Need help figuring out if this is a good path for me

Hello everyone, I apologize if something like this has been asked before, but I couldn’t seem to find it. Essentially, I’m looking at a career change and I’m trying to get the info that will make it a go/no go for me. I will get my PPL regardless, but I have the dream of getting paid to fly on top of that, as so many do around here.

Some background:
I’m 34, a civil engineer for the state, have a BS in Civil Engineering and have my PE license, have a 10 year old son and a girlfriend (soon to be wife). I live in the greater Sacramento, CA area. I have 2 uncles that used to give me plane rides whenever they flew in to visit, and they let me take the controls in the air, so I do have some experience with flight, albeit VERY limited. One of those uncles told my parents that I was a natural unbeknownst to me.

With that said, I’m over being a state engineer, and well, an engineer in general. It pays the bills just fine, but feel more and more dead inside every day I’m here. I’d like to change that, and prefer to do so by becoming a pilot. So I have the following questions that will help me make the jump or not. I greatly appreciate any and all input by the members here. And I do realize that pilot demand and pay can change by the time I complete a program.

  1. Given my very limited experience, say I do the ATP fast track option, realistically speaking, what is the timetable from starting a program to a right seat at a regional?
  2. Given that I do earn a right seat at a regional, what kind of pay am I looking at? I currently make over $100K and have a mortgage and more kids on the way, so I need to keep my compensation at ideal levels.
  3. Also given that I earn a right seat at a regional, what is the typical time table to captain at a regional, then right seat at a Major, then Captain at Major? Salary at each phase is greatly appreciated too! Thanks!
  4. As much as my research has been able to show me, I don’t see any carriers that use SMF as a base or domicile. Would I still be able to fly in and out of SMF (or Stockton is nearby as well) and be home each night? Or will I likely have to travel to a base/domicile first before piloting any shifts? I realize trying to stick to nearby airports would limit my ability to promote, but I guess Oakland or SFO wouldn’t be too bad of a drive.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll ask again as I think of more, or responses lead me in to more. Thank you again in advance, I truly appreciate it!


  1. 2 years on the low end, probably closer to 3.

  2. Varies greatly - general (rough) estimate at $50k

  3. Around 2 years to make CA (again, this varies) - low end will be 80k, high end 120-150k. Getting to a major airline could require 3 years at a regional or a lifetime. There is no way to estimate this. Some people never make it. If we are giving an extremely rough average based on the background info you’ve given, I’ll say 4-6 years if you come out of training with an immaculate record and are really good at networking. FO at major can vary on airline and seniority. New FOs on low end are maybe 80k and high end can make 200k+. Average time to CA if you make it? These are hard questions if you can’t tell. I’ll say industry average ~5 years. Some people take first available, some wait to keep seniority and QOL, and some (like my airline SWA) just have an excessively long upgrade. Low end major CA earns about 200k and high end well over 400k.

  4. Only 2 airlines in the US (that I am aware of) have trips that allow you to be home every night. While many airlines have trips that would allow you to build this type of schedule, as you can imagine those go to pretty senior folks. You’ll probably be gone 2-4 nights a week. You would be able to fly from SMF to any airport you choose to be based at, but anyone in the industry will tell you - avoid commuting if you can.


Jordan covered it well I’ll just add a few notes:

  1. ATPs training takes 9mos. and you’ll complete the program with approx 250hrs. After that you’ll need to get to the required 1500 hours. The average ATP instructor builds 75hrs a month. 1250/75=17, 17+9=26mos to a Regional. Keep in mind that’s 9mos with no salary and the 17 in the low $30s.

  2. You’re not going to see $100k for a few years. First year at a Regional starts at $50k incl bonuses but actually dips back to $40ks after until you upgrade. Average upgrade time right now is 2-4yrs. Keep in mind if you’re looking for the fastest upgrade that could very well mean commuting to a less desirable base.

  3. As Jordan says this can range from 2yrs (shortest I’ve ever heard) to never. I literally know pilots who’ve taken 5, 10, 15+. Flying for a Major is literally the pinnacle of our profession and frankly not everyone gets the call. Once there upgrade again can vary considerably depending on the aircraft and the base. Delta pilots are upgrading to Capt in 2yrs but that’s for NY 717 pilots and they top out at about $250k. A350 Atlanta can make $400k but could take 20yrs to see.

  4. As a pilot you can live where you like but that can and often does mean commuting. United has an SFO base but it’s fairly senior. Regardless as Jordan said there are only 2 airlines that will get you home every night. One’s Hawaiian and to be home nightly means moving to Honolulu. The other is Allegiant but they’re a Low Cost Carrier and don’t have a base in the Bay area. If you’re commuting you’ll often have to add another day away before and after your trip.

There are actually multiple threads on everything you’ve asked and much is also covered in the FAQ section should you want more detail.


Thank you both for the insight, despite how tough it is to estimate these things. I realize moving up in the ranks is part networking, part hard work, and part general luck.

Based upon your answers, I don’t think this is the right move for me to make at this time. I guess I’ll stick to getting my PPL and enjoying flight as a hobby for the time being. Maybe by the time I retire from the State, I’ll have the necessary time and experience to hop on to a regional and make a second career out of flying until I’m forced to retire there as well. All depends on what the industry looks like in 20 years or so.

Thanks again!