How to Become an Air Pilot

Ready to spread your wings and fly? Canada's in dire need of new pilots. With the growth in "discount airlines," and a post-pandemic boom in leisure travel, Canada's having trouble training enough pilots to meet the demand.

This means you could help fill that need, and have a great career, by becoming a commercial airline pilot. It's a tough road, though — or runway, in this case. Studying to become a pilot, and getting the required number of training hours, is quite expensive. Still, it can be done! Here's how to become a pilot:

How to become a commercial airline pilot in Canada

Here's the usual path for people in Canada to become commercially licenced pilots, able to fly planes for large and small airlines alike:

Step 1: Private pilot's licence

Becoming a pilot takes a lot of training. You'll need a mix of in-class and in-cockpit training, safety courses, and probably time in a simulator, too.

To get accepted into a commercial pilot program, like the ones we'll discuss below, you'll usually need a private pilot's licence first. Getting a private pilot's licence (PPL) shows that you're dedicated and passionate, and that you have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of flight before taking on more challenging tasks.

By earning a pilot's licence, you'll learn everything you need to know about flying a plane. A college or university program in aviation may include this basic training, and much more, to let you take your career as a pilot further. But first, your PPL!

Of course, getting a PPL isn't exactly easy. You'll need to attend a flight school to make it happen. In some cases, you may be able to take an accelerated program of just a couple of months, or even enrol in a PPL course concurrently with your college or university program. This could be an intense schedule, so be sure you're prepared. Otherwise, the length of time it takes to earn a PPL depends on how quickly you can acquire the flight hours, and finish ground school (more on this below).

You can start your student licence as young as 14, to start getting experience with light aircraft, but beyond getting started early, and practicing, there's no specific benefit to starting with a student licence. For a full PPL you'll need to be at least 17. Getting your PPL is much like getting a commercial licence. You'll need to pass a medical and fitness check, prove your knowledge in an exam, and have a certified instructor vouch that your skills and experience are up to the task before authorizing your first solo flight.

Logging the hours needed for a private pilot's licence

You'll need a minimum amount of hours in "ground school" (classroom-based learning) as well as flight hours under a qualified instructor.

Ground school: minimum of 40 hours of instruction in areas including:

  • Aviation regulations
  • Flight theory
  • Aircraft systems

Flight hours: minimum of 45 hours of training under a qualified instructor. Up to 5 of these hours can come from an approved simulator instead of a real plane. Here are some specific requirements:

  • 17 hours of "dual instruction" flight time, with you and the instructor together. This includes at least 3 hours of cross-country flight time
  • 12 hours of "solo" flight time, just you! This includes at least 5 hours of cross-country flight!

It may not seem like a lot on paper, but you'll earn a lot of experience in these short hours.

To get these skills and experience, you'll likely need to work with a private flight school near you. Colleges and universities that offer programs for pilots work with local flight schools: you may want to choose the same place for your PPL, to keep things familiar and consistent. But any licenced flight school will work!

Unfortunately, earning a PPL is expensive. You can expect mandatory training to cost around $15,000 - $20,000, with optional training (like night flying, mountain flights, and international flights) adding to the cost. And remember, you generally need a PPL before you can start training as a commercial pilot.

If you have flight experience through the Canadian Armed Forces, you may be able to skip some of the required steps above.

Once you have a PPL for a specific type of aircraft (like an airplane), getting a licence for another type of craft (like a helicopter) becomes easier: some of your skills and logged flight hours will carry over.

Congrats on earning your private pilot's licence! To become a commercial airline pilot, you'll need to continue your education.

Step 2: Laddering up from personal to commercial pilot's licence

Many colleges and universities across the country offer programs in Aviation, but they often partner with local flight schools to offer specialized training and cockpit hours.

For example, Alberta's Red Deer Polytechnic works with Sky Wings Aviation Academy to provide air pilot training. RDP coordinates the program, and offers business courses alongside your commercial pilot licence. Conestoga College, likewise, works with both Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre and Great Lakes Helicopter, giving students the option of studying to fly airplanes or helicopters.

