Training and education Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

All flight and ground-based training and education for personnel who wish to be involved with the operation of aircraft.


The U.S. aviation training industry is both highly structured and multifaceted, involving the training of pilots, mechanics, avionics technicians, air traffic controllers, and airline dispatchers, along with a variety of other engineers and technicians who make it possible for people and materials to be transported worldwide by air for military, commercial, or other civil service purposes.

History of Aviation Training

Aviation training originated in the United States, beginning in the nineteenth century with the U.S. Army’s training of men to operate hot-air balloons used in aerial observation. Training for flight in heavier-than-air vehicles began in the summer of 1908. On August 1, 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps had established the Aeronautical Division under the direct command of Captain Charles deForest Chandler. Having been awarded a bid to provide one aircraft and two trained pilots for the Army, Orville Wright, who with his brother, Wilbur, had pioneered flight in a heavier-than-air craft, began flight instructing at Fort Myer, Virginia, that same year. Although neither would solo, the first two students were Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge and Second Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois. On September 17, 1908, Selfridge was tragically killed in an accident in which Orville Wright was severely injured. Foulois was transferred to Europe, and training was halted until the following year. Two subsequent students, Lieutenant Frank Lahm and Second Lieutenant Frederic Humphreys, were selected, and both soloed their first aircraft under Orville Wright’s supervision at College Park, Maryland, on October 26, 1908.

Civilian Flight Training

Most aviation training in the United States is civilian flight training, in which ordinary citizens are trained to be pilots. Pilots may learn to fly a variety of different aircraft for recreation or airline transportation, or for more specialized purposes, such as aerial crop dusting, pipeline patrol, law enforcement, or sight-seeing operations. Those wishing to fly for purely personal transportation may choose to pursue either a Recreational Pilot Certificate or a Private Pilot Certificate. Either of these certificates requires that the pilot be at least seventeen years of age (although in order to fly solo in training, a pilot need be only sixteen years of age), have a mastery of the English language, and pass a basic physical examination.

A Recreational Pilot Certificate allows the holder to fly aircraft of up to 180 horsepower and to carry no more than one passenger into and out of smaller airports within fifty miles of the pilot’s home airport during daylight hours only. The recreational pilot may fly into larger airports or venture farther than fifty miles from home only with the permission of a certified flight instructor (CFI). Training for the Recreational Pilot Certificate involves a minimum of thirty hours of flight training, including dual instruction and supervised solo operations.

A Private Pilot Certificate enables the holder to avoid the restrictions of the recreational certificate and involves a minimum of forty hours of flight instruction and supervised solo flights.

Those seeking careers in flying in which they will be paid for their services as pilots must possess either a Commercial Pilot Certificate or an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate. In order to qualify for a Commercial Pilot Certificate, the pilot must have acquired at least 250 hours of flight time and be trained to fly in aircraft that are slightly larger and more complex than those aircraft required for private or recreational pilot training. A pilot wishing to be an airline transport pilot must have accumulated at least 1,500 hours of flight time and be at least twenty-three years of age.

Holders of Private Pilot Certificates and higher-level certificates may choose to add an Instrument Rating to their certificates, which enables them to operate an aircraft without visual reference to the ground in what is called “instrument meteorological conditions.” This additional rating involves an additional forty hours of instruction in instrument flying procedures. Holders of Airline Transport Pilot Certificates are required to have an Instrument Rating. In addition, those pilots wishing to fly aircraft with more than one engine must add a Multiengine Rating to their certificate. These certificates allow pilots to operate aircraft with piston or turboprop engines weighing up to 12,500 pounds. For jet-powered aircraft or aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds, an additional certificate is required in the specific aircraft to be flown. Pilots certified in the previous categories may choose to be certified to fly airplanes, helicopters, gliders, gyroplanes, or seaplanes, or any combination thereof. Each certificate and rating requires the applicant to pass both a knowledge exam, administered in a computer-based testing format, and a practical flight exam given by authorized representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Training Regulations

Civilian flight training is regulated under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), either Part 61 or Part 141. The basic difference between the two parts is that Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 141 training requires that the training be conducted under a greater degree of structure than that of Part 61. Under Part 141 of training, the lessons are structured under a standardized curriculum in which pilots must pass through various stages of training, each requiring an evaluation by a chief or assistant CFI separate from the student’s primary flight instructor. This arrangement is intended to note and correct any of a student’s problem areas prior to taking the final practical flight test that determines whether the individual will be awarded the pilot certificate sought. This test is accomplished at the end of a pilot’s training for a particular certificate and is, again, given by a representative of the FAA. Provided that the student passes the check ride, the student is then awarded the certificate and is entitled to all of the privileges associated therewith. If the student’s check ride is not satisfactory, the student must return for additional training before again taking the practical flight test.

