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Is a pilot career worth it?

Is Becoming a Pilot Worth the Cost?

Becoming a professional pilot is extremely time-consuming, costly and challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding, so it’s not surprising so many student aviators wonder whether becoming a pilot is worth it. When you realize what’s ahead before you to get your wings, with a looooong period of training, huge personal cost, and hear about some of the limited job opportunities, it’s enough to make anyone question their career choices. So, is becoming a pilot worth the cost??

The good:

  • The moments of sheer exhilaration and adrenaline you get while flying
  • The pride and admiration from the wider community towards pilots, which is apparently one of the world’s most respected professions 1 .
  • The above-average income (once you’re a first officer or co-pilot – see how much money do pilots make)
  • The exclusive professional community you become a part of
  • Seeing some amazing cities and locations you’d never visit on your own dime.

The bad:

  • The extreme costs involved in your training, which can be as much as $100k if you’re self-funded, just to get your commercial pilot license
  • The tough job prospects and low pay for graduate pilots (see how to get your first job as a pilot)
  • The intense physically and psychologically challenging training
  • Believe it or not, but the constant travel starts to wear you down into a routine of land the aircraft > tedious paperwork > transport > hotel > wake up > start again…

Is becoming a pilot worth the cost? Here’s the answer – if you still can’t wait to get out of bed, get to the aircraft and jump in the plane by the time you’ve finished your PPL (Private Pilot License), flying is probably something you’re intensely passionate about – all of the hard work and expense will be worth it for you once you get to co-pilot and see the fruits of your labor. On the other hand, If you’re starting to find flying a drag before you’ve even gotten 20 hours into your flying career, do yourself a favor and chose a different profession.

Is becoming a Pilot worth it for you ?

The truth is that a lot of people want to become a pilot for the wrong reasons (which I’ll go into further on). This makes the profession more competitive, and results in a lot of pilots who should have really chosen another career, but have spent too much money on their training to re-skill and are jaded about being in a job they can’t stand.

So the real question is whether becoming a pilot is worth it for you , and I’m going to try really hard to help you work this out. Because if becoming a pilot is not worth it for you, you might as well save yourself over eighty thousand dollars 2 and years worth of training, and just do some joy flights every now and then or get your recreational license and pursue a different career. This will do the small few who really do want to become a pilot a favor by reducing the glut of competition in the industry, and might even ease some of the exorbitant costs of training.

Lots of people want to become a pilot, and it’s easy to see why: watching a stunt pilot do tricks in the air and seeing the awesome view out of your window in a passenger jet is pretty alluring. On top of that, we have a string of Hollywood movies showing how awesome you’ll be by becoming a pilot.

The only problem is that you don’t see the monumental amount of effort and cash it takes to actually become a professional pilot. Becoming a pilot is a herculean task, which allegedly 80% of people abandon 3 , but then again, nothing worth doing is easy. But once people start to see the size of the journey ahead in becoming a pilot, many start to lose their resolve.

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Becoming a Pilot – The Good Parts

is becoming a pilot worth the cost

Let’s start on what you’ve got to look forward to, and why I love being a pilot (despite some of the challenges!).

I wear my uniform with pride, and every time I advance those throttles to thunder down the runway and rotate into the sky, I am positively buzzing with excitement. Nothing in life can come close to that feeling, and it’s something I look forward to every day. Working as a pilot can be tough, but it is a job you can wake up and smile every morning knowing that you are making a difference in the world, whilst having the absolute time of your life.

Pilots are people that connect the world; Airline pilots make travel possible for families to connect all around the world. Medivac and rescue pilots save lives, air ambulances transport critical patients and allow remote patients to access city healthcare. Our freight dogs and cargo pilots deliver your Amazon and eBay purchases, and deliver your letters around the world.

Our military pilots defend our skies and protect our way of life from those who might seek to harm us. Our General Aviation pilots provide an array of commercial services, ranging from everything from tours and pleasure flights, right through to geomagnetic mining survey and bush-fire spotting and fire fighting operations.

Wearing a set of wings welcomes you into a highly professional and tight-knit community of aviators, and you should be incredibly proud to fly amongst them, along airways forged by our fore-bearing pioneers like Sir George Cayley, the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

I don’t think there are too many other professions that can give you the personal sense of achievement as aviation, or the exclusive, hard-earned qualifications we all have.

