Training To Fly A Large Commercial Jet

I was thinking Al Qaeda would like to pull off a repeat of 9/11 but obviously they can’t do what they did in terms of taking over a large commercial jet.

But I was thinking there is nothing to prevent them from training a pilot from scratch and have him apply for a job, fly a year or so then have a legit pilot. No need to take over the airplane, cause they’d be flying it.

Now my question is if someone was a complete novice, how many years would it take to go to actually being able to pilot a large jet like those jets used in the 9/11 attacks.

Many, many years. Even with a commercial multi-engine license in hand, you don’t just walk into those jobs. You also need thousands of hours of air time.

Most large commercial jet pilots come out of the military, or spend years and years trying to work their way up into the big leagues.

My uncle took this path and worked his way up as far as a pilot flying a commercial regional turboprop. After three years, he was still at least a decade away from reaching a large jet, before he quit the profession due to the low pay. (The regional turboprops are treated almost like an internship program for pilots, who will do almost anything to build up hours, so the pay sucks.)

It really depends on the state of the airline industry. The US aside, the industry in other countries had been booming up until the latest economic woes. Even then, the Australian industry has stagnated a little but there is still a lot of demand for pilots in the long term.

It is possible, but unlikely, to have an airline job within a couple of years of starting. There are still airlines like Qantas that offer cadetships where they take kids off the street and put them through the required training.

Normally, if funding isn’t a problem, it might take six months to do your initial training, commercial license, multi-engine instrument rating, and air transport license exams (the license itself isn’t required until later.) Then you might need to do a year or two flying light aircraft gaining a little experience, then you should be able to get a turbo-prop job and after a year or so of that you would qualify for an interview with a major airline. So realistically 3 - 5 years from starting to sitting in the cockpit of a B747, if you’re lucky, have the funds, and are good enough.

There are so many variables though, some people never make it, others may take 15 years. For it to be a viable terrorist option you’d want to start out with lots of students in the hope that one might get there. The other problem is that you’d be one person against the rest of the crew.

You could just buy a 707 and fly it with your buddy.

If you’re willing to go full-immersion in one of the ab initio programs that are often affiliated with a regional airline, you can go from zero hours to first officer in a regional jet in a couple of years. The most recent issue of AOPA Magazine (pay site, thus no linky) talks about a military-like program in Florida where you can be type rated for the Boeing MD-90 and ready for employment in as little as one year. How quickly you move up to the larger aircraft is then depended mostly on how quickly the pipeline empties due to retirement and expansion.

Yep, the military is a big source of pilots.

A guy i went to high school with currently flies 747s for QANTAS.

He entered college and the Royal Australian Air Force straight out of high school, and was trained as a pilot for the large cargo planes. He was based at Richmond Air Force Base in Sydney for a few years after his training, then spent 2 years on an exchange in North Carolina, and then another 6 years at Richmond. He left the RAAF in 2004 and went straight to a job at QANTAS, at age 36.

A friend went to school (college) to fly planes and is a commercial pilot at ~24. But perhaps, based on the above, he is not flying the largest jets??

Oh dear, I would have never expected him as terrorist material. Maybe Stay’n Alive has some hidden meanings.


Why buy one - why not just rent your own B747 ER freighter? (much much cheaper, and after you load it with whatever flamable explosive you can I bet it would do WAAAY more damage.

And just as a side note - why haven’t Stephen King and Tom Clancy been arrested as terrorists yet? Both of them used planes as weapons of destruction in The Running Man and Debt of Honour (or if you prefer Honor) respectively

It’s quite possible that he is flying large jets. Like I said earlier it can be done in a couple of years, but keep in mind that “commercial pilot” covers everything from 4 seat Cessna’s doing scenic flights to 600 seat A380s crossing the Atlantic. Also, the entry level jobs in major airlines are normally as a “second officer” or equivalent.

Modern airliners are designed to be flown by just two pilots, the captain and the first officer, however many countries have regulations that stipulate a third pilot must be carried on long flights. What this pilot is called varies between countries and airlines and the best case scenario is that they are fully qualified first officers on full pay. Commonly though, they are “cruise pilots”, they are not permitted to sit in a control seat below a certain altitude and therefore may not carry out landings and departures. They may do this for five years or more as they wait for a promotion. Then they become a first officer, and they may have that position for five, ten, or even fifteen years depending on retirements at the top.

So your friend may well be flying the largest jets but he is probably decades away from being a captain on one.

Edit: I don’t mean to sound negative about it, it’s not a job that I’d like to do, but many young guys love the travel, good pay, and no great responsibility.

How do these pilots gain actual skills in the critical activities of landing and taking off in planes while stuck in this “cruise pilot” positions? Do they have other, smaller aircraft that they actually control with regularity?

What kind of credit and background checks would you need to go through to rent one? I don’t think you can just walk up to your local FBO and ask for an upgrade from the Cessna to a 747.

I suspect it might be easier to steal one off the the ramp at an airport in a country where the security staff’s allegiance is negotiable. But even then, you’ll need to gas it up somewhere, opening up a new challenge.

Thanks I appreciate the answers. My idea was that Al Qaeda would want to cause little suspicion as possible, so they wouldn’t rent one. They would simply train a pilot, who would eventually (somehow) smuggle a weapon in the cockpit and off his co-pilot then simply pull off a repeat of 9/11

And this way there is no suspicion at all till the plane is crashing into something.

What about if you were flying FROM another country to here. Are their standards for flying jets (similar to those used in 9/11) and training the same. I just thought someone could fly the plane from say Europe then off the co-pilot just as it’s coming into NY or Boston and then crash

Assuming vast piles of money, there is nothing to stop Al Qaeda from recruiting two potential pilots of “clean” background, sending them off to pilot training all the way through big jets, then purchasing a USED jet for terrorist purposes. Would probably only take 2-3 years if they planned well.

Of course, if you don’t have money to buy your own jet that does complicate things a bit.

You only have to know how to get it off the ground and trim it for normal flight (it’s a one way trip). It could all be done in a simulator. A GPS replaces any navigation skill so all that is necessary is to maintain the power settings and avoid hitting VNE before you hit the target. Learning the cockpit layout would be half the battle. On large aircraft they are custom ordered to the carrier’s requirements.

You don’t need piles of money to sign a contract. You just need the down payment and a line of credit to purchase fuel. 90% of the event would be financed by the vendor.

They use a flight simulator to maintain their skills.

They wouldn’t need to. There’s an axe in the cockpit among other things, also don’t some American pilots carry a gun? Anyway it’d be easy enough to get the axe out without raising suspicion from the other pilot. You’d probably want to wait till the third guy was off having a toilet break or something.

You need money for training the pilots, supporting them during training, and for that downpayment and fuel. Not the full cost of an airplane, but it’s still a substantial sum and probably into the 7 figures.

This is a fun pure hypothetical, but I’ll bet AQ never bothers with anything that looks like September 11th ever again.
I mean, come on, couldn’t any of us think of another dozen higher-yielding attacks that could be carried out with those resources?
Suicide bombs set off in the cattle gate systems for people trying to get INTO the secure area at ATL?
Just takes one guy…
Screwing up municipal water supplies?
Disabling major oil/gas infrastructure?
Our cost of hardening a target is substantial; the cost to organized terror of changing targets is zero.

I agree. I can think of so many cheap methods of killing lots of people. Don’t want to talk about them though. I hope there is someone in the govt whose only job is to think stuff like this up.