Pilot’s guide to ATP certification

Airline pilots are required to possess an ATP.

The demand for professional pilots has never been greater. Airline pilot requirements and mandatory retirements have significantly impacted the pool of eligible candidates and, in many cases, have left flight departments at a shortage of qualified applicants.

If you’ve been dreaming about the challenge, adventure and rewards of a pilot career, there’s never been a better time to engage in a pilot training program. But there are multiple pathways to consider if the airline flight deck beckons.

To be eligible to serve as an airline crew member, pilots must possess an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP). While it may seem to be a drastic difference between the older days when only a Commercial pilot certificate was required to fly as an airline first office, it’s not nearly as dramatic of a change in practice.

Pilot hiring has always been market driven, and historically, pilots have been required to possess minimum experience at least close to the ATP requirements to be competitive for pilot positions. Pilots have generally been expected to possess anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 hours of total time and 100 hours+ of multiengine time to be marketable to the airlines which hasn’t changed much.

R-ATP allows pilots to serve as FOs.

To reach the ATP level, pilots now have the option of pursuing an unrestricted ATP subject to FAR Part 61 requirements or may choose to pursue a Restricted ATP (R-ATP) qualification by graduating from an approved, collegiate-based aviation program. Eligibility requirements for the two pathways vary greatly.

An unrestricted ATP requires that the pilot be 23 years of age and possess minimum flight experience to include:

  • 1,500 total time
  • 500 hours cross-country
  • 100 hours night
  • 75 hours instrument
  • 250 hours PIC
  • 50 hours of multiengine (if pursuing ATP multiengine)

Complete eligibility requirements are defined in § 61.159.

The R-ATP allows a pilot to serve as an airline first officer before reaching the requisite 1,500 hours for an unrestricted ATP.  The R-ATP also requires that a pilot be at least 21 years of age and successfully complete a checkride. The R-ATP, in lieu of the 1,500 hour requirement, offers credit for specialized training received as part of a collegiate aviation curriculum or through the military. The R-ATP eligibility requirements are fully defined in § 61.160 and the options for R-ATP minimum experience are:

  • 750 hours for military pilots
  • 1,000 hours for college graduates who possess a bachelor’s degree with an aviation major from an approved school
  • 1,250 hours for college graduates possessing an associate degree with an aviation major from an approved school

A list of approved schools for R-ATP eligibility is available from FAA here.

For each of the R-ATP options, the majority of total flight experience must have been obtained while enrolled in the approved program.  It’s worth noting that simply graduating from a program that confers a degree does not automatically grant eligibility for the R-ATP.  Each school that desires to certify its graduates for the R-ATP must apply for and receive approval from the FAA and must meet criteria outlined in Advisory Circular 61-139.

R-ATP is a good option for flight instructors who may not possess 500 hours cross-country experience.

Considered in the ATP regulations is a category of pilots who may possess the 1,500 hours of total pilot time required for an unrestricted ATP, but fall short of the requisite 500 hours of cross-country experience (e.g. flight instructors).  These pilots, as long as they possess at least 200 hours of cross-country time, and otherwise meet ATP experience requirements, are also eligible to apply for the R-ATP.

When transitioning from a R-ATP to an unrestricted ATP, an FAA inspector can remove R-ATP limitations and issue a full ATP with paperwork only. The applicant must present evidence that he has met the ATP age requirement (23) and the aeronautical experience requirements of § 61.159.  The applicant then must complete section III – Record of Pilot Time, on a pilot application (form 8710) to be issued the unrestricted ATP.

ATP-CTP requires training in a full motion flight simulator.

Also required of ATP certification is the completion of an FAA-approved Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program (ATP-CTP) PRIOR to taking the FAA written exam for multiengine ATP.  ATP-CTP is a 40 hour course – 30 hours of ground school and 10 hours of simulator training – intended to prepare the applicant to operate safely in those operations that require an ATP.  Of the 10 hours of simulator training, six (6) hours must be completed in a Level C or higher full flight simulator that represents a multiengine, turbine airplane with a maximum takeoff weight of at least 40,000 pounds, rendering many corporate aircraft ineligible.

The ATP CTP serves as a prerequisite for the multiengine ATP written exam and includes training in:

  • Aerodynamics,
  • Automation,
  • Adverse weather conditions,
  • Air carrier operations,
  • Transport airplane performance,
  • Professionalism, and
  • Leadership and development.
ATP-CTP training may be included in some airline new-hire programs.

All pilots taking the ATP knowledge test are required to present a graduation certificate certifying the completion of an ATP-CTP before taking the written test. Written tests for multiengine ATP are valid for 60 calendar months (much longer than the 24 months granted for other written exams). The ATP-CTP graduation certificate itself does not expire so there is no penalty and no harm in taking the ATP-CTP anytime that is convenient.

It’s worth noting that the ATP-CTP itself does not prepare you for the FAA written exam. It’s only a pre-requisite for the written exam. It would be wise to select a trusted training source for dedicated written test preparation independent of your ATP-CTP training. There is no endorsement required to take the ATP written exam so it’s up to you to determine when you’re ready.

For those pursuring an airline career, most regional airlines have created their own in-house programs or have contracted with other training providers to deliver ATP-CTP training as part of your new-hire process. So in many cases, this creates additional training time, but does not represent an additional out-of-pocket expense.

If you happen to be in corporate aviation or perhaps on a military track and moving straight to the legacy air carriers, you may very well have to complete an ATP-CTP at your own expense to meet hiring requirements. There are independent training providers with courses available including Sporty’s Pilot Shop. – www.Sportys.com/ATP. Costs for ATP-CTP range from $4,600 to $5,000+.

If you’re curious about an alternate ATP option, single-engine ATP does NOT require the ATP-CTP course, but does require a separate single-engine ATP written exam. You will still need to complete an ATP-CTP in order to pursue a multiengine ATP.

It remains the case that the most common pathway for building your flight experience toward ATP certification remains the certified flight instructor (CFI) path. CFI jobs are plentiful as the demand for training increases and as CFIs transition to the airlines. Similar to airline starting salaries, CFI wages have increased. It is possible to earn a respectable wage in the CFI ranks and pursue a rewarding career. And most airline recruiters and human resource professionals will agree that the experience gained as a CFI will serve you well into the future.

Alternate routes for gaining additional experience toward ATP certification include private or business aviation pilot jobs, aerial surveying or mapping, freight, charter, and even investing in your own airplane.

No matter your ultimate pathway, there’s only one correct way to begin, get to the airport and take that first flight or the next flight!

For additional information, FAA resources are available at https://www.faa.gov/pilots/training/atp/.

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It was his first airplane trip at age seven that made Eric decide to become a pilot. "While boarding the airplane, a flight attendant noticed my interest in the flight deck and urged me to go talk to the pilot. I give a lot of credit to that pilot for my career choice." He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and went on to an airline career. Eric now heads Sporty’s flight school and directs the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training Program. In addition, Eric serves as a Captain in Sporty’s corporate flight department.