How to start a career as a pilot?

My son and I love playing MSFS together. I want to encourage him to play more and potentially do some real life flying lessons when he turns 16. I would like to know from commercial pilots out there if they have any tips on being successful as a pilot. I have heard you need contacts at a major airline to get a traineeship. How about getting into the airforce ? It seems that doing private lessons is expensive and no guarantee of success. I would appreciate any advice.

Quick question: You’re asking from the US? I’m a commercial pilot, but in Germany, so any input I might give would not apply in that case…

I’m not personally a commercial pilot, but I hope my experiences with my son can be helpful to you and your son. I hope this all doesn’t come across as bragging, just want to give you as much info as possible.

My son is 21 and will graduate a US-based college next May with about 300 hours of flight time and his CFI.

Some tips that helped us:

  • The Air Force is always an option and is the least expensive overall, but has the most time commitment depending on a few factors. Unless things have changed recently, I think you’re looking at least 6-10 years to exit the AF and train as a commercial pilot. Plus there’s always the risk of combat. Someone please correct me if there’s better info.

  • The college route, while substantially more expensive, did have some elements that helped us decide this route. 1) my son will actually have a BS degree plus a minor, and 2) based on some good legwork, he got some really good scholarships making it very close to a typical college.

I’m surprised that the dropout rate at college is so high. Flying will need to be a passion. I think 30% of my son’s class has dropped out due to COVID and/or cost.

While my son isn’t expecting to jump into a 737 right after college, there are some additional things that seem to be helping his chances:

  • He’s engaged in the local airport community, he’s worked his way up to safety chair at the airport.
  • Depending on where he flies, he will have to be aggressive to get flight blocks. It’s easy to fall behind and never get caught up again.
  • In high school, my son was active in Civil Air Patrol (US only, not sure where you are). That got him about 5 flights for free.

If you want more detail, please send me a PM.

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Great point. Varies by country for sure. My responses above were for US.

In Europe the simplest option is to do a 0-ATPL (frozen) training, which would cost you around 100k-150k euro. Then you basically apply for jobs and wait to be hired. In the meantime you try to get a job as a flight instructor / glider towing etc. That’s what most people do.
There are some nuances, but that’s the path most people I know follow.
Some are lucky to have their PPL/CPL training funded by the state, by studying at a university that covers that.

At least in my country no airline takes people from the street. The minimum is ATPL(frozen) and a few hundred hours.

The military is another option but being a pilot there is super elite compared to the US (much less airplanes per capita). Plus if you have perfect health and are super bright and end up finishing the training there and getting a job, you’ll probably stay until you retire in your late 30’s. It might not pay as well but is certainly more entertaining.


I am from Australia. All good general advice though.

I joined the Army in 1966, applied for and attended Warrant Officer Flight Training. Whoa, you say, that has nothing to do with jets.
For one thing, Uncle Sam paid for my College degree completion after I returned from Vietnam. For another, I know many Army pilots who later flew commercial jets. And also, Helicopters are fun!
One of my Civil Air Patrol friends from High School attended Parks Aviation College near St. Louis and later flew Air Force F-100s in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.


You might look at " ab initio " programs:

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I would be careful about directing your son towards this career path. In the U.S. it is a long, uncertain, expensive road to getting hired by a major airline and an even longer road towards financial stability if and when that happens. Never believe anyone claiming there is (or will be) a pilot shortage until the days of airlines paying for flight training return. My Dad flew for United for 33 years and while he didn’t exactly discourage me from following in his footsteps, I started down that road with my eyes open. Luckily for me, my timing was bad and there were no jobs to be had at the end of my flight training. As a result, I ended up with a far better career in a different industry. I am thankful every day for that.

COVID-19 continues to affect the aviation industry and it remains to be seen whether the industry will fully recover and how long that will take. The massive furloughs that resulted are a very real risk of a career in aviation and some pilots can’t survive economically when they happen. One of my old neighbors was furloughed into a career change during a major economic downturn.

