As a Junior in High School, it’s about the time I really need to start thinking about college decisions, set some goals, and think about where I’d like to see myself in 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years.

All of you know I’d like to be a Professional Pilot, hence the name of this site. If I had an ideal career path, it’d be something similar to the following: (*this is just a frame, I like to keep my options open, and let new opportunities arise)

  1. In my early 20’s: Do some really interesting flying, such as flying in the Caribbean, Alaska, Africa, etc. I wouldn’t plan on making much money, but would love to focus on having a laid-back lifestyle and gain some great flying and life experiences.
  2. Move into the airlines: Begin working towards a career as an airline pilot either nationally or abroad. Over time, I’d aspire to be flying internationally with a Major Airline.
  3. Go Corporate: After gaining airline time, search for a job with a corporate group to fly in a more relaxed, personable environment.
  4. Who knows?
Inspirational aviation video, “What do you desire? – A Pilot’s Perspective:” (credits at the end of the video)

For a student pilot, the world can be viewed as a mountain, with becoming a professional pilot as a general goal. There are paths up to the top of the mountain; some quick, some fast, some expensive, some not. If I’ve learned one thing about college decisions, it’s that everyone has an opinion on the best route to go.


In my case, I have the very generalized goal of becoming a professional pilot. I’ve had mentors explain different routes on how to “get there.” To tie college into this makes the decision even more complicated. Below are a few of the many “paths” through college which I could take to start off my career as a pilot. Some pros and cons to each are listed below. (largely, information comes from current professional pilots that have served as mentors to me)

1.) The Aviation Universities: Many colleges in the USA have aviation and aerospace programs. Three examples of well known universities in the United States which either centralize on aviation, or have highly reputable aviation programs are: Embry Riddle (ERAU),Purdue, and the University of North Dakota (NDU).

  • Pros:
    • A like-minded student body, sharing the same passion
    • A structured learning environment, students working together
    • High acceptance rates
    • Reduced hiring minimums (from 1,500 hours to 1,000 hours as of August, 2013)
    • A degree in a field you’re interested in
    • Aviation-related minors (ATC, Aviation Management, etc)
    • Alumni and Student Networking
    • Airline quick-start programs, only available to students from these schools, see this link for examples: Internships and Development
    • Instructing jobs (through the schools) offered to students and alumni
    • Learn and fly on “top of the line” prop and jet simulators
    • Take advantage of diverse, well maintained fleets of aircraft with glass cockpits
    • (ERAU): two locations to choose from: Prescott, Arizona and Daytona Beach, Florida
  • Cons:
    • Expensive, expensive, oh yeah, and expensive
    • Low paying career (early on) — hard to pay off school debt
    • Degree in Aeronautical Science isn’t great for much else, besides being a pilot
    • Too much aviation? It’s something that you’ll be constantly surrounded by… If you consider this as an option, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about an aviation university anyways
    • Group setting: everyone else is like you, a pilot, you’re no longer unique
Example Aviation University (Embry Riddle):

2.) The Armed Forces (ROTC, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Air National Guard): For years, people relied upon military experience in order to become airline pilots. You get the chance to travel the world, get paid for it, serve your country, fly some incredible aircraft, build flights hours quickly, and have school paid for. As of late, more and more pilots are taking a civilian route to becoming professional pilots, contrary to popular belief.

  • Pros:
    • ROTC programs at many “normal” universities (including aviation universities)
    • Have school paid for
    • Military member benefits
    • Paid to travel the world
    • Opportunity to fly amazing aircraft (from F22’s and C130’s, to C5’s)
    • Build turbine time, quickly
    • Serving your country
    • Military networking
    • Some airlines are known for being military “hubs” (Delta for instance)
  • Cons:
    • Joining the military is a serious commitment
    • Your life could be at stake
    • Military life can be extremely stressful and boring at times
    • Extremely structured environment
    • No guarantee of a pilot slot, there are a limited number of places
    • Low salary
    • Separation from family
    • Unpredictable and un-controllable schedule
    • Committing years of your life to the military, which gives up valuable seniority years in top-paying jobs later on (before the mandatory retirement age of 65)
Inspirational Military Flying:
3.) Go to a “Normal Univeristy:” Get a “normal degree” and do training at a flight school on the side. Your options are endless within this category. You can, in theory, money and academics permitting, go to any university in the country and do flight training on the side at an airport nearby.
  • Pros:
    • Free-form training, how you train is up to you
    • Choose where and when you’ll train
    • Flight training is generally cheaper at a flight school vs. at a university
    • Choose a college that you’d like to go to, that might not have a great aviation program
    • Major in something other than aviation, as a backup, in case flying doesn’t work out
    • Have more relationships outside of aviation
    • Not aviation all the time
  • Cons:
    • Majoring in something you might not care about
    • Spending too much time away at the airport, training, thus not being able to maintain great relationships with friends that might not understand your passion
    • Not as structured
    • No quick start programs, not wasting valuable early years
    • Networking comes from your own connections, no aviation alumni network
    • Smaller fleet choice, less of a student to student support network
    • Training in addition to college work is a lot to have on one plate
Example Flight School (ATP):

