What Are The Steps Involved In Becoming A Commercial Pilot?

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Original publication date: January 16, 2022
Last Updated: November 27, 2022
Author: pilotdiscovery
Topic: Careers
Number of Comments: 0

The journey to becoming a commercial pilot is demanding and arduous. It requires discipline, mental and physical fortitude, determination, persistence, and a growth mindset.

As a general rule, becoming a commercial pilot requires you to pursue and obtain a series of intermediary aviation licenses and ratings, each progressively building upon one other (which can be used for non-commercial flying), culminating with the achievement of the commercial pilot license itself.

The curriculum track for achieving your commercial pilot license is generally the same for all pilots, although there may be some variations along the way, depending upon your individual aviation goals. However, once you earn your commercial pilot license, the journey doesn’t end there. Depending on what you are looking to do with your newly minted commercial license, your journey could just be beginning. Let’s explore the steps of a typical commercial pilot’s journey.

The Private Pilot License is your entry level ticket to fly.

The first step on every pilot’s foray into commercial aviation is to get their private pilot license (PPL). This is the entry-level ticket that gives you the privileges to fly. With a newly minted license, you will be able to fly most any basic single-engine four-seater aircraft.

You will be restricted to flying for personal use only. Flying for compensation or for hire is prohibited with a PPL. (Having said that, the FAA does specify ways that you can make money with a private pilot’s license without violating the no-compensation or the no-flying-for-hire rule.)

It takes a minimum of 40 hours of flight training before you can go for the checkride. The checkride is the final flight test, administered by an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), which you must pass, in order to get your PPL.

Mind you, the minimum is literally just a minimum. It is not uncommon for many pilots to require much more than 40 hours in order to develop the proficiency to get their PPL. This also does not include the scores of hours that you will have spent taking a ground school course and studying for the written test. Becoming a pilot requires a lot of hard work.

You will need a 3rd Class Medical Certificate or BasicMed.

Medical fitness is one of the requirements in order to be granted the privileges to pilot an aircraft. In fact, all pilots are expected to self-assess their fitness to fly, both physically and mentally, before each flight.

For this reason, the FAA requires all student pilots to meet certain medical qualifications before they can be issued their private pilot license.

For the PPL, the FAA offers two choices for medical certification:

Option #1: 3rd Class Medical Certificate

You must go for a physical evaluation with a certified Aviation Medical Examiner, who will test your vision, your hearing, and check your general overall physical fitness to fly.

(If you have ever read those drug labels that come with the warning label “do not operate heavy machinery”, then you should know that airplanes are considered “heavy machinery”!)

The 3rd class medical certificate is valid for 60 months if you are under the age of 40, or for 24 months if you are over the age of 40.

Option #2: BasicMed

You may go for a physical evaluation by any general physician, who must assess your fitness to fly. This evaluation is valid for 48 months. Plus, you must take an online medical fitness course every 24 months.

The fitness requirements are generally less stringent for BasicMed than for a 3rd class medical certificate. As such, BasicMed comes with limitations that are you are not otherwise subject to under a 3rd class medical:

  • Under BasicMed, you are restricted to flying airplanes that have a gross takeoff weight of less than 6,000 pounds. You are also restricted to flying airplanes that can carry no more than 6 passengers.
  • As of this writing, BasicMed is recognized in the United States, Mexico, and the Bahamas only. It is not currently recognized in Canada. Hence, you cannot fly from the United States to Canada under BasicMed. (You would have to have a valid 3rd class medical certificate to fly to Canada, instead.)
  • You cannot fly for hire or for compensation under BasicMed.

These Add-on ratings empower you to level up your flying.

Once you get your private pilot license, there are a number of add-on ratings that you can obtain. These are not standalone licenses, but are additional skills that allow you to fly bigger, faster, and more technologically advanced aircraft, high-performance aircraft.

In theory, you could get a commercial license without any add-ons that are discussed in this article, but your license would be pretty ineffective, as you would be severely limited on the type of commercial flying that you can do! You wouldn’t be very marketable as a commercial pilot if you don’t have obtain one or more of these add-ons.

