What degree do I need to be a pilot?

Ready to start your journey?

DegreeQuery.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.


The principal types of pilots are:

  • Recreational- people who learn to fly for enjoyment with restrictions on flight distance and type of aircraft
  • Private- largest group of pilots with a broader scope of aircraft and instrument rating
  • Certified Instructor- authorized by the FAA to teach students how to fly
  • Corporate pilots- flying personnel for a large corporation that owns or leases its own aircraft
  • Commercial- encompasses cargo, tour, rescue, aerial photography or charter pilots
  • Airline- paid to fly passengers on domestic and/or international routes

Is this a good career choice?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted an in-depth study of the commercial airline industry in 2014 for ” congressional requesters.” The study revealed that there are over 72,000 airline pilots (2012 figure) employed with larger mainline and smaller regional airlines. This group of pilots operate over 7,000 commercial aircraft. The rate of unemployment for these pilots has been lower than the economy as a whole. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analyzed data from 2000 through 2012 and found the unemployment rate to be 2.7%.  During this same time frame, employment for airline and commercial pilots decreased by 12%. Keep in mind, this is an economy driven industry that tends to fluctuate depending on the strength of the U.S. economy.

A more optimistic picture was painted by a 2012 study conducted by researchers from six universities led by the University of North Dakota. This research, the FAA and one by an aviation industry analysis firm, known as the Audries Aircraft Analysis, concluded that there is a need for pilots in the future. These three studies differ on the number of new pilots needed over the next ten years; the consensus ranges from 2000-3000 annually. Based on this information, the future career opportunities appear bright.


There are 260 colleges and universities with aviation programs. Many of these programs allow you to earn an aviation diploma, certificate or rating, aviation degree, an Associates and/or Bachelor’s degree or graduate work through to a PhD level. Many of these learning institutions refer to technical, junior, community, and other 2 year colleges. A degree is not mandatory to enter the commercial or airline aviation industry, though it may open more doors, particularly in the airline business.

Choosing the best college or university to suit your ambition is paramount, as there are a variety of aviation courses offered. These programs are open to students interested in air traffic control, aircraft maintenance, transportation management, avionics management and professional pilots-to name a few.

Assuming your aspirations are to become a commercial or airline pilot, there is no substitute for experience. If you’re considering the profession of being a pilot, then most probably, you’ve taken flying lessons. This is an expensive endeavor to become a qualified pilot. Another route to consider is the military which requires an 8-10 year commitment. All branches of the military have fixed wing aircraft, although the army is almost exclusively helicopters.

What else do I need to know?

To be a professional pilot you must be knowledgeable in numerous subjects:

  • Theory of flight- fundamental understanding of physics
  • Meteorology- interpretation and recognition of weather phenomena
  • Aircraft systems- knowledge of the physics of flight and avionics
  • Navigation- thorough understanding of charts
  • FAA regulations and air traffic control- comply with various government bodies, both Federal and State
  • Physical condition- the FAA requires a medical certificate before flying an airplane or helicopter solo. Commercial pilots must be retested annually and airline pilots every 6 months after age 40.


Being a professional pilot demands communication, observational, problem-solving and quick reaction skills. On the surface, it may appear glamorous but the airline pilot assumes tremendous responsibility to fly passengers and crew safely. Their life and your’s may rely upon your years of study, training and experience in a critical situation.

Related Resources: 

Which Degree Do You Need to Become a Pilot?