A professional pilot is somebody who gets paid to operate aerial vehicles such as planes, helicopters and blimps. The term "pilot" most notably applies to airline pilots, the pilots who operate planes for airline companies. Many pilots, however, are commercial pilots who work for shipping companies, private aviation companies or simply perform rescue operations or give aerial tours for photography companies. Airline pilots and pilots for big shipping companies such as FedEx are the most sought after jobs since they pay in the neighborhood of $120,000 per year.
Obviously to be a pilot you have to be able to fly planes which takes time and experience, but let's start from the beginning. To work for a major airline, you'll need a college degree. For other piloting jobs, you may not be required to have a college degree but a college degree will make you more marketable and help you land higher paying jobs earlier in your career.
Ideally your degree will be in science or aeronautics, but it doesn't really matter what you study. Many airlines, for example, favor liberal arts majors who have developed good writing and communication skills. What's most important is the fact that you've earned a college degree which shows discipline and commitment, both of which you'll need to be a successful pilot. Many aspiring pilots attend Aviation Colleges such as Embry Riddle or Aeroism Flight Academy (formerly Delta Connection) which kills two birds with one stone in that they receive an undergraduate degree while obtaining all their pilot certificates. These colleges aren't cheap; according to afa.edu, Aeroism's Airline Pilot Track costs around $75,000. Keep in mind though that included in that $75,000 are all the certificates you need to be an airline pilot as well as a college degree. If you pay for college and flight school separately, you'll likely spend at least $150,000, probably much more.
Many aspiring pilots choose to attend The Air Force Academy which pays for their college tuition and pilot training in return for eight years of military service post graduation. Admission to The Air Force Academy is very competitive. The upside of attending is that you get a free college degree, free pilot training and once you're done with your eight years of service, you'll easily get any pilot job you want. Also, everybody will think you're a badass. The downside is that you'll have to fly planes in war zones for at least first five years. After five years of service, you can be excused from the front lines if you wish. If you're not super keen about going to war, you can look into the Air Force Reserves which will also pay for your education and pilot certificates although if a war breaks out and The United States is involved, you may find yourself firing missiles at enemy planes.
Besides a college degree, in order to be a pilot you need to be at least 18 years old and in good health as determined by a physician who works for the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). If you're a pilot, you'll often have to sit for uncomfortably long periods of time which takes both mental and physical stamina. In certain circumstances, you'll also have to be able to manually steer the plane, which takes a certain degree of physical strength. Think of piloting a plane like being a NASCAR driver (although NASCAR driving is much more dangerous). NASCAR drivers have to be in top shape to maintain stamina throughout a race as well as control the car. Also, your vision is very important. Your vision needs to be 20/20 or correctable to 20/20 through glasses or contact lenses. Pilots can be color blind to an extent. If you're color blind, you'll have to receive a special medical waiver. In the video farther down in this post, the pilot being interviewed talks about how he's colorblind and in order to work for Delta, he had to receive a special medical waiver.
You'll also need to take a hearing test. As of 2016, deaf people are able to obtain certain pilot certificates but only on a limited basis since they can't fly planes that use radio transmission in the cockpit. They can't be airline pilots.
It's smart to see a doctor and get medically cleared before you start working towards your certificate. You don't want to put all the time and effort needed into pilot training when all along you weren't medically able to fly.
Once you have your college degree and are medically cleared to be a pilot, you'll need to start working towards your pilot certificate(s).
How To Get Your Pilot Certificate(s)
If you don't attend the Air Force Academy or an undergraduate pilot school, you'll have to enroll in a local flight school. Depending on where you live, there should be one in your area close to the nearest airport. Many colleges also have pilot certificate programs. You'll want to attend a flight school accredited by the FAA.
In order to get your private pilot certificate which is the first rung on the professional pilot totem pole, you'll need at least 40 hours of flying experience. Most flight schools accredited by the FAA provide upwards of 60 hours of flying experience. Obtaining your private pilot certificate will cost around $10,000 so perhaps you should maintain a part time job throughout the process. That high price is due to the fact that you'll have to rent an airplane each time you fly as well as pay an hourly rate to your instructor. (Note: if you simply want a recreational pilot certificate, you'll only need 30 hours of training. You won't, however, be able to make money as a pilot with this certificate.)
Once you've logged your hours and passed your medical exam, you'll receive your private pilot certificate. The next step is obtaining your instrument rating and commercial pilot certificate which will require around 350 more hours of training. Many pilot schools offer degree tracks that group the private certificate, instrument rating and commercial pilot certificate together in one program that costs around $25,000. Grouping these three together will save you money as opposed to paying for each separately.
One way to fund your pilot training is to obtain a flight instructor certificate as well as a flight instructor instrument rating. Although obtaining these credentials will cost around $10,000, you'll be able to make money (at least $40 per hour) giving flight lessons to students. You'll also be gaining flying hours that can count towards your training hours. You'll need around 1500 training hours to be an airline pilot at one of the regional airlines such as Sky West. Also, your student will be paying to rent the airplane that you use during these hours and also cover any fuel costs.
Once you have your commercial certificate, you'll need to obtain your multi engine instrument rating as well as your multi engine instructor certificate which will run you another $10,000 which is another reason why it makes sense to teach flying lessons so that you'll have an income source while you amass training hours.
Once you've obtained all your certificates and instrument ratings and have logged over 1,500 hours of flying, you'll need to take the FAA written exams after which you'll be cleared to apply for an airline pilot certificate, a test which includes an observed flying portion.
Once you have your airline pilot certificate, you're officially licensed by the FAA to be an airline pilot. At first, unless you've gained years of experience in the Air Force, you'll have to apply for jobs at regional/smaller airlines that fly smaller planes on local routes. Once you've amassed about 3500 hours of flying experience, you'll be able to apply for jobs at the major airlines which will pay more and involve flying larger, more powerful planes. Amassing this many hours can take anywhere from five to ten years depending on where you work.
As you work your way up the corporate ladder, you'll fly more desirable routes and work better hours (have Thanksgiving and Christmas off, for example.)
Lifestyle and Salary
Pilots get paid well. The major airlines pay entry level pilots around $120,000 per year with benefits and that's a very stable income if you do your job well. The life of a pilot can be challenging, however. You'll have to spend the majority of your time traveling. At least one third of the year will be spent in hotels away from your family. Also, likely at least once in your career, there will be some malfunction or some unexpected safety issue that you'll have to deal with mid flight. People's lives will be in your hands so you need to stay cool under pressure and focus more in poor weather conditions or if you're sick, etc.—there can be no excuses. You are liable for any mistakes that you make.
Hopefully you'll enjoy working with your co-pilots since you'll be spending so much time with them inside a small cockpit. But like any job, once you work your way up the corporate ladder, you'll have better hours, better routes and higher pay. In summary, if you want to be a successful pilot who enjoys life, you need to enjoy flying planes. Flying planes needs to be your passion. If it is, you'll live a very comfortable life.