do you need a degree to become a pilotOne of the most common questions people ask when thinking about learning to fly is whether they need a degree to become a pilot. The answer to that is simple: the FAA does not require a degree to earn any pilot certificate. Whether you choose to earn a Sport Pilot certificate or an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, you do not need a degree to become a pilot. 

Personal flying

If your goal is personal flying for yourself (and your business) the steps to getting your pilot license are straight forward. Regardless of the pilot license level you choose, a degree is not required.

Professional flying

If you are thinking about getting your pilot license to fly professionally, then you need to start thinking what your career might look like. A degree may not be required to fly pipeline patrol aircraft, but if your goal is to start an airline career, the answer is more complicated, and the question you need to ask is: should you get a degree to become a pilot?

Do you need a degree to become a Commercial Pilot?

The FAA do not require a degree for any pilot certificate, and that includes Commercial and Airline Transport Pilot certificates. You can begin flight training at age 16, get your commercial pilot certificate and begin earning money when you turn 18, the same age most college students begin their freshman year.

However, it’s important to remember that being a commercial pilot is not the same thing as being an airline pilot. A commercial pilot certificate simply shows that you have completed the training and checkrides the FAA requires to fly an aircraft as a commercial pilot.

Most of the entry-level pilot jobs that will be available to you soon after earning your certificate will not require a college degree either. At this stage of your career, you’re probably focused on building flight time and experience so you can get a better paying job later.

Do you need a degree to become an airline pilot?

If you’re planning a career as an airline pilot, your options become more complicated. It’s important to remember that airlines are a cyclical industry that is affected by swings in the economy. When the economy is strong and passenger travel is growing, airlines often find themselves scrambling for new pilots to fill their schedules. When the economy is weak, airlines furlough pilots who then find themselves scrambling to compete for any available pilot jobs.

Pilot shortages often mean that airlines will relax their hiring requirements, so that a degree is preferred, rather than required. However, when the economy changes, lack of a degree could leave you behind as other applicants scramble for the same limited number of available seats.

Most regional airlines, flying smaller aircraft that feed to the major hubs, don’t require college degrees. Regionals typically hire flight instructors who have built the flight times necessary in their logbooks to go for an interview. The interview process focuses on finding candidates that have a good attitude, work well as a team and meet the flying requirements of the airline.

The major airlines, that fly larger aircraft over longer routes hire their pilots from the regionals. Although they are not always looking for a degree, when looking at two otherwise equal candidates, the one with the degree will probably get hired. For most major airlines, a degree demonstrates a commitment and discipline necessary to to grow professionally.

How to get your degree (and when)

If you are thinking about an airline career, you are probably wondering what kind of degree you should get and when should you get it. When thinking about your options, you should consider the importance of seniority. Your future career, pay, ability to pick the schedule you want and more depends on your position on the seniority ladder. The sooner you start climbing, the earlier you’ll be able to take advantage of your position.

So how does that affect your choice of degree? Well, that also depends on the course you chart to earn your licenses. Let’s explore some of the options.

The traditional route

Most people start learning to fly at their local flight school. Assuming you fly three times a week, you’ll spend two to three years earning your certificates, and another year or two building flight hours to meet the airline hiring minimums. Depending on how you’re paying for your training, you’ll also have time to attend college classes and work towards your degree, which means you’ll have a degree in hand by the time you apply for the regionals. Including the time you need to build flight hours, this route can take 4-6 years.

Aviation universities

Some universities, such as UND and Embry-Riddle specialize in training pilots (and other aviation specialists). Students are able to access federal loans and can combine their studies and flight training. Aviation universities also have exemptions that reduce the amount of flight time needed to apply to the regionals. By the time you graduate with your four-year degree, you will also have all of the certificates you need to apply for an entry level flying job, meaning that you will have invested about 5-6 years in your training by the time you apply for the regionals.

Accelerated degree programs

Some online universities have aviation programs that partner with schools, such as AeroGuard, offering accelerated flight training programs. These programs incorporate the flight training portion in labs, meaning that they are eligible for federal funding for flight training as well as GI Bill and VA benefits. The accelerated program allows students to earn their certificates in 1.5–2 years, and earn their degree online while working to build flight hours, getting them into the airline interview in four years or less.

Accelerated flight training programs

Perhaps the quickest way into the left seat of an airliner is by completing your training at a full-time accelerated flight training program such as AeroGuard’s Pilot Pathway Program. By opting for full-time accelerated training, students earn all of the certificates they need from private pilot through flight instructor in one year or less. After that, they start building flight hours taking another 1-2 years to earn the 1500 hours they need for the Airline Transport Pilot certificate. Once they reach the right seat of a regional airline, they can establish seniority while working on their four year degree degree online.

The industry is always changing

It’s impossible to predict what is going to happen in the airline industry. Unexpected events such as 9/11 and COVID-19 affected the entire industry from furloughed airline pilots looking for work, to flight instructors unable to build time.

With such an unpredictable market, it is wise to prepare and make yourself as marketable as possible. If you can do so while finding the shortest path to the right seat of an airliner, your prospects are better than your competitors.