Ask an Alaska pilot: how do I become a pilot?

By Doug Branch, Captain, Alaska Airlines

Doug Branch’s interest in aviation began around the same time he could say the word “plane.” Captain Branch has deep roots in the Pacific Northwest, including growing up on Bainbridge Island and learning to fly at Eastern Washington’s Big Bend Community College. After three years flying for a commuter airline in the Midwest, Doug joined Alaska Airlines in 2001. doug-branch-ask-a-pilotAfter 14 years, he has a passion for doing things safely and efficiently and is honored to have the opportunity to educate passengers and to facilitate life’s great memories by getting them safely to where they need to go.

In the “Ask an Alaska Pilot” series, he will address common questions he gets from friends, family and travelers. Do you have a question you’ve been wanting to ask a pilot? Let us know in the comments and your question could be featured in a future post.

What was the moment when you knew you wanted to be a pilot?

The earliest recollection I have of wanting to be a pilot was when I was in third grade. From our house it was a bit of a drive to the airport, and going there was a special occasion. We were either going somewhere, or picking someone up and it was exciting. I would ask my parents to leave early so we could sit for a while and watch the planes out of the terminal windows. One thing that I remember like it was yesterday was the smell of the jet exhaust as you got close to the airport. There was always something that amazed me about airplanes and airports, and it seemed from that time I always wanted to fly.

How do I become a pilot?

One of the most important decisions that a prospective pilot will make is where they will learn to fly. There are two primary training routes taken by most prospective pilots: military or civilian.

The U.S. military is an excellent option that many pilots choose to learn how to fly and build incredibly valuable experience. If that is a choice you are considering, it’s a good idea to seek out a mentor who has experience in the military. They can provide guidance and answer questions. Personally, I chose the civilian route and started at a two year college in Washington State. Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake is an exceptional and well-known Federal Aviation Administration-approved aviation college. There are also other colleges and universities around the country that have FAA-approved flight programs. The University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are two good examples.

After completing a 4-year degree, I got my flight instructor certificates and spent several years teaching other pilots how to fly. When you are teaching other people a skill, it strengthens and refines your skills and expands your knowledge base.

After teaching, I spent about a year flying freight around Washington and Oregon. Some of this time was valuable multi-engine time, which helped me to get an interview for my next job at a commuter airline, Great Lakes Airlines. At Great Lakes I was able to build even more valuable multi-engine turboprop time as well as gain experience in airline flying. The experience there was incredible. I flew into busy airports like Chicago O’Hare and Denver International and into mountain airports like Telluride, Colorado. All of this experience enabled me to get an interview and a job flying at Alaska Airlines. It took me about 11 years to go from my first flight in college to my first day at Alaska Airlines.

Now is a great time to become a pilot. Currently there is great demand for qualified, experienced and skilled pilots and that trend is forecast to continue for the foreseeable future. Once you pick the training path that best suits you, stay focused: never stop learning and adding to your experience. Work hard to find someone who is willing to mentor you. Often a mentor can help you to avoid potential career pitfalls and help guide you in becoming a pilot.

Are you a pilot? Horizon Air is currently hiring first officers. Apply online at

More Ask an Alaska Pilot:

What route do you fly?

What’s your favorite airport to fly into?


  1. Hello, I am 36. I love aviation and always inspired to make a career out of it. I’m an A+P instrument rated commercial pilot(sel) and almost a CFI. I’ve fallen into some pit falls along the way but still have ambitions of doing what I truly love. My question, am I to late for an airline or freight pilot career? What are your thoughts on where and how to pick back up and give it another go? Thanks
    David Real, portland OR

    1. Hi David –

      Thanks for writing, and in short, no—you are not too late to think of a career in the flight deck of an air carrier. From your paragraph I see a couple of immediate things to address. First, you will want to get your multi-engine rating on your commercial certificate. Next you will want to build your flight experience towards the requirements of an ATP. If you have graduated from an approved program at a two or four year aviation university, you may qualify for the Restricted ATP. That will lower your total hours needed. You can check with your school to see if your degree program qualifies.

      The next issue you will want to address is one of currency and experience. If you are not very current with your flying, the best way to do that would be to get that ME rating and press on with your CFI course. I would also highly recommend going on to get your CFII and MEI certificates. Working as a flight instructor is one of the best ways to gather the experience you will need to get hired on at Horizon Air.

      Best wishes, and please know we are entering one of the highest demand times ever for pilots. We’d like to see you here!

      LaMar Haugaard, Chief Pilot, Horizon Air

  2. Being a pilot was what i wanted to be when i was a child. And now, becoming a pilot is really something that i will seriously think about it 🙂 Thanks for the information.

  3. Doug,
    More specifically, what does it take to become an ALASKA AIRLINES pilot? I follow this blog and everything Alaska does in the media. Alaska Airlines is my dream company!
    Thank You

    1. Hi Chris – When we hire pilots, we are looking for a number of things. First and foremost, a solid core of flying experience. The average Alaska Airlines new hire has nearly 7000 hours of flight experience including over 2000 hours of experience as a captain. About a third of our pilots have a military background while the rest hail from the regional airlines or corporate aviation. Career progression is important regardless of their background. We also look carefully to ensure that our new hire pilots embrace (have a work history that demonstrates that they embrace) Alaska’s core values.

  4. How cooperative is the FAA in allowing pilots to climb higher when there is clear air turbulence? I was a flight attendant for Capitol Air in the early 1980’s and we hit severe turbulence over the North Atlantic en route to West Germany. I don’t remember if the pilot was allowed to climb higher to seek smoother air and deviate from the filed flight plan. I have noticed Alaska pilots due climb higher on several of the flights I have been on in the past 16 years.

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