So what should you gain from all of this? — There are so many paths you can take towards being a professional pilot, many more than I could even hope to list here. One is not necessarily “better” than another, it’s just a matter of personal preference and finances. However I end up “getting there” will be written about in the future right here, on the blog.

This week, I’m headed down to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (Daytona), and will be writing in detail about my experiences there. I’m hoping to bring you what visiting the campus would be like, and what I find out about ERAU, from my first ever college visit.

The inspirational quote of the day is posted below, this one is one of my favorites:

Thanks for reading and watching, stay tuned for many more posts soon!
-Swayne Martin
Twitter: @MartinsAviation
Youtube: MartinsAviation1

So what do you think about this post, do you have any different opinions? Share what you think below. The more information you give, the better, for student pilots! Thanks again for visiting!

About The Author

If you want to become a pilot, I want to make your journey just a little easier. I'm a First Officer for Envoy Air, one of the largest regional airlines in the world, and have partnered with industry leaders like the U.S. Air Force to teach about various aviation careers. For a full bio, click the "About" tab above. Use the "Contact" tab to shoot me a message.

33 Responses

  1. APC

    This is good stuff Swayne. I spend a lot of time explaining the many possible paths to young men and women like yourself…now I’ll just send them here!

    • Swayne Martin

      That sounds great, and is the main goal of this article. It essentially summarizes a few of the most common options available.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Yonari

      I am currently in my last year of high school and I have no idea what path is good for me. I feel lost in the ocean right now.

      I have a question though. Do u still need to go to flight school after attending aviation college?
      How path is the fastest ?

  2. Renewed Pilot

    If you’re already going to be in Daytona, take a drive a few hours south of Melbourne. The Florida Institute of Technology has a great aviation program and many other degree programs… Therefore, not all propheads on campus.

  3. Peggy McClure

    Swayne, you are SO much like Donald in that you’ve analyzed and articulated well the pros and cons you are aware of thus far. I like option 3 because you need to continue to learn how to think by going to a liberal arts university. You can major in Business Administration while continuing your passion in flying. The BA major will give you the skills for whatever you’ll be doing AND with those skills, you may OWN an airline some day!! For selfish reasons, I don’t want you to go for option 2 because that makes me nervous; what would Pop think about that one?!?!? LOVE reading this. You’re only a junior, so you’ve got time!

    • Swayne Martin

      Thanks for the comment! It’ll be interesting to see in a few days what Embry Riddle is like, to get a better sense of it all. I’m personally shooting for option #1 or #3.

      Thanks again,

  4. Capt. Anup Murthy

    That’s a good analysis you’ve posted here. Tough call always and some tough choices to be made. All the best with things and when you make a decision, stick with it and never look back. Except for the Military option, I’m a fan of everything else 🙂

    • Swayne Martin

      Thanks for the comment! It is a pretty tough decision to make. The visit to ERAU this week will definitely narrow down some options. I’m personally not shooting for the military option.. I lean towards #1.

  5. Brandon Desjardins

    Hey Swayne! I love this post too it’s awesome! Really good pics and a great breakdown! I myself am actually pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Pyschology which isn’t aviation related but I do think it’s a great field and really applicable to being a pilot! I would love to have a aviation degree but I don’t think it’s useful to fall back on! Happy flying! Brandon

    • Swayne Martin

      Thanks for the comment Brandon! I’m sure you’ll be just fine without an aviation degree, it’s not valuable for much else besides being a pilot.