Generally, to get admission to these highly competitive programs, students must have a high school diploma with decent grades in English, mathematics, and physics, though specifics will vary by institution. Some programs, like Mount Royal University's Aviation program, require that students already have a personal pilot's licence (PPL) before admission. So, keep an eye out for admission requirements at your school of choice before making any firm plans.

You'll need to complete a certain number of hours of guided flight training, solo training, classroom hours, and more. You can expect the process to take at least two years, especially if you don't have previous flight experience.

Step 3: Gathering flight hours

Once you're enrolled in a program, you'll need to build up as many "flight hours" as possible. You'll already have some hours logged, having completed your PPL, so this part should be fairly easy. You'll keep track of your hours in a "certified record of flying experience."

The only challenge is the cost: getting flight hours is expensive. Over a two-year period, you can expect training fees to cost between $55,000 and $75,000, and this is on top of your usual college or university tuition fees. No wonder becoming a pilot is so expensive!

These fees are outside the scope of most provincial student loan programs, which will offer funding, just not enough — so you may need to dip into savings, work part-time, or take out a line of credit to afford your commercial pilot's licence. You may also be eligible for aviation scholarships, so keep your eyes open!

You'll need to acquire at least 200 total hours of flight time, and at minimum, 100 of those hours must be "pilot in command" (PIC) time. Basically this means you're the pilot who's officially in control of the aircraft, even if there are other pilots on board. You'll log plenty of PIC time as you continue practicing at flight school, and as a new pilot, you'll track your own hours in an official log.

Check out this student's first solo flight from the Canadian Flight Centre to get a sense of what you can expect!

Step 4: Passing your flight test and finding a career

Now that you've acquired all the knowledge you'll need (and then some!) it's time to complete your flight test. This final exam of your piloting skills will be offered through your school, so there's no need to schedule it directly.

You should have all the help and resources you need through your college or university, and associated flight academy, but the Canadian government offers flight test guides for all sorts of aircraft. You may want to review before you take your final test. (In practice, these are painfully long text documents covering different types of aircraft in extreme detail. They have descriptions and criteria for the tasks you'll need to perform to earn your licence.)

Once you're fully licensed, it's time to start your job hunt. You may have built some valuable connections during your time at school, so you may find your burgeoning network to be a good source for job opportunities. Of course, the Canadian Job Bank is always a good source of opportunities. You could always explore openings at some of Canada's largest airlines to see who might need a new pilot! It's worth noting that many of Canada's largest airlines often recruit from smaller, local companies, too.

Because flight is a federally-regulated industry, your qualifications will be valid across the country! No need to worry about studying in Ontario and flying in BC: as a pilot, you'll be licenced across Canada.

There's also the Pilot Career Centre, a one-stop shop for pilots (old and new) to network and find jobs in Canada and beyond. Check out the pilot jobs available now in Canada.

According to, smaller, regional airlines want at least 1,500 flight hours under your belt. Larger airlines, with jet aircraft, expect at least 2,000 to 3,000 flight hours. Whether you fly for fun, or while on the job, as long as you're accruing flight experience, you're on the right track. Best get practicing!

As a commercial pilot, you'll fly around 80 hours per month, with around the same amount of time spent on "ground hours" — which means flight planning and prep. So, about half your working hours will be spent flying, with the other half accounting for pre- and post-flight activities.

On average, you can expect to earn over $90,000 per year as a pilot, and that figure could climb to over $150,000 per year as you develop your skills and experience. Find out more about life as a pilot on SchoolFinder's pilot career page.

By now, you're free to take to the skies! You've conquered a lot of challenges to get this far, and as a pilot, you'll be in-demand almost anywhere in the world. Canada offers avenues for pilots educated outside the country to fly here, and vice versa with other jurisdictions. Your commercial pilot's license could take you just about anywhere you want to go!

Good luck on your training as a pilot. May you fly in clear skies!

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