However, there are many challenges that will test you if your heart really isn’t in aviation or you’re wanting to become a pilot for the wrong reasons, let’s go through some of them.

How much does it cost to become a pilot?

A basic commercial pilot license 4 can cost anywhere around $100,000. A qualified commercial airline pilot with bare-bones minimum hours (~200) will then have a very hard time getting a job. To make yourself attractive for anything above entry-level sightseeing and tourist joy flights, you will need specialist training.

The cost of specialist training, ratings and endorsements can quickly add up. Whilst some lucky pilots to-be may snag cadetships and other employment packages which include training, the vast majority will end up out of pocket for such activities.

Specialist training such as multi-engine training and command instrument ratings can eclipse even the cost of the initial basic license, and type conversions on transport category aircraft, such as a Boeing 737, can exceed $50,000.

Personally, I have spent over $300,000 on aviation training activities. I have divorced myself from thinking of cost in isolation, as many of these training courses have been crucial to my success in the industry. Training has also given me a robust and broad set of skills that have safeguarded me, enabling me to survive multiple emergencies – for example a complete loss of power on take-off resulting in a safe off-field landing.

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How long does it take to become a pilot?

It has taken me over a decade in the workforce to establish myself as a professional pilot. It is a lifelong learning endeavor and you simply don’t stop learning. This takes up time, and on average now as a qualified pilot working full time, I work 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week. Like any career, with seniority comes greater choice on flexible work hours, and I know many pilots who work reduced hours. But for now, I am happy to keep flying and learning as much as I can.

What is the tallest a pilot can be?

During training, my workload was even higher. I sacrificed my weekends and downtime, nights out with family and friends, and a lot of recreation activities so that I could concentrate on my studies. I also spend a lot of time working extra jobs to try and afford all my flight lessons.

How long does it take to become a pilot

I would hang around the local airport, with my books, soaking up as much as I could whilst I prepared for my exams and flights. Flight training is something you need to be totally immersed in – live, speak and breath aviation. The pilot fraternity is notoriously close, and spending time with like-minded individuals is essential to doing well, and networking is critical to landing that good job at the end of the training process.

Not to mention, the actual flights can take a long time, as well as the commute to and from the airport. One of the schools that I trained at was a 2-hour drive from where I lived – there just weren’t any nearby schools. So I would make a weekend of it. I was lucky as I had a pretty amazing instructor that actually had an airstrip at his hobby farm – in order to get two good days of flight training in, at the end of the first day we would fly to his farm and I would stay in his guest quarters.

How hard is it to become a pilot?

Let alone the cost and time, there is substantial effort required in becoming a professional airline pilot. And let’s be realistic – it’s not something everyone can do. There are rigorous medical screening requirements 5 , even for recreational and private pilots; commercial pilots holding a grade one aviation medical are very closely scrutinized.

Then there are the exams. I have sat over 50 theoretical ground exams during my career. These spanned from Basic Aeronautical Knowledge to Principles and Methods of Instruction, Instrument Rating examinations through to Airline Transport Pilot Aeroplane Flight Planning and Helicopter Aerodynamics. Personally, I enjoy the academic side of pilot training, I’ve also completed a bachelor’s and a master’s college degree in aeronautical and space engineering, so the knowledge requirements have never been a chore for me.

Difficulty of becoming a pilot, Is becoming a pilot worth the cost?

The exams for pilot training aren’t easy. They are incredibly challenging, complex exams requiring dedication and a lot of time to study, designed to ensure you have the ‘Right Stuff’ to be a pilot and progress to become an airline Captain. There are some amazing people out there who offer training and coaching, but these services are typically very expensive.

As difficult as the ground theory lessons and exams are, the flight training can be exceptionally challenging at times. Many student pilots struggle initially with certain concepts, and fight airsickness whilst learning to multi-task and prioritize in accordance with the law of flying: Aviate – Navigate – Communicate – Administrate!

Initial lessons teach would-be pilots about the basic tenants of how to handle an aircraft; the effects of controls, how to trim in straight and level flight, climbing, descending, turning and even aerodynamic stalling (and recovering!) of the aircraft. These progress into how to land and take-off safely, and handle basic emergencies such as engine failures or loss of electrics or flight control services. This culminates in a solo flight where pilots ditch their flight instructors to take a hot lap – a very emotionally charged and adrenaline-inducing flight.