Needless to say, the typical progression of any aspiring commercial pilot is to go ahead and get these add-ons right away.

In the next few sections, we will cover the various add-ons that every commercial pilot worth their weight in ambition, would be wont to obtain.

The Instrument Rating helps you become a safer pilot.

The next rung on the commercial aviation ladder is to get your instrument rating.

When you first obtain your private pilot license, you are restricted to flying under Visual Flight Rules, or VFR. This means that you cannot fly through clouds, in adverse weather conditions, or when visibility is below certain legal minimums, as established by the FAA. You must be able to fly while maintaining visual reference outside the window and be able to see the ground, at all times.

The instrument rating allows you to overcome this limitation. It allows you to fly under Instrument Flight Rules, or IFR. This means that you can fly through clouds and through zero-visibility conditions, without the need to be able to see outside the window at all. You fly by reference to instruments, hence the name of the rating.

This rating is not a standalone, separate license. It is an add-on to your pilot license, which extends your privileges beyond VFR into IFR conditions.

Getting your instrument rating requires a minimum of 40 hours of training, above and beyond the training you had already received for your PPL.

The Multiengine Rating lets you fly higher and faster.

Until now, you will have been licensed to fly only single-engine airplanes. You will inevitably want to get your multiengine rating if you want to be able to fly more high-performance aircraft.

With a multiengine rating, you will not only learn how to fly an aircraft with multiple engines, but you will learn how to fly a multiengine airplane with only one engine (such as in the case of an engine failure).

There is no minimum number of hours required for multi-engine training. You take as many hours as are needed in order to receive an endorsement from your flight instructor that you are ready to go for the checkride. A checkride with an FAA DPE is required in order to get your multiengine rating.

The Complex Endorsement introduces you to high-performance.

The basic trainer aircraft that you have been flying up until this point, have all had fixed landing gear that doesn’t retract, it had a very basic wing-flap system, and its engine had a fixed-pitch propeller.

These are all well and good for basic training, but landing gears create drag. Basic wing flaps and fixed-pitch propellers lack some of the advanced aerodynamic advantages of aircraft offered by having complex wing flaps and variable-pitched propellers.

There is no minimum number of hours required for the complex endorsement, nor is there a checkride. All that is needed is an endorsement from a flight instructor, that you have received the necessary practical and ground training for the safe operation of complex aircraft.

A High-Altitude Endorsement is required to fly above FL250.

With your private pilot license, the highest you can legally fly is 17,999 feet above sea level.

You would need to get your instrument rating in order to legally fly at or above 18,000 feet (which is known as “flight level 180” in aviation lexicon, or FL180).

But then there is another altitude restriction that you are up against (pun intended):

You cannot legally fly at or above 25,000 feet above sea level (flight level 250, or FL250) without a high-altitude endorsement.

This pertains to the pressurization of cabins, the use and management of oxygen, flight dynamics, human physiology implications for flying at or above this altitude, and emergency procedures.

Ground training, practical training, and an endorsement from a flight instructor are all that are required. (There are no fixed minimum number of hours or a checkride required.)

A High Performance Endorsement lets you fly more than 200HP.

A high-performance aircraft, by definition, is any aircraft that has an engine output rated as greater than 200 horsepower, according to the FAA. 

The FAA requires all pilots to obtain a high-performance endorsement before being authorized to act as pilot-in-command of any aircraft that has an engine rated at greater than 200 horsepower.

No minimum hour requirement exists nor is any formal checkride required as a prerequisite in order to garner this endorsement. All that is required is the necessary ground instruction and flight training, before your instructor can endorse you as being competent to fly high-performance aircraft.

Technically Advaned Airplane (TAA)

Pilots are encouraged to build up time flying technically advanced airplanes (TAA).

Unlike all of the aforementioned add-ons, there is no TAA endorsement, as of this writing.

However, you will find that flight experience in TAAs may be implicitly required, depending on the type of commercial aviation aircraft you intent to fly.

By definition, a TAA is any airplane that is equipped with the following 3 components:

  • An electronic primary flight display (PFD).
  • An electronic multifunction display (MFD) with a built-in GPS navigation system.
  • A 2-axis autopilot system that is integrated with the navigation system.

