Captain Haddock: You do know what you're doing, right?
Tintin: Relax. I interviewed a pilot once!
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Driving an aircraft is generally considered to be somewhat trickier than driving surface vehicles - because they go up and down, as well as along - with considerably less room for error given the speeds involved and the tendency to fall long distances in the event of serious mistakes.
There are also thought to be various hierarchies within the aircraft driving business, especially amongst professionals - fast jet operators (almost exclusively military) tend to consider themselves the elite, although arguably rotary wing pilots have a better claim, with those who operate gliders at the bottom of the heap (as being more of "fall controllers" than pilots). Operation of heavy cargo/passenger aircraft and light aircraft are generally in between - heavy lift, again, tends to have more prestige, but light aircraft operations, especially in civilian life, are often performed under far harsher conditions. Part of the perceived hierarchy may be down to the learning process - most pilots start in gliders, and then progress through a series of increasingly powerful fixed wing aircraft before reaching their final class (which, if rotary wing, may mean being booted back down the bottom of the power scale). Logged flying hours are the key to recognition and advancement in the business, and in general, the more experience the better.
As a result, the whole business tends to be rather more tightly regulated than other forms of vehicle operation - and the high entry cost also conspires to make this a much rarer skill set.
That said, the ability to operate aircraft is often very useful to the sort of people who become PCs, and it is generally necessary to figure out where a pilot PC gained their skills from and, in a realistic campaign, if they still have a licence.
The military is a favourite place - and, indeed, the only one that will teach you to drive a fast jet - but may not be appropriate for all characters, and civilian trainers are not especially common. Other government services will tend to teach rotary wing, but have similar limitations as a background and in many cases prefer to employ ex forces people. Most private employers will require the aspirant pilot to at least have a licence prior to recruitment (which implies already knowing how to fly, not having been disbarred for any reason and having logged a non-trivial number of hours in the air1, none of which are cheap or universally available. After that, work will usually be in commercial freight, banner towing, aerial photography and the like - carrying passengers generally requires a lot more demonstrated competence2. Historically, the US also tended to have a tradition of stunt pilots who performed aerobatics for public entertainment (albeit many of them ex-forces from one - or both - of the world wars) and crop spraying (applying chemicals - usually pesticides - to crops from a low flying aircraft). Both also appear outside the US, but were much larger features there than overseas. Given these restraints, it is not unknown for inexperienced pilots from the developed world to build up their cockpit time by travelling overseas to places where demand for pilots is such that someone with bare-minimum skills is an acceptable choice (often Hobson's choice) to fly your aircraft. This can be a fairly Darwinian way of learing the trade, given that these also tend to be places with poor standards of aircraft maintenance, miserable runways, bad flying conditions and unreliable airtraffic control.
Note that not having a pilot's licence doesn't actually stop you driving an aircraft (much as you don't actually need a driver's licence to operate a car) … but not having one makes it a lot harder to avoid being arrested on landing, or even to file the sort of flight plan required to take off in controlled airspace. In an emergency, this may not matter.
Also note that many pilots dislike being referred to as "aircraft drivers" … doesn't mean they're not, but it's worth remembering if you need to avoid winding one up3.
In some times and places, a pilot's skill set is likely to include aircraft maintenance - this is more likely for the simpler, lower-tech designs than the more capable ones: a pilot could well maintain a simple piston engine plane themselves if they had to, but helicopters and fast jets normally require immense logistical support to keep them flying. Familiarity with period-appropriate communications equipment is pretty much compulsory and the ability to operate some form of radar should be required once such things become normal for the type of aircraft being flown. Note that larger aircraft are likely to require more than one person to operate (or an AI assistant where available) but only one of them is likely to need piloting skills.
Operating vehicles designed to operate outside an atmosphere is more or less outside the scope of this article - except, of course, for those ones that can also enter the atmosphere. Currently these are limited to re-entry gliders (such as the NASA Space Shuttles) but single stage to orbit aircraft appear to be emergent if not extant technology and are certainly common in science fiction. Presumably atmospheric flight in an atmosphere capable space vehicle would be a skill in its own right - and likely highly dependent on the type of vehicle4. Failing that, atmosphere exit/re-entry may be a specific skill that then gets tacked onto whatever is typically used to drive the craft in question.
In the early days of aircraft, when flying was considered an adventurous occupation rather than a profession, a pilot weas sometimes referred to as an aviator (or aviatrix, if female). In modern usage, all members of the flight crew involved in the direct flight operations of an aircraft, such as the navigator or the flight engineer are also considered aviators, but only the one actually operating the craft's controls is considered a pilot.
Some Notable Pilots
A magazine article from Telegraph online about pilots building up (rather haphazard) flying experience in the Third World.
Game and Story Use
- When adding flying skills to a PC, it's worth working out where they got them - private flying school (not cheap, even for a bare minumum package)? The forces (best have a credibly ex-military character)? Third world bush pilot (great for colour and the sort of flying needed in RPGs … possibly not so good for getting on with First World aviation authorities).
- The barnstormer stunt pilot is a staple of the pulp genre, and the slightly seedy, possibly drunk bush pilot appears quite a lot in adventure fiction. Usually during the monsoon on a bad runway in an unhealthy looking plane.
- Feel free to inflict all sorts of alarming pilots on PCs in remote locations.
- Faking up credentials for a competent but unlicenced pilot can be fun.
- Especially if they turn out to be lying about the "competent" part.
- Or when they give themselves away by some sort of lapse of protocol (for example an ex-carrier pilot going through the drills that imply he's waiting for a catapult shot and thus indicating to a civilian tower that he's unfamiliar with normal takeoff procedures).
- For those writing rules, skill specialities are likely to be glider/single engine prop/single engine jet/multi engine prop/multi engine jet/fast jet/rotary wing (which may divide further into single rotor, multiple rotor and stack rotor)/VTOL (which may or may not include tilt rotor/tilt jet aircraft)/(Various other specialised types such as rocket engine, pulse jet or scramjet). Lighter than air craft are likely to be a totally different skill-set and the pilot skill may or may not allow the user to operate a remote pilot vehicle. Skills are likely to be sorted by tech level as a WW1 era aircraft is a very different beast to a 21st century one, even if both are nominally single engine prop aircraft. Indeed a WW1 aircraft may even be push-prop driven or something else weird like that and an early rotary wing aircraft may be an autogyro rather than a true helicopter. Some skills may only work in conjunction with another (e.g. You may need VTOL and Fast Jet to drive a Harrier jump-jet to its full capacity - although you might well be able to fly it as an STOL aircraft on just Fast Jet). Specialisation in specific types of aircraft is highly likely except in cinematic campaigns.