Yes, tall people can be pilots

Tall Pilot with a Piper Cherokee

Usually I’m blogging about transportation that stays on the ground, but I thought I’d reassure tall people that they can be as comfortable piloting an aircraft as they can driving a car. It’s rarer, but possible nonetheless.

I’ve been fascinated with airplanes ever since Dad drove me out to Lunken Airport in Cincinnati to watch Cessnas and Pipers roar to life and climb up out of “Sunken Lunken.” When I was in college I spent weekends working on the ramp fueling and loading regional jets at CVG for Comair, and when I moved to Oklahoma I was ready to start taking lessons.

My first trip to the local airport in Guthrie wasn’t very encouraging. When I asked the instructor there what people train to fly in, he showed me the Cessna 152. When I tried to climb into the cockpit I felt a sensation similar to what it feels like climbing into some compact cars. That is, I felt like I needed a shoehorn.

The 152 isn’t the only airplane used as a trainer, and that’s good news if you’re tall. I thought I’d use some of my experience to guide those of you who might be succumbing to the pilot bug.

How height factors into flying

When it comes to finding a car that works for a tall driver, your choice comes down to comfort. If there’s not enough head room or space for your knees to relax, the car is a no-go. When it comes to aircraft, your issues are different and can be much more problematic.

In an aircraft you have to worry about comfort, but you’ve also got to make sure that you can physically operate the controls. The most common problem that I found was that when there isn’t enough leg room under the panel, your knees stick up and prevent you from fully operating the yoke. That’s bad news.

Just like cars, plane cabins vary from model to model. The airplane that worked best for me was the Cessna 172. That aircraft provides a lot of leg room under the panel. Finding an aircraft that you can be comfortable in is hit and miss.

Pilot height restrictions

There were two jobs that I wanted if I were going to venture into the military. The first was fighter pilot. Unfortunately, I soon learned that I wouldn’t pass the tall test when it came to flying in the military. The Air Force requires pilots to be between 64 and 77 inches tall. That still leaves quite a bit of leeway for folks in around 6′ 4″.

I’ve heard some rumors from people in the military that there’s a way around that requirement, but I can’t confirm it.

When I began flying I worried about height restrictions for general aviation pilots, but it turns out that there’s no such issue. Really the only limits are your ability to operate an aircraft. The more stringent physical requirements of becoming a pilot aren’t your height – they’re your health. The FAA is more concerned about things that might make you pass out at the controls than they are your height.

So how do you get started?

There are a couple of ways to get into flying, and they’re all demanding on your wallet. I was fortunate enough to meet an instructor who was willing to barter lessons for my internet marketing services, but learning to fly typically isn’t cheap.

As far as I know there are three ways to go about becoming a pilot. They all have their advantages and disadvantages:

The small airport or flying club

The fixed base operator (FBO) at nearly any small airport will either provide flight instruction services or know a flight instructor located at the airport who will. You can search for FBOs online, but be warned that many don’t have a website and the best way to learn more is just walk in the office and start asking. At some airports there might be a flying club on the field, a group of pilots who share one or more airplanes. Often there will be an instructor in the group.

Advantages: This seems like the most personal way to learn. It’s a one-on-one scenario and the instruction can be paced to your learning speed. Learning this way is also usually a pay-as-you-go setting which is ideal if you don’t want to be committed to a large expense like you would with a larger flight school. Expect to spend around $6,000 to obtain your private pilot’s license, though it’s different depending on the instructor and rental rates.

Disadvantages: If you want to be a pilot for a living, this is the slower lane. There’s usually no relationship with the airlines. Lessons here don’t seem structured to get you up to airline standards as soon as possible, as larger programs are geared for.

The flight school

I’ve never personally been through one of these programs, though I’ve spoken with people who have. Flight schools are often designed specifically for those interested in aviation as a job. If that describes you, this might be a better option.

Advantages: Obviously, if you’re hoping to be a professional pilot, a larger school with the purpose of creating airline pilots is ideal. The program in this type of school also has more structure, making it easier to follow through with your hopes of becoming a pilot.

Disadvantages: Cost is the primary disadvantage here. This type of school is going to require loans to complete.  The cost is sometimes $40,000 or more. And while you may have heard stories about pilots being rich, consider that a first officer at a regional airline earns around $23,000 per year, sometimes less.

The university degree

Like the flight school route, an aviation-related degree at a university would also qualify you for a profession in the aviation industry.

Advantages:  Aviation-related degrees are helpful in more than just becoming a pilot. A bachelor’s degree in an aviation field could prepare you for aviation careers outside of simply flying a plane.

Disadvantages: University programs are usually more costly than a private flight school. You may wind up graduating with a crushing $150,000 to $200,000 debt.

The military

The final route that you can take on your way to becoming a pilot is the military. From what I have been told, the military is quite selective when choosing pilots. So just because you join the Air Force hoping to become a pilot doesn’t mean that you’ll actually become one.

Advantages: The military is a way to get the kind of experience and flight hours you’d need to be a better paid professional pilot without all of the expense. If you’re selected to become a pilot, your flight training is paid for.

Disadvantages: The obvious disadvantage here is that you’re committed for a length of time serving in the military. That’s not a bad thing unless you weren’t planning on it.

Still interested? Read up.

If there’s one thing that I can attest to it is that that first takeoff is a thrilling experience, and that afterward flying is addictive. Unfortunately, it’s also expensive. If you’re thinking about becoming a pilot I would read up on Air Facts Journal, a publication written by pilots and for pilots. If you’re interested, I wrote a couple of stories there as well.

Cessna Over Oklahoma

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2 comments

  • Thank you for discussing pilot height restrictions. I am almost 6′ 4″ and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to become a pilot! I feel a lot better now and will keep moving towards my dream. I just hope I am done growing!

  • Matthew

    Its even tougher for those of us limited to flying under LSA rules. Just started lessons in an Aeropro A240. At 6’5″ I barely fit with an average sized instructor. I am planning to buy an aircraft, probably an Aeronca Champ because I discovered that there is in fact already a 6’5″ Champ owner.. I can basically move the seat back as far as I want because with my 265lb frame, it is a single seater. The ultimate goal is a CFI-Sport rating, in which there is only one aircraft I can practically teach, the Aeroprakt A-22 Foxbat, also known in the US as the Valor. It has an impressive 50″ wide cabin and a high useful load. It can accommodate two people my size with enough fuel to fly for 3 hours plus reserve.

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