The conglomeration of the above 3 is what is collectively and commonly known as a “glass cockpit”.

While glass cockpit training is not required in order to get your commercial license per se, it is implicitly required depending on the type of aircraft you intend to fly commercially.

If you can land a commercial aviation gig in which you are able to pilot aircraft that are equipped with the traditional 6-pack of steam gauges, then you obviously would not have TAA experience. But any modern jet planes that are equipped with glass cockpits would obviously necessitate that you would have acquired some TAA experience beforehand. TAAs are discussed further in this article.

Commercial License

At this point, the typical progression on the journey toward becoming a commercial pilot is to obtain the commercial license itself!

To obtain your commercial pilot license, you will have to have flown a minimum of 250 lifetime hours, from the day you took your very first lesson as a student pilot until now.

‣ Of those 250 hours, 100 of them must have been as pilot-in-command, where you were the sole manipulator of the controls.
‣ Of those 250 hours, 50 of them must have been cross-country flights. (A cross country flight is any flight that is 50 nautical miles or more between the departure and arrival airports.) If you have received your instrument rating, then you will have already met this requirement.

20 hours of training specifically for the commercial license itself, of which:

– at least 10 hours must be in any combination of one or more of these 3:

‣ A complex airplane
‣ A turbine-powered airplane
‣ A technically advanced airplane (TAA)

– at least 10 hours must involve instrument training

During your training, you will need to fly at least one cross-country flights that is a total of 300 nautical miles in length, at least one leg of the flight being at least 250 nautical miles long.

250 hours is relatively easy to achieve, if you consider the following:

40 hours are for the private pilot license
‣ 40 hours are for the instrument rating
‣ 10 hours are spent on the multiengine rating
‣ 10 hours are spent on the high-altitude endorsement
‣ 10 hours are spent on the high-performance endorsement
‣ 10 hours are spent on the complex endorsement
‣ 20 hours are spent on the commercial rating itself

Assuming you meet these minimums, that is already 140 hours out of the 250.

Most likely you will spend more than 40 hours each, on the private and instrument ratings, and possibly more than 20 hours on the commercial rating.

The remainder of the time can be spent enjoying your pilot’s license, by building you up your cross-country hours for leisure.

You will need a 2nd Class Medical Certificate at this point.

Prior to getting your commercial license, you were able to manage with a 3rd class medical certificate or with BasicMed.

However, now that you want to get your commercial license, you will need to upgrade your medical certification to a 2nd class medical, before you can get your commercial license.

A 2nd class medical certificate has more stringent fitness requirements than a 3rd class, particularly in terms of vision, hearing, and other general physical health.

2nd class medical certificates are valid for 12 months before you must renew them.

If your 2nd class medical lapses before you renew it, then it automatically “downgrades” to a 3rd class medical certificate, which is subject to the validity period of such.

So you would still be able to fly airplanes, but you just would not be able to fly for compensation or hire until your 2nd class medical is renewed by taking another exam with an FAA AME.

What can you do with a brand new commercial pilot license?

Congratulations! You now have your commercial pilot license. So what can you do at this point? And what can you still not do at this point?

The commercial pilot license unlocks the doors to you finally being able to get a job as a pilot.

You can now legally get compensated for flying.

Having said that, the types of aviation gigs you can land are subject to limitations and restrictions.

As a general rule, you can fly pretty much any type of airplane that you have trained in up until this point. You can get paid to ferry passengers and cargo in any single-engine or twin-engine aircraft that seats the number of passengers and has a cargo capacity similar to the airplanes that you have been training in.

What can you NOT do with a new commercial pilot license?

Having just the commercial pilot license unlikes many doors, but not all of them.

If you want to become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), you will need to go through additional training and pass a checkride, in order to earn your CFI license.

If you wish to fly a commercial passenger airliner or commercial cargo jet, you will need to obtain your Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating for these, which requires a total of 1500 hours of flight experience and more training.

For an in-depth analysis of what kind of jobs you can pursue in aviation with your commercial pilot’s license, check out this resource.

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