Under FAR Part 61, the required training time is reduced slightly, with a Private Pilot Certificate requiring a minimum of 35 hours and a Commercial Pilot Certificate requiring 190 total flight hours. There is no difference for the ATP Certificate. Although there is less required structure under FAR Part 61 training, the required subject matter is the same.

Training conducted under FAR Part 61 ranges from individual flight instructors and students engaging in instruction in privately owned aircraft to many larger and more complex organizations that offer flight training. It is important to note that many flight training organizations and individuals operating under Part 61 have as much or more structure built into their curriculum as do Part 141 organizations, although some have less. When choosing where to undergo flight training, a prospective student would do well to make a site visit to observe and compare several organizations and individuals before making a final decision. For those wishing to obtain a degree in aviation, there are many two- and four-year institutions around the country offering degrees in aviation flight, aircraft maintenance, air traffic control, aviation electronics, or aviation management. For those wishing to pursue careers as airport administrators or airline pilots, a four-year degree is almost a necessity.

Military Flight Training

Individuals who wish to fly in the armed services must first qualify for selection as a pilot candidate. This involves a series of interviews by a pilot selection board, psychological and physiological aptitude evaluations, and fitness examinations. In addition, applicants must meet the criteria to serve as a military officer or warrant officer, which most often involves, among other criteria, a four-year academic degree, preferably in a technical field. Exceptions to this requirement are made in certain branches depending upon need and job requirements. In addition, serving as a pilot in the military obligates the individual to several years of military service, the length of which depends upon the military’s current and projected needs for flight officers.

Upon selection, pilots are sent through a pilot screening program, which involves several hours of flight in a light aircraft in order to assess an individual’s suitability for pilot training. After candidates pass this phase, they are sent on to primary flight training for several months of intensive ground school and flight training. When primary flight training is complete, the pilots are then routed to aircraft-specific training geared toward specific craft, such as fighters, transport, or bombers, based on their preferences, their primary flight training performance, and the needs of the military. During their aircraft-specific training, pilots undergo additional training in the aircraft in which they will serve prior to being assigned to a specific wing or squadron, where they will be fully qualified to fly their specific type of aircraft for specific types of missions.

Aircraft Maintenance Training

An individual wishing to pursue a career in the maintenance of aircraft as a civilian must choose from one of two options. The first option is to become employed as an aircraft repairperson. An Aircraft Repairman Certificate is earned through on-the-job training for a predetermined amount of time with an employer engaged in aircraft maintenance and repair. This certificate is given for a specific type of work performed, and the privileges of the certificate are forfeited upon termination of employment.

The second option is to pursue an Aircraft Mechanic Certificate. The individual may choose to pursue an Airframe Mechanic Certificate, a Powerplant Mechanic Certificate, or, more commonly, the combined Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic (A&P) Certificate. The mechanic certificate allows the holder to engage in the maintenance and repair of certified aircraft—all aircraft, other than ultralight aircraft weighing less than 254 pounds, for which no certification is needed—whether independently or as part of a larger organization. This certificate is awarded to the individual regardless of employment. In order to be awarded the airframe, the powerplant, or the A&P Certificate, an applicant must either complete an FAA-approved FAR Part 147 course of study at an aviation training institution, undergo thirty-six months of on-the-job training for both the airframe and powerplant certificates with an organization engaged in the maintenance and repair of certified aircraft, or study under the supervision of a previously certified mechanic.

The training for the A&P Certificate involves 1,900 hours of classroom and hands-on laboratory training consisting of such topics as engine overhaul, airframe inspection, hydraulics, welding, and sheet metal, as well as basic math, physics, and electricity. After the required training has been completed, individuals are required to pass a series of knowledge examinations, including a practical exam that demonstrates their competency to exercise the privileges of the certificate. An authorized FAA representative conducts this test. As with the pilot certificate test, individuals who fail the examination may be allowed to retake the exam, provided they undergo additional training or complete additional study. If mechanics so choose, they may pursue an inspection authorization certificate after they have been actively engaged in aircraft repair for three years. This certificate allows for additional inspection privileges beyond those allowed by the mechanic certificate. An additional knowledge test is required for the inspection authorization. Aviation mechanics may also pursue specializations requiring advanced training and certifications from outside agencies and organizations.

Mechanics may decide to pursue training in nondestructive testing or in avionics, such as aircraft radios and other flight electronics, in which case the applicant must pass a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) knowledge exam. Upon successful completion of this exam, applicants are awarded FCC certification allowing them to function as avionics repair technicians. Several institutions of higher learning in the United States have degree programs giving the student much broader and more in-depth training in avionics repair.