Mastering these basics is difficult, but achievable with a very high level of effort and hard work on behalf of the student. Practicing constantly, memorizing limits, pretending to talk on the radio and visualizing attitudes and flying sequences.

This progresses into much more difficult (but equally as rewarding) sequences such as navigation exercises, advanced stalling and further emergencies such as practice forced landings and other emergency precautionary landings. When seeking upgrading classes of licenses, pilots are expected to conform to ever-tightening accuracy tolerances. They are subject to more critical and in-depth compound emergencies under significant time pressure requiring a mastery of the basics and standard operating procedures, whilst including a level of lateral thinking to solve problems.

Who is god of speed in DC?

Overall, an extremely high level of effort is required to succeed in becoming a pilot, and it requires a fit and healthy individual with a robust capacity and ability to deal with high levels of stress and time pressure.

Should I go to University or not?

Should I go to university or not?

Should I go to university or not?

Whilst holding a degree was common place amongst airline pilots in the past, it is becoming more and more common to see prospective pilots going straight from A-Levels or secondary education in to commercial flight training. With the fairly recent increase in University tuition fees it seems this trend will likely increase further in the coming years.

There are arguments for both obtaining and not obtaining a degree before embarking on your commercial flight training.

The arguments set out below are based on you living in a country where you have to pay for your own tuition fees. If you live in a country where going to University is free (or you only need to pay for your living expenses) we would recommend going to Uni.

Fees & Debt

A typical three year degree may now cost over £/€ 30,000 on tuition fees alone. Once accommodation and living costs are added onto this figure, huge student debts are becoming common place among graduates.

With integrated flight training costing around £/€ 100,000 any may airlines requiring you to pay for your own type rating (around £/€ 25,000) you could find yourself in over £/€ 150,000+ of debt before you’ve even got your first job.

Even if you completed modular flight training (the cheapest way to complete flight training) and your type rating is paid for by the airline (you’d be very lucky!) then you’d be in £/€ 100,000 of debt.

You tend to earn a good salary as a commercial pilot so you will end up being required to pay all of your student loans back, unlike others in lower paid jobs where the debt eventually gets written off. Equally, as you earn a good salary, if you have UK student finance debt and work for a UK airline based, a significant amount of money will be taken from your salary every month to pay the debt back.

As holding a degree is no longer a minimum requirement to join most European airlines as a pilot, it’s a perfectly fair argument to say that accumulating so much avoidable debt simply isn’t worth it. Spending a bit extra on loss of income and loss of medical insurance can cover your debts if the worst happens, meaning you might not think having a degree as a back-up plan is worth it.

Having a backup plan

There is however, an equally compelling argument for obtaining a degree.

Unfortunately one of the risks of being a pilot is that we can lose our class one medical at any time for a whole range of reasons which can put an end to our flying career. Equally, the airline industry is also notoriously volatile and cyclic; just look at the number of pilots made redundant due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately there will always be airline failures as economies inevitably contract from time to time. For example, Flybe, XL Airways, Fly Globespan, Silverjet, Spanair and BMI are just a handful of airlines that have folded over the last decade or so, resulting in the loss of hundreds of pilot jobs. As many find out the hard way, it can be years until one finds employment as a pilot again, if ever.

Why do pilots have shorter lives?

If you find yourself in such a position, it is vitally important to have a backup plan. To be able to go directly in to employment that has a reasonable rate of pay typically requires a degree. it might be expensive, but a degree is a good backup plan if your career doesn’t pan out as hoped. Having loss of income insurance can of course help, but you still have a life to lead outside of aviation.

The University Experience

There’s no doubt that many people class their time at University as some of the best years of their life. It offers more than just an academic qualification, it offers life experience and an opportunity to develop as a person and build relationships. People mature at different speeds so not everyone is ready to start flight training straight after A-Levels (secondary education) and might need a few more years to develop the skills and personality needed to become employable to an airline.

It is worth noting that while many European airlines do not require a degree, it is still a mandatory requirement for many foreign airlines, particularly in the United States, the Far East and Asia.

Which degree should I choose?

If you’ve decided university is for you, choosing which degree to study and at which University is not easy.

There are plenty of degrees being offered by universities which are specific to aviation and airline pilot training (we’ve listed them here).

If you are seriously thinking of becoming a pilot and love aviation, studying an aviation degree is obviously going to be enjoyable and you tend to do well at subjects you enjoy studying. Having an aviation degree will clearly put you in a good position to commence your flight training after University.

Whilst airlines do ‘like’ aviation degrees, they are equally impressed with other core subject degrees (science, engineering, maths etc.). From a recruiters point of view, the final grading you achieved is usually more important than the subject you studied. For example a 1 st class degree in media studies will probably be viewed more favourably than a 2:2 in an aviation subject as it shows you are able to apply yourself very well and to a high standard. This is an attribute which you will need to demonstrate throughout your aviation career.

Something else to consider is what type of degree you would fall back on should the worst happen and you can’t fly any more. Having a degree in a separate discipline which is unrelated to aviation may open up more employment opportunities than if you held an aviation specific degree. For example, having a degree in accounting or law is likely to open up potentially higher paid opportunities than an aviation degree would if you can no longer be a pilot.


There are both pros and cons to both the decision of whether to go University or not and what subject you should study if you do decide to go.

For most people, the choice is avoiding the accumulation of a large debt unnecessarily versus getting the university experience and all that entails along with (hopefully) something to fall back on if your career doesn’t take off as planned. It’s very subjective and ultimately a very personal decision – everyone’s situation is different.

Is a pilot career worth it?

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by Skirtz

u/Skirtz avatar

Is becoming an airline pilot worth it?

I’m 18 years old, start college this January (majoring in CompSci). Currently, I work overnight 10pm-8am unloading trucks and restocking shelves for a retail store (I chose to work overnight both because I like working at night and because it pays an extra $1 an hour; more money=more flight lessons). For every ~11 hours I work I can pay for ~1 hour of flight lessons (not including price of instructor or fuel). I get my first paycheck in two weeks, my parents have agreed to financially support me in this, and I think I’ve come up with a decent plan. I pay for 1/3rd of my lessons, my mom pays for 1/3rd, and my dad pays for 1/3rd and I fly 2.5-3 hours a week, and I should get my PPL in 4-5 months, which is a start. Even though my job is only seasonal, I’m hoping I’ll get taken on for a permanent position (working my butt off currently to ensure that) so I’m assuming that I do get to work permanently (I know it’s bad to plan on having money you’re not guaranteed to have, but I’m literally doing everything I can to impress my managers and have a chance at keeping my job).

My goal is to be a cargo pilot and make a decent enough salary by the time I’m in my thirties to raise kids and live in a decent home. Of course, anything better would be nice, but my main goal is to be able to raise kids and start a family in a suitable environment. It’d also be nice if I made enough to support some of my hobbies on the side, like skydiving and hang gliding.

Airplanes are my passion, but I keep hearing stories about how it’s impossible to get a job, you’ll be poor for the rest of your life, and be in debt forever and it kind of makes me doubt my dreams. I’ll literally have panic attacks sometimes thinking about if my career goals are even suitable for my life goals (and I literally NEVER get panic attacks otherwise, so you know it’s bothering me pretty badly). With my CompSci degree, I could work my way up to a «Computer and Information Systems Manager» which pays, on average, 6 figures and is stable, but that would be a mind-numbing desk job and that just isn’t me. I mean I know that 99.9% of people work jobs they don’t like, because that’s just life, but does that mean I should have to give up on my dreams too?

So, give me the truth. I’ve told you my goals (be able to afford to raise a family), have given you a rough idea of my plans (it’s too early to plan a lot of things so I can’t get too specific, though I do think I’ll be going Flight instructor > Regional > Cargo pilot for FedEx/UPS, maybe do aerial survey instead of flight instructor), is being a pilot really right for me? Are my goals reasonable and achievable? I just want to make sure now before I make any irreversible decisions. If it ends up not being right for me, I’d rather give up now with money in my pocket than realize it’s not right for me when I’m six figures in debt.

If you don’t think you can give me an answer, and you’re a pilot of some sort, then maybe give me your experiences so far? As in, tell me what flying’s been like for you, what finding a job/working a pilot job has been like for you, etc.

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