How to Pace Your Flight Training Like a Pro

When discussing the ideal pace of flight training, find a way that works for you, without leaving you exhausted and dreading the days you have to go fly. [Credit: Kenny Eliason/ Unsplash]

Over the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of chatter online about the pace of flight training—both from students who feel theirs is excessive and those bemoaning their perceived slow progress. 

I’ve also seen a lot of pilots in accelerated training programs complain about getting severely burned out on flying, often about the time they hit 200 hours (as little as three months in). The major theme underlying both discussions is haste, an almost universal sense that the clock is ticking on the pilot shortage and, if you don’t want to miss out, you’d better grind your butt off and get your chair before the music stops.

Reinforcing this zeitgeist are ubiquitous tales of 24-year-olds getting hired at the likes of United and Delta just a few years after sailing through their own zero-to-hero programs. For many who have thrown themselves into the training mill over the past two years, this is the career standard to which they aspire and the motivation that keeps them going. It’s also an effective bait for flight training organizations to dangle before aspirants’ eyes, convincing them their reward will be well worth the premium associated with signing on the dotted line.

When discussing the ideal pace of flight training, there are a few basic assumptions that need to be plainly stated. Yes, seniority matters a great deal at the airlines: regional, legacy and low-cost, passenger and cargo, union and nonunion. Yes, getting hired earlier gives you greater control over your life with a wider array of options to make good money or command a good schedule (or if you’re senior enough, both). Yes, this is a cyclical industry, and every hiring boom is inevitably followed, at some point, by lean times. Yes, the airlines have added many thousands of young, forever-senior pilots to their ranks in the past few years.

However, anybody getting into this career needs to accept that there is a great deal out of their control and also recognize there are a lot of acceptable career outcomes that don’t involve being a widebody airline captain by your 40s. Yes, the industry is cyclical, but you can’t time it. Nobody in the industry saw 9/11 coming. Nobody predicted the regional hiring boom of 2007 would abruptly cease in 2008. When COVID-19 hit, absolutely no one foresaw it leading directly to record-shattering hiring within 18 months. Personally, my timing couldn’t have been much worse, getting my ratings just in time for 9/11 and the “lost decade” that followed. This simply meant I was on the leading edge of the next upswing. Actually, there’s no such thing as “bad timing” in this career. There are the few that get lucky and the many that ride the waves as best they can, sometimes to places they never saw themselves going.

Which brings me to the airlines. I personally think we’re past the crest at the majors. To be sure, the legacy airlines will likely continue to hire as elevated retirements continue for some years, but most of the captains (and most certainly the widebody captains) for the next three decades are already on property—young and forever senior. Low-cost carriers still have enough attrition and growth that there’s a bit more opportunity available. Startups and regionals probably offer the most possibility of advancement, but long-term pay and stability will always be major question marks with these carriers.

I suspect many of those starting their training today—or really anyone still significantly below ATP minimums—will face significant stagnation at the airlines, which, with today’s work rules and pay rates, can still yield a pretty decent career. The smart move in that case, I think, will be to look beyond the airlines to other industry sectors, many of which are still quite hollowed out of experienced pilots because of attrition to the majors. This includes corporate aviation, the fractionals, air taxi operators, general aviation—and, interestingly, the military. These are sectors where seniority is not nearly as important and jumping between employers is much more common. Building qualifications (type ratings and time in type), networking, and keeping a clean training and employment record are how you advance. In other words, there’s no game of musical chairs here. You don’t have to stress about making a mad rush through training to grab that winning seniority number. That’s a particularly salient point when the mad rush is driving some pilots, well, mad—before their career has even begun.

I used to instruct at a flight school that offered accelerated courses often to students who came to California on a training holiday. We did a three-week private pilot course, a two-week instrument rating, and a five-day commercial-AMEL. This is fairly ambitious. It involved two flights per day, sometimes more when weather and maintenance caused delays, with all remaining time devoted to ground training or self-study. A distinct minority of students completed the courses in the allotted time. To be honest, they were freaks of nature: sharp as hell, overprepared, and possessed of unusual stamina and stubbornness. For the mere mortals, you could see the exhaustion set in and retention plummet over the course of the second week. They weren’t bad students or bad pilots by any means. They were basically human. Most of us can only drink from the firehose for so long.

There was a time—back when I was a broke kid scraping together $60 for an hour of dual in the Cessna 150 every month or two—when I would have killed for the chance to fly three or four times a week. Fortuitously, it turned out murder was unnecessary. I simply had to choose to rack up a mountain of student loan debt. But I still remember that morning in college when I woke up— after maybe four hours of sleep— and realized, with a disgusted groan, that I had to fly in a couple hours. Sixteen months after starting school, I had my CFI—which, compared to a flight academy, is glacially slow, but I was nevertheless severely burned out. I got a much-needed break—and a fateful introduction to airline life—with a flight operations internship at Trans World Airlines. Since then, I’ve completed several accelerated courses: CFII, MEI, and seaplane and glider ratings—and licensed skydiver training, which is truly drinking from a firehose. These were all intense but short—a 100-meter dash, if you will. They were nice challenges but too quick to burn me out. Trying to crank out your private, instrument, commercial and multi in six months or less is, by comparison, an Ironman Triathlon. If I’d chosen to go that route, I don’t know that I would have made it through.

I’m not saying nobody should go to an accelerated flight academy. It certainly has its place. Some people thrive well in that environment. Sometimes life circumstances only allow limited time for training. But I very much hate to see otherwise promising pilots become burned out on flying early in their careers—or even abandon their dream altogether—all because there’s a perception that you need to hurry through or you’ll miss the boat. It’s important to recognize there is more than one boat in this industry, especially at this point in the hiring cycle, and  there are a lot of different ways to get on one. The important thing is to find a way that works for you without leaving you exhausted and dreading the days you have to go fly.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter