Should I go to college or straight to flight school?

John Cox, Special to USA TODAY
Published 10:58 a.m. ET Sept. 12, 2019 | Updated 11:04 a.m. ET Sept. 12, 2019



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I’m a senior in high school and want to become an airline pilot. Should I go to college or go straight to flight school?                       

– Daisy, New York

You will have more options if you go to college. A college degree will give you more alternatives if you ever develop a medical issue that would prevent you from flying. It will also help you if you choose to go into management at a later stage in your career. 

In your search, you will come across colleges that have both flight schools and an aviation major. That is the best of both worlds. And should you fall in love with a school that lacks either, you can still get the training you need you need at flight school.

As with any college search, don’t fixate on brand names when it comes to aviation programs. While there are some very well-known colleges with flight majors, look around at lesser-known programs that are less expensive. Your guidance counselor can help you identify programs. 

What do airlines look for in people who apply for flight training?               

– Nelson Nnodim, Massachusetts 

Naturally, airlines look to see whether candidates possess the proper licenses – such as the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate – in addition to experience flying large-turbine-power airplanes in various weather conditions.

In the past, many carriers also required a college degree; however, the ongoing pilot shortage has made them less picky about that. 

It’s also OK if you have a degree in an unrelated field. There are pilots with degrees in every imaginable field. The Russian pilot who landed his A321 in a cornfield after a bird strike worked as a lawyer before going to flight school in his 30s. I even know an airline captain whose degree is in music. (He was a professional tuba player before becoming a pilot.) 

Most importantly, airlines are looking for the right attitude, which can make or break a candidate. After all, they can teach you a lot about flying but they can’t teach you the right mindset to fit in with their culture. You either have it or you don’t.

Flying is the greatest job in the world but it does have its challenges. And applicants who can demonstrate they understand them are more likely to be successful.  So make sure you’re comfortable with the idea that you are commiting to a job where schedules are erratic, fatigue is a fact of life, training is never-ending and long periods away from home (including holidays with your family) are the rule, not the exception. 

John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.

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