In our Ask a Pilot series, pilot Spencer Marker answers aviation-related questions. You can check out past installments here. In this column, Spencer answers the question: How old do you have to be to become an airline pilot? RELATED: How Do Pilots Identify and Avoid Areas of Turbulence?
How old do you have to be to become an airline pilot? —Ted M.
Hey, Ted. Thanks for the excellent question and writing in for this week’s Ask a Pilot. Being of a more youthful generation of people entering the industry, I can certainly say this question, or a version of it, is something I get every now and then. (However, not as frequently as I used to now that I’m 32 and I have been in the airlines for 10 years. Eh, life goes on.) The FAA does have a set of rules governing the minimum age of people operating as flight crew members in varying operations. Additionally, they have a restriction on the maximum age a pilot can be and operate for an airline. Naturally, as with most things with the FAA, there are exceptions. Let’s take a look!
During my journey into aviation, I was fortunate enough to have parents that supported my desire to fly. So I was able to pilot my first airplane about a week before my 14th birthday. So yes, I was 13-years old and flying a real airplane. Granted it was a small Cessna 152.
Of course this was perfectly legal because my flight instructor was seated next to me. You see, aspiring aviators can begin flying at really any age (provided they can touch the rudder pedals and see out the windshield). This is because they are flying under the umbrella of their flight instructor’s license, and that instructor will have had to receive rigorous training and be at least 18 years old to attain that license.
That being said, when it comes to operating the airplane solo, or by yourself, minimum age requirements do come into play. The FAA requires that a pilot be a minimum of 16 years of age before he or she can operate a powered airplane alone. For gliders and balloons however, the minimum is only 14 years old! From there, a pilot must be at least 17 to attain a private pilot’s license, which if you remember, is the first license you receive while training to become a pilot for a commercial airline.
As pilots gain more skills and acquire more advanced licenses, the minimum age required also increases. To become a commercial pilot (which in FAA speak means that you’re licensed to fly for money, but not necessarily for the airlines), you must be at least 18 years of age. If you plan to teach others how to fly, like I did when I was building flight experience, you must also be at least 18.
The highest level license a pilot in the United States can achieve is the airline transport pilot’s (ATP) license. This requires a minimum of 1,500 flight hours and 23 years of age. This license is required to act in any capacity, either as a Captain or First Officer, on an airline flight deck. There are a few exceptions to this age requirement, some allowing pilots as young as 21 years old a restricted ATP license if certain other lofty requirements are met. These restricted ATP license holders are only allowed to fly as First Officers, not Captains, until their requirements for a full ATP are met.
This rule has changed since I began my airline career. I started with my first airline when I was 21-years old and first officers were required to have a commercial pilot’s license and a requisite number of flight hours (that were dictated by the airline based on staffing demand, not by the FAA). So this technically allowed airline pilots as young as 18 to occupy the flight decks of airline aircraft. However, in my personal experience, this was very uncommon, as it would often take aspiring pilots years to build the flight experience necessary to meet hiring minimums.
The requirement for every pilot on the flight deck to hold an ATP license was enacted August 1, 2013, with the intention of setting a higher baseline of experience for flight crew members than had been enforced by the FAA in the past.
Believe it or not, the FAA requires airline pilots to retire once they reach a certain age. The rule, once called the Age 60 Rule (which required pilots to retire at 60) was extended to allow pilots to fly until 65 in 2009 under the Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act. Note that this mandatory retirement age is for pilots flying in airline operations, and still allows pilots over the age of 65 to fly for other operators, such as business jet charters.
To sum up
Thanks for the question, Ted. As someone who, at least earlier in my career, was asked the question, “Are you old enough to fly this plane?” I was happy you asked and that I was able to clear the air. In fact, I think the the next time I’m asked if I’m old enough to fly, I’ll happily point them to this article and say, “Why, yes I am! And here’s an article I wrote about it!”
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