Commercial Pilot

Why earn a commercial pilot certificate? The obvious answer is so you can make money flying. A commercial pilot certificate doesn't put you in the left (or right) seat of an airliner or regional jet but it is an important step on the way towards that goal. A commercial pilot certificate and a Class 2 Medical will allow you to earn money as pilot for a company or individual that owns their own planes. You can also use the certificate to earn money doing things like banner towing, pipeline inspection, crop dusting, skydiving, traffic watch or (combined with a Flight Instructor Certificate) flight instructing.

There are some, less obvious, reasons to earn a commercial pilot certificate. One is to improve your own flying knowledge and skills. Commercial pilots train and test to tighter standards. Commercial pilots must learn and perfect maneuvers that develop and prove the pilot's subconscious control of an aircraft throughout the flying envelope. You will gain greater confience in your flying skills and be able to use those skills to increase your margin of safety in flight. A second reason is insurance, once you have an commercial pilot's certificate insurance companies are less likely to view you as a daredevil and more like a professional who has the skills rquired to fly safely. The last reason, it is a lot of fun! You'll do maneuvers that you would have no other reason to do and have fun doing it. There is less book study with this certificate compared to private and more focus on flying. This isn't to say you don't have to know your stuff when you take the written or practical test, you do, but most of the knowledge work is review and refinement of what you learned as a private and instrument pilot.

What is Required to Become a Commercial Pilot?

The FAA Answer

Here are the FAA minimum aeronautical experience requirements to earn a commercial pilot certificate for Airplane, Single Engine, Land. I'm going straight to the FAA answer because commercial pilots are expected to be familiar with FAA regulations. These requirements are defined in FAR 61.129(a).

Total Minimum Time
250 Hours Total Time
100 hours in powered aircraft (50 hours in an airplane)
PIC Time
100 hours PIC including
50 hours airplane PIC
50 hours cross country PIC (10 hours airplane)
Training Hours
20 hours of dual instruction on the areas of operation in 61.127(b) including...
10 hours instrument training (5 hours airplane)
10 hours in a complex aircraft
2 hour day dual VFR cross country at least 100NM from departure
2 hour night dual VFR cross country at least 100NM from departure
3 hours of training in preparation for the check ride
Solo Time*
10 hours of solo time in an airplane including...
1 long solo cross country flight at least 300 NM total with landings at 3 points and one leg at least 250NM straight line distance from departure point
5 hours solo in night VFR conditions
10 solo night take offs and landings at an airport with an operating control tower

*These solo hours can also be accomplished with a flight instructor but you will save money and learn much more by doing this solo.

There are a few additional requirements to qualify for the Practical Test.

Receive and log the aeronautical knowledge training defined by FAR 61.125(b).
Minimum Age
18 Years (no maximum age!)
Read/Write/Speak and Understand English
Written Test
Pass the FAA Written test within 24 months
All "deficiencies" found in the written test reviewed and corrected
Prep Training
3 hours of training in preparation for the check ride within 2 calendar months of the practical test
Minimum of a Class 3 FAA Medical

What is Commercial Pilot Training Like?

Commercial pilot training doesn't add much knowledge above the private pilot certificate and instrument rating. However, it does require the commercial pilot candidate to be able to apply that knowledge at a professional level. The FAA Written test is longer and more difficult. You'll be expected to be able to be able to calculate aircraft performance in more complex ways for instance. You will be required to be able to describe your aircraft's systems at a deeper level (you're supposed to be a professional after all). You will need to be very clear on the priveledges and limitations of the commercial pilot certificate. If you aren't already flying complex aircraft you will be learning that aircraft type and earning your complex endorsement in the process.

The flight training and standards is where the potential commercial pilot is required to step up. You will learn entirely new maneuvers with names like Lazy 8s, Chandelles, Power Off 180s, Steep Spirals and 8's on Pylons. In addition to these new maneuvers you'll have to be able to perform common private pilot maneuvers like short and soft field take offs and landings to much tighter standards. Even cross country flights must be planned and performed with more precision and accuracy than a private pilot.

Cost and Time Required

Fixed Costs

Approximately $50 including...
Airplane Flying Handbook - available for free from the FAA in PDF format
Current FAR/AIM
Current Aviation Sectionals and A/FD
Plotter and E6B or E6B App
Aviation Medical
$125 (Class 3 Medical if you do not currently have one)
FAA Written Test
FAA Practical Test
~ $600

Instruction and Rental Cost

As you saw from the requirements the commercial pilot certificate requires only 20 hours of dual instruction. As a commercial pilot candidate there is no "pre-solo" period. If you already have your complex endorsement you can start practicing and refining your flying skills immediately after you've been exposed to the maneuvers. If you study well on your own the ground training is minimal compared to private pilot. My rate for commercial is $70 per hour for ground and flight training.

I have my commercial candidates do all of their training and maneuver practice in a complex aircraft to increase their ability to master the plane. The complex aircraft that's quite fun for this training is the Piper Arrow. Arrow II's rent for $150 per hour (including fuel) at the club I use. You can, however, use any aircraft you like for tasks like the solo commercial cross country and/or dual cross country requirements.

You may wonder why I do not suggest doing the majority of your commercial training in a Cessna 172 or another Technically Advanced Aircraft (or TAA). First of all, most TAA's availabe for rent in the Bay Area actually cost more to rent than a Arrow II. Secondly, and more important, I don't recommend this because most people pursuing a commercial certificate intend to be paid to fly, for the airlines, for cargo, etc. The vast majority of paid flying positions are in multi-engine complex aircraft. Multi-engine aircraft rent at $260 per hour and more. It will signficantly raise the time and expense of your multi-engine training if the first time you have to demonstrate proficiency flying a complex aircraft is with one engine inoperative. Take the time to master a complex single engine aircraft and mastering a multi-engine aircraft will go much more quickly for you.

About Instrument Ratings and the Commercial Certificate

You do not have to have an instrument rating to hold a commercial pilot certificate. However, if you do have a commercial pilot certificate without an instrument rating you will be severely limited in your commercial priveleges. You will have to do the 10 hours of instrument training required for the commercial certificate but you will not be allowed to fly in IFR conditions, at night or on cross countries of more then 50 miles while exercising your commercial priviledges.

There are many advantages to pursuing commercial training after earning an instrument rating. For one the precision of instrument flying adapts very well to commercial flying. The commercial written test indludes some instrument related questions, so if you are planning to go for commercial it would be good to study for and take the commercial written test shortly after doing the instrument written. Finally 50 hours of instrument cross country time can count towards your 50 hour commercial cross country time requirement with the exception of the long and dual cross countries which must be done in VFR conditions under Visual Flight Rules. The training you do for the Instrument Rating also counts for the 10 hours of instrument training required for commercial.

If you do not have an Instrument Rating I highly recommend attaining that rating before pursuing your commercial certificate. I would be happy to help you with that!