Flight Training In The USA - What It's Like

Ever since I got my IFR rating and my commercial certificate, I’ve had multiple people PM me about the best route to take in terms of training. I though I’d help by putting up a thread about it.

A little about me: I am an FAA-certified commercial pilot, with about 300 hours flying experience. I’ve done all my training in Southern California, my home base being KVNY (Van Nuys), near Los Angeles, flying mostly Piper Cherokees, the PA-28-151/161/181 family.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not a CFI, or a professional career advisor. I am simply giving an outline of my own experiences and the experiences of others who I’ve spoken to in the real-world aviation community.

So here goes. In terms of flying training, there’s a few ways to go about it. I’ve divided my answer into sections from the best of my knowledge:

Type of Flight School:

Part 141 School

A Part 141 school is generally more expensive from what I’ve heard, but is a more ‘direct’ way to the airlines. It also gives you a guaranteed number of hours of ground training, a very structured curriculum for flying, and in-house checkrides, which don’t necessarily go on your record if you fail them. It’s a full-time pilot school, not a part-time thing, and you have less freedom to fly ‘for the love of flying.’ Part 141s generally costs about $80,000, but can vary. Check various Part 141 schools like Embry-Riddle etc. for their costs.

Part 61 School

Me personally, I’m with a Part 61 school because that lets you have a lot more freedom on the way you want to train and fly. The downside is that a lot is dependent on your instructor. If you get an instructor that’s not that great, too bad. Also there’s no guarantee or direct path to an ATP (airline transport pilot) license afterwards, like some schools (like Embry-Riddle) advertise. The other thing is that you’ve to do a lot of stuff on your own - including ground training (from a website like Sporty’s or Sheppard Air) - but I personally found it a fantastic experience and invaluable training rather than being spoon-fed. I would expect to keep aside approximately $40,000 (on the slightly lower side of things) for a Part 61 school to go all the way to the commercial certificate. My Part 61 school was Ascent Aviation Academy which was absolutely fantastic!


Private Pilot

-You need to be at least 17 years of age. However, you can get your student pilot license at age 16, and then give your private pilot checkride on your 17th birthday - something to consider!
-You need to be able to understand, speak and write English fluently
-You need to have a third class medical certificate which is valid for 60 calendar months (roughly 5 years), if you’re under the age of 40, and 24 calendar months (roughly 2 years) if you’re over 40.
-You need to pass the FAA written exam and a checkride, as well as fulfil the flight requirements given in either Part 61 or Part 141, depending on which route you’ve chosen for your training.

Instrument Rating

-You need to have at least a private pilot certificate
-You need to be able to understand, speak and write English fluently
-You need a current FAA medical certificate
-You need to pass the FAA written exam and a checkride
-If you’re going down the Part 61 route, you need at least 40 hours of ‘hood’ aka simulated instrument time which can even be done with just a safety pilot and not an instructor, 50 hours of cross-country time as pilot-in-command, and 15 hours of instruction from a instrument instructor (a CFII). You can also obtain 20 of those hood time hours in an approved simulator.
-If you’re going down the Part 141 route, you need at least 35 hours of ‘hood’ time and there’s no requirement of the 50 hours cross-country. But you can only obtain 14 of those hours in a simulator.

Commercial Pilot

-You need to be at least 18 years of age
-You need to be able to understand, speak and write English fluently
-You need a second-class medical certificate to be able to exercise your commercial pilot privileges. This is valid for 24 calendar months, after which (if you’re under 40) it reverts to a third-class for the remaining time.
-You need to hold at least a private pilot certificate. An instrument rating is not necessary - however if you don’t have an IFR rating, your commercial certificate will have a 50NM radius restriction on it as well as a night time restriction, when it comes to carrying persons or property for hire.
-You need to pass the FAA written exam and a checkride, as well as fulfil the flight requirements given in either Part 61 or Part 141, depending on which route you’ve chosen for your training.

Earning Money:

Now you can pick the bad news or the good news first!

Bad News

Here’s the bad news. You’re not going to get a chance to earn any money to recover all those costs until you get your commercial pilot’s license. And even after you earn your commercial certificate, you can’t compete with air carriers so you can’t ‘hold out’ aka advertise your services, except to an organisation or operation with an existing air carrier/operator’s certificate (a Part 135 or 121 company). Think of it like a culinary student and a restaurant - once you get your cooking diploma, you still need a bunch of permits and licenses to open up a whole new restaurant.
Also bear in mind, that you need 1500 hours before you can get your airline transport pilot license - so you need to build those hours!

Good News

There are a few exceptions to the law of ‘common carriage,’ as they call it - you can work as a crop-dusting pilot, a banner-towing pilot and an aerial photography pilot. Check Part 119.1(e) to see what you can and can’t do.
You can also get hired as a pilot for charter ops, etc. - you can get hired by anybody except for airlines who have a Part 121 certificate. “Get hired” is the key phrase here. You can’t advertise a plane AND your pilot services together. And you can’t get hired by anyone who doesn’t have the required certification. But (wink wink) if someone hears about you through ‘non-advertising’ means and contacts you to fly their aircraft for compensation, you can do it.
But the way most people start to earn money is to go for an additional non-compulsory certificate after commercial - the certified flight instructor (CFI-initial) certificate. It’s the hardest one to earn - but it allows you to profitably make money as a flight instructor and collect the 1500 hours needed to join the airlines.

I hope this helped at least a few of you, and most importantly remember, that a good pilot is always learning! If you have any questions, comments and criticisms, drop 'em below!


Thank you for the tips! Flight training is always something that I have wanted to do. Thanks to this amazing topic I have a bigger and better understanding on how to become an airline pilot!

Keep up the good work! 😄👍


Detailed topic! It’s an interesting read interesting to see how it compares to Europe.
Happy Flying :)


Hope to hear more from you on your journey!

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Thanks! I’ve often wondered what it’s like there haha.

It is so cool to have flight training in the real,world

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You bet it is! Love every minute of it

If I may, I’d like to add one extra little point about part 61 vs part 141. Part 141 schools are based off a proficiency-based curriculum, which won’t help much in private necessarily, but could make or break the bank going to the commercial world. (FAA minimum is 250 for commercial but I have seen certificated commercial pilots with as little as 150 hours because of the part 141 curriculum). This is most likely why it’s a more “direct” route because you can get to working commercially faster and start earning back the money you spent on flight training.

Hopefully that helps any 😊

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While I have no intentions to be a pilot, this post made for a very good read as I’ve always been curious about some of these aspects regarding medicals, flight hours, regulations, etc.


That’s super informative. Thanks! Very useful to know.

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