Besides the precarious economics of an aviation career, there is the double-edged sword of the seniority system that marries you to an airline and dictates every aspect of your career, but especially your work schedule. Switching airlines means starting over at the bottom. Also, the career is fundamentally unhealthy. There are long days, backside of the clock flying, circadian rhythm disruptions and years of exposure to unhealthy levels of radiation. My Dad died of a brain tumor in his 70s, likely caused by flying.

Flying can be a good career, but you have to love it. If your son develops a natural love for aviation on his own to the point that he considers being a pilot as a career, then make sure he fully understands what he would be getting into. Knowing what I know, I would never suggest that career to my daughter. If she came to it on her own, I would certainly make her aware of the many downsides.


Small world! That’s where my son is. Now part of SLU.

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What an honest feedback! Following the COVID crisis, some of our Swiss pilots were re-assigned - with their agreement of course - as train locomotive drivers (which we are very short of in the country). It shows how difficult a new assignment may be in the event of an industry downturn.
It is also a known fact that pilots dont live very old given the repetitive break in their sleep patterns (as mentioned in the post above) among other factors.

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After I started playing fs2004 A Century of flight I tried one of those intro flight packages at my local airport and I recommend going on a winter vacation to Beaver Island in Michigan because if you fly in you’d realize how much those small islands in the Great Lakes depend on aviation and if you trained around a place like that where there’s a huge demand for pilots you might get lucky enough to help support a small island (if your willing to deal with a Great Lakes Northern winter)

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As a former flight instructor I would say, be careful using MSFS as a “training aid”, it could cause bad habits which are hard to unlearn. I guess it depends on the student but for some its better to start completely blank.

Furthermore you might wanna check this thread also:


I cannot agree with this enough. An aviation career is definitely not something one should undertake unless you have a burning passion for it. There’s simply to many things out of one’s control to justify it, if you only have a passing interest.

I posted the following on reddit in response to a similar question on whether becoming a pilot is a good career choice, and I think it’s relevant.

I think the first question you need to ask yourself is, do you desperately want to be a pilot, or is your priority an enjoyable, stable, financialy rewarding career?

I’m not saying saying they are mutually exclusive, as there are a lot of happy, well paid pilots, just that there’s also a lot of unhappy, overworked & underpaid crew too. Often the only difference between the two is luck. If your goal is a stable, well paid career, of which you are generally in control of, there are probably more reliable, less luck dependant options.

If you just have to be a pilot regardless, and are willing to work hard, take the poor initial pay, move away from family and friends for many years (15+ for myself), and accept you may never reach the level of international wide body captain (again, due to luck not ability or hard work), then there’s absolutely nothing better in the world.

I definitely fall into the later category, and fully understood that I could spend my career flying nothing larger than a King Air. Even knowing this, I’d still take it over any other job. I just can’t imagine doing anything else.

Luckily I’ve had opportunities beyond that, but I do think it’s important for people to consider whether they would still be happy in aviation if the ‘perfect’ career path doesn’t play out as planned.


Yes…like diving for the runway rather than pulling power. I’ve seen too many flight sim “gamers” just push the nose down to lose altitude.

I think the most difficult thing to unlearn is faulty instrument scans and crosschecks which started to become habit. Once those things become hardcoded in the brain its hard to erase. Its important that those are learned correctly, right from the start.

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United offers the Aviate Program that takes you all the way and through working for United. You’re pretty much guaranteed a position going this route and can even get your PPL through this program.

United Aviate

I have met other pilots that literally got into piloting because it was “easy”, affordability wasn’t an issue, “all a numbers game” or because they loved the “flight benefits”. More and more is why airmanship is becoming less and less and airlines are looking for new ways to build it. That passion goes a long way… it’s gotta be more than about just an image to obtain.

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Especially given how quickly it can all turned pear shaped, and your perfect career is now no longer so, through no fault of your own.

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I think this sounds like a new topic. What bad habits does MSFS give you as a real world pilot ?

Thanks to all the terrific replies. The overwhelming theme is that you need true passion for aviation ! It’s tough learning, getting experience, getting your first job, downturns, long hours, shift work, pandemics etc. The joys are there too if you love it… I will monitor my son’s passion. Give him a taste for real world flying when he turns 16 and it’s up to him after that !