Military Aircraft Maintenance Training

For those wishing to serve as aircraft mechanics in the military, the process first involves enlistment and aptitude assessment along with routine physical and other suitability exams. After trainees complete basic training and boot camp, they then move on to job-specific training, which can take from a few weeks to many months of additional training, depending upon the specialty. Individuals who leave the military and wish to work as civilian aircraft mechanics must first be assessed by the FAA to determine whether they meet the requirements to begin a series of tests leading to the airframe mechanics’ license, the powerplant license, or both.

Air Traffic Control Training

Although aircraft pilot and mechanic training comprise the majority of aviation training, there are many other professions within aviation that require a high degree of specialized training. Air traffic controllers, for instance, spend years becoming qualified and learning various nuances of their profession. In order to become air traffic controllers, individuals must have a mastery of the English language, be at least twenty-one years of age but no older than thirty years of age prior to beginning training, and possess certain cognitive abilities consistent with the air traffic control profession. In addition, they must successfully complete the Control Tower Operator’s Exam leading to the issuance of the Control Tower Operator’s Certificate, a basic air traffic control (ATC) certification. Successful certification also involves a series of practical examinations.

There are three basic avenues individuals can take in order to become air traffic controllers. The first involves enlisting in the armed services, primarily the Air Force and Navy, and choosing air traffic control as a specialization area if aptitude testing proves this is a viable option. The ability to perform many tasks at once in a highly dynamic and often hectic environment while maintaining a three-dimensional geometric orientation is a skill that will serve the aspiring air traffic specialist well. After leaving the service, military controllers are given preferential hiring treatment by the FAA to work as civilian air traffic controllers.

The second option is to attend one of the colleges and universities associated with the FAA’s Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) program. Students in these programs take specialized coursework in air traffic control and are then given preferential hiring treatment by the FAA as air traffic controllers.

The third option is to apply directly to the FAA as an individual and proceed through the official application process. This will involve a series of interviews and examinations in order to determine suitability for the job of controller. If a person is selected, the FAA will train that individual in accordance with the individual’s strengths and the FAA’s needs. Depending upon the type of specialization chosen, it may take several years before a person becomes fully qualified to perform normal job duties. Typically, a controller whose job involves handling a relatively low volume of traffic in the control tower of a less busy airport might be qualified in a few months, whereas a controller specializing as a radar controller might take several years to be fully qualified.

An individual who chooses the military follows a slightly different training route. After completing basic training or boot camp, a trainee is then routed along a training track consistent with the needs of the military and the aptitude of the trainee. The trainee might specialize as a tower operator dealing primarily with takeoff, departure, and landing clearances for a specific location or may specialize in radar control, dealing with and directing aircraft flying between airports or airbases. Depending upon the type of specialization, a trainee may need to be trained for up to two years or more before becoming fully qualified to perform normal job duties as a controller

Aircraft Dispatcher Training

Aircraft dispatching is another technical aviation job that requires a regimented training routine. Aircraft dispatchers are employed by U.S. and foreign passenger and cargo airlines to assist flight crews with the details of flight planning and management. Dispatchers are jointly responsible, with the flight captain, for the safe outcome of a given flight. Dispatchers assist the pilots in obtaining timely weather information, performing fuel calculations, and ensuring that the aircraft is loaded in a manner consistent with safe flight.

In order to qualify as an aircraft dispatcher, an individual must be at least twenty-three years of age, have a command of the English language, and complete an FAA-certified training program requiring at least 198 hours of classroom instruction. The formats for these courses vary from six-week intensive courses in which the student attends all day, every day to courses in which training is spread out over the course of six months to a year or more and students attend in the evenings or on weekends. At the end of the training, there is a comprehensive knowledge exam and a practical exam, administered by a representative of the FAA. Several colleges and universities around the country have specialized aircraft dispatcher training certification programs.

  • Cameron, Rebecca H. Training to Fly: Military Flight Training, 1907-1945. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999. An excellent historical introduction to flight training, with an in-depth look into its early history prior to World War II, when the majority of flight training was done by the military.
  • Gleim, Irvin N. FAR/AIM Reprint. Gainesville, Fla.: Author, 1998. A listing of many of the FAA’s training regulations, giving training requirements for various certifications.
  • Jeppesen Sanderson. Private Pilot Manual. Englewood, Colo.: Author, 1997. An introductory textbook for those interested in learning to fly. Chapter 1 covers different types of pilot training and describes a wide range of aviation flight career opportunities.
  • University Aviation Association. Collegiate Aviation Guide. Auburn, Ala.: Author, 1999. A guide for those seeking two- or four-year degrees in the field of aviation. Lists all UAA-member institutions, their aviation-related programs and fees, and other items of interest to future students.

Commercial flight

Federal Aviation Administration

Military flight

Pilots and copilots

Safety issues

Categories: History Content