  6. Zachary Barrett

    Hey Swayne,

    I stumbled onto your blog through AAFO4ever’s page. Just want to add my own two cents if I can. I’m a regional FO for one of the United Express Carriers and I attended an Aviation College and have an Aviation management degree. I spent my first two years of college flying with the university program earning my instrument and commercial pilots licenses (I had my private in high school), and it was very good training, but very expensive and not exactly the most fun flying. I decided after my commercial license to transfer to a state run aviation program closer to home, finish my Aviation management degree, and fly on the side with a local flight school. This decision saved me in the neighborhood of $40,000. That is about 2 years’ worth of pay as a regional airline first officer.
    When I was in your position I had a lot of the same thoughts about what to do, and I started off saying do not worry about the money it will figure itself out later. As the bills began to pile up though I saw that this wasn’t the right approach for me to have.
    Most of the people I fly with at my airline are in a significant amount of debt, including myself. The people who have the most debt seem to be those who went to the pilot factory type flight schools like ATP, the second most seem to be those who graduated from Embry Riddle, UND etc., and the bottom of the debt pile seem to be those who did their flying on the side and figured out a way to pay as they flew (very difficult to do). I sit right in between the second and third groups as I did a half and half type deal, and at this point I’m relatively thankful I did what I did because my loan payments are not insurmountable.
    If I had to go back and do it again, I think I may have chosen to go to a school that provides you with a good quality education for a good value (you don’t need to go to Harvard to fly planes), and major in something other than aviation to give yourself more of a well-rounded background. Many Engineering degrees can be very valuable to a Pilot without being as specific. This approach does however put more pressure on you as a flight student, to continue to immerse yourself in aviation, and find a good flight school and instructor to get yourself through your CFI ratings (yes you should become a CFI it makes you a much better pilot).
    There will be plenty of jobs for you when you are ready. The regionals are already hurting for pilots, so I doubt you will have much trouble at all finding employment. Coming out and having as little debt as possible will help you enjoy this career so much more than many of us who are struggling to make it financially possible at the start. Feel free to contact me at anytime with questions.
    Twitter and Instragram: Newyorkpilot

    • Swayne Martin

      Hey Zachary,

      I really appreciate that thoughtful comment. It’s always good to hear from someone who’s been through it, and currently working in the industry.

      My decision hasn’t been made yet, there are so many good options out there! I’ll make sure to connect with you, and save your contact information.

      Appreciate it,
      -Swayne Martin

    • Drake Ferruzzi

      Completely agree with Zachary on this one! Just to give you some perspective, I live in Raleigh, NC and graduated from North Carolina State University in May 2014 with an engineering degree. My longtime goal has always been to become a professional airline pilot. Sadly you and I are in the same boat, when I was in college the 1500 hour rule was enacted, however I do believe that this will bring about positive change for the industry (by controlling the supply) but in essence it has made the road a little bit longer and more arduous. I entered college with a private pilot degree, and to be honest, did not make much progress on my flying career during college, but my love for aviation continued to grow. I flew 3-5 hours/year in college but it was too expensive of a hobby for me to maintain. I have since graduated and returned to flying. I currently pay 90/hr wet for a PA-38 Tomahawk which does a solid 100 kts on a calm wind day 🙂 This has allowed me to fly about 8 hrs/month. I am currently working on my IFR with about 3 months to go, all the while adding up to that magical 250 for the commercial. I should hit the 250 within about 18-22 months out of college. While this path is slower it has given me a deeper appreciation and no debt. Like Zachary said, you don’t have to look for to find a happy FO with 25-50% of his low pay tied up with lenders. I didn’t want that route, even though it is far quicker. I am slowly chipping away at the 250, at which point you can be paid to fly with a commercial. Don’t be so quick to jump at the 1000 hours either. Aviation schools such as ERAU had their hand in the bag with this one and of course wanted a special treat for helping to write the rules. Just as many great pilots did not go to aviation universities, and just as many have a hard time finding work with a degree in Aeronautical Science. Do yourself a favor and double major or minor in aviation. My engineering degree is worth its weight in gold, also what if you ever lost your medical? Its rare, but it does happen. So to sum it all up, I did not take the quickest route by any means. But it does allow me the most flexibility and I am delaying the joy with my no debt route. I pay 90/hr and that is allowing me to build time quickly at 8 hours a month. I have knocked out my 50 hrs XC PIC which was a blast and have truly enjoyed it. 500 hours extra may seem like a lot but it really isn’t. 5-8 months as a CFI or even less as a banner tower, a drop in the bucket for the 40K in savings. And coming from another young guy at 23, don’t fall for the I need to pay for the glass cockpit. Let someone else pay you to fly them! They are great, awesome, super powerful aircraft but hours are hours to airlines and the FAA. Learning to fly the glass is an easy transition and can be done along the way, saving thousands. I know guys paying 250/hr for a cirrus, thats just ludicrous when I can fly for 3 times the hours. Let me know if you’re ever wanting more perspective. I am sure you made up your mind by now but it always good to seek counsel from others along the way. I continually do this and eventually we’ll all reach the right seat of a jet one day. The skies are clearing up for commercial pilots!

