another. Pilots of smaller aircraft may be hired by companies and people who need to get around quickly without dealing with airline schedules. They might also be employed by law enforcement agencies, healthcare companies or fire protection agencies to handle transportation related to public safety. Of course, the military is also always in need of pilots.

What can a professional pilot expect to earn?
The pay varies widely, depending on the industry and the type of aircraft flown. The median annual salary for airline pilots in 2017 was $137,330. For other professional pilots, the median ranged from $99,300 for pilots who worked in manufacturing (for example, working as a pilot to help Boeing test its new aircraft) to $76,940 for pilots who worked for ambulance services.

What is the job outlook for this kind of work?
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts modest growth in this field, by many accounts the industry is in desperate need of pilots. Aircraft manufacturing giant Boeing predicts that the aviation industry will need close to 800,000 new pilots in the next 20 years to meet a growing demand. A combination of retiring baby boomers, more stringent training requirements and increased aircraft production will likely increase the demand for trained pilots.

What should I study to be prepared for a job in aviation?
To best prepare for the training involved, you would be wise to pay close attention in earth science and physicsclasses. After high school, you might be interested in the Aeronautics programs at Blue Ridge Community College, Averett University, Hampton University or Liberty University.

If you’re ready to dive right in to the training, you can start anytime! You do have to be 16 years old to fly solo, but you can start taking lessons at just about any age. Here is a list of flight schools around Virginia where you can get started.

What other resources are there for someone interested in becoming a pilot?
The Virginia Space Grant Consortium, through a grant from the Commonwealth of Virginia, is offering a residential flight program for high schoolers. Learn more and find out how to apply at Pathways Flight Academies.

The Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach offers summer camps at different grade levels for students interested in aviation careers.

The Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton also has a variety of summer camps. Most are focused on space exploration, but there are camps for elementary through middle school students that focus on the history and day-to-day operations of flight.

AeroCampis a flight experience created for students from 12-18 years of age. It is offered at locations across the U.S., and in Virginia is held at Curtis Eads Flight Schoolin Suffolk.

The Virginia Department of Aviation has some great resources, including scholarships available to students interested in aviation, and grants for teachers hoping to incorporate flight into their classroom lessons.