      • Sam

        Hi! I’m currently in a similar situation, would you mind maybe chatting with me about how your flying is going and give me some advice?

      • Drake

        Let me know as well if you would ever like some advice. It’s crazy reading my response even now. I got the 250 and the Instrument & Commercial. Now have about 315 hours and should have my CFI very soon.

        Good Luck,

  7. Adam

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I am very impressed at the accurate portrayal you provided for each path, “pros & cons.” Excellent work and honestly, spot on with each one.

    I attended ERAU Prescott campus for 2 years. Through ERAU I made some great friends I still to this day keep in contact with. However, ERAU was extremely expensive! To this day I have 3yrs to pay off my debt which started at $70k. I am extremely diligent on paying principle making 2 payments a month to keep the interest at bay. And yes, you will have to sacrifice something as always. Had I finished? It would’ve been in the neighborhood of $120K. Loans will hurt you in the long run, especially with starting pay. Debt is debt. In my opinion there is no such thing as good debt. It will become a hindrance when searching for rent, car, etc. Being debt free and able to move about the country (or outside) is the ticket.

    Best of luck you in your endeavors! I suggest obtaining scholarships as many as you can and to keep the education cost(s) down to a bare minimum. Attend a state school and pay for training as you go while working. If your goal is to get to the major airlines then yes get the degree. However, there are good jobs in aviation that don’t require it. This could allow you to fly professionally, while possibly taking online courses to obtain your degree. Assess your goals and plan accordingly! Looks like you are already in that process, best wishes to you!

  8. Anonymous

    I chose to go to ATP(90 day program, had PPL before hand) because i didnt know what I wanted to do for college yet. So far Im getting my CPL in a few days. For the record: I dont have a drivers license yet and im 18.

  9. Aries1

    Has been inspirational to read your blog Swayne. I Myself have got an interesting story of going from PPL to Proffessional Pilot.. Its a long road, lots and lots of ups and downs, Hurdles and Challenges.. But all worth it in the end. Keep at it 🙂

  10. Aries1

    Hey Swayne. Have been reading your blog and that of Ben Halls. Really inspiring to see other people enjoying the passion of working from that very first flight to sitting at the controls of a large Airliner. Im Sitting in Asia on the Airbus a320 after going thru diplomas in aviation and bush flying… good luck and happy Landings 🙂

  11. Omar M

    Hello, cool blogs. Im almost finished with my PPL. Have you ever though about starting your own Aviation School?

  12. John

    Military is always a great option, but getting a flight slot with the air force or navy is pretty tough. You don’t just go in tell them you want to be a pilot. If you did make it through the selection, it would be the best training possible. You can always try to get a helicopter slot with the army, it would be somewhat easier. Just my two cents.

  13. Robert

    Hi Swayne! Great blog! I am a professional flight instructor at the Aerosim Flight Academy in Sanford Florida. Aviation is my second career. So I was much older than you when I started. I worked full time at my first career while training part time at a local flight school. I already had a Bachelors degree in an unrelated field. I agree that it is wise to have a “backup plan” in case aviation doesn’t work out for you. The airlines don’t care what your major field of study was. You forgot to mention the flight academy route. You can go to a major flight academy like Aerosim and go to school on the side for a degree. We actually work with Seminole State College which allows our students to get up to 27 credit hours toward an Associates degree just for going through our accredited program! That will save you significant money! Also, working as a flight instructor is not just a way to build hours. Many professional flight instructors working at big schools are able to make good money while doing something they love! I went into aviation thinking that I wanted to be an airline pilot like everyone else, but discovered that I love to teach. Not only that, but I get to go home every night!

  14. Anonymous

    did you ever think about liberty university? Ive been deciding between staying in state or going somewhere like embry-riddle?

  15. Jess

    I just came across your blog. I’m 25 with no degree as of yet and I am now contemplating those exact 3 options. What decision did you end up making? UND?

  16. Ridley Fitzgerald

    I have always wanted to be a pilot, for as long as I can remember. Going to an aviation university would be awesome, like you said here. It’d be great to have a group of students all trying to learn the same thing.

  17. Aspiring Pilot

    So what happened? What college did you decide on? Where are you in your career now?

  18. Aspiring Pilot

    Why did you decide on University of North Dakota instead of ERAU? ERAU would be perfect for me but I’m concerned about the tuition.


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