There are several ways to become a professional pilot. The best and most expensive route is to go to a school like the Delta Connection Academy if you want to be a scheduled airline pilot. They were owned by Delta Airlines. There are other four year colleges that are associated with major airlines.
There are excellent four year colleges that have aviation programs. One that I'm familiar with is University of Illinois. I was offered a summer teaching position there in 1968. There are many others. Locally, Jamestown Community College has a two year Professional Pilot program.
You can take flight instruction at a local airport and take your required courses on the Internet. Utah Valley University is one such college offering both 2 year and 4 year degrees. They also offer traditional training at their campus.
You can take flight instruction at a local airport and get your degree in a non-aviation field.
Your first step is to become a student pilot. I would recommend this even if you were going to go to a full time college for aviation. This would tell you whether you could pass a FAA physical. A Commercial Pilot will have to have a Second Class Medical. To fly large aircraft or on scheduled service would require a First Class Medical. If this is your ultimate goal, get it even to become a Student Pilot. If you can not pass this physical, then you would know which career options that are not available. Also you might have problems with motion sickness that you can't overcome or you might find that you just don't like flying.
After you are a Student Pilot, you will become a Private Pilot. Although the minimum is 40 hours, the average is about 52. These extra hours are not wasted because they will all count towards advanced ratings.
Most aviation fatalities in small aircraft are weather related. Usually they occur when the weather is forecasted to be marginal VFR (Visual Flight Rules) or worse but the pilot goes anyway. This can result in flying into the ground or losing control of the aircraft. The Instrument Rating gives you training and knowledge of flying the aircraft solely by reference to the flight instruments. Some call this "flying blind" but in reality you're not flying blind but following procedures that keep you from hitting the ground or other aircraft and using instruments and electronic communication & navigation radios to guide you right to the airport or runway. With an instrument rating, knowledge of weather is very important because you are now flying into the adverse weather. You must also know the your limitations and your aircraft's limitations. Even the airlines with up to $1 million in flight instruments and well equipped aircraft have to cancel flights due to adverse weather. Flying a small aircraft should be as safe as flying as a passenger on a modern jet but you must know when it is unsafe and stay on the ground. Besides the instrument knowledge, skills, experience and 40 hours of flight training for the instrument rating, you need a total of 50 hours of Pilot in Command cross-country experience. When you get your instrument rating, the weather suddenly seems to get better because that marginal VFR is usually very easy instrument flying.
A Commercial Pilot is a pilot that can charge for his/her services. The minimum age is 18. A well prepared Private Pilot could pass the written and flight test for a Commercial Pilot. The difference is the level of experience in making real world decisions about many more flights. The Commercial Pilot Certificate requires a minimum of 250 hours of total flight experience, 100 hours as Pilot in Command, 50 hours of PIC cross-country including night cross-country and 10 hours in an airplane with retractable landing gear, flaps and a controllable pitch propeller. This last requirement can be done in a single engine aircraft but it may be an excellent time to get your Multi-Engine rating. Now you are a professional pilot.
After you have your Commercial Pilot Certificate, you may/may not take additional training. You might become a Certified Flight Instructor and teach the skills that you have learned so far. Common ratings are Single-Engine Airplane, Multi-Engine Airplane and Instrument. This is probably the most difficult certificate to get. With all other flight tests including the esteemed Airline Transport Pilot, an instructors recommendation for the rating carries a lot of weight. It is assumed that you are going to pass unless you make a big mistake. For the Flight Instructor's Certificate, it is assumed that you are going to fail unless you can prove that you know your material well, you can analyze maneuvers and explain things well. This opens up teaching positions.
The grand daddy of them all is the Airline Transport Pilot. The minimum age is 23. This requires a minimum of 1,500 hours of total experience including 500 hours of cross-country, 100 hours of night flight, 75 hours of instrument flight, 250 hours as PIC, 250 hours of PIC cross country and 25 hours of night PIC cross country. I had over 3,500 hours before I met this last requirement. Unless you are a millionaire, you won't be paying for this experience. You would be accumulating this experience working and being paid as a flight instructor and/or corporate flying and/or charter co-pilot and/or crop dusting and/or as a First Officer for a scheduled airline and/or ?.
Major airlines usually want pilots with a four year degree experience as a Captain in a FAR 121 operation such as a regional airline. This makes being an Airline Transport Pilot a requirement. Many also don't want military pilots until they have regional airline experience. Many of the low cost carriers also require you to have type ratings in the aircraft that they fly.
Regional Airlines usually want pilots with either a 2 year or a 4 year degree. First Officers are sometimes hired right out of college or they might look for pilots with other experience in flight instruction or corporate. Many require you to pay for your initial training which may cost $10,000+. If they don't require this, this cost is reflected in a lower wages. Becoming an esteemed Airline Pilot makeing over $100,000 per year is a bumpy road with potholes of furloughs (layoffs), downsizing, pay cuts, low pay, etc.. I have heard fellow pilots, especially first officers, say that it takes a working spouse in an "honest" job to support their flying habit. Many will quit before getting the big prize.
Additional ratings could include helicopter, gyroplane, glider, type ratings for large aircraft including jet aircraft, hot air balloons, seaplane, etc.. Except for a Student Pilot, all other ratings and Certificates give extensive credit for other aviation experience. You can count your glider and hot air balloon experience towards the total experience for a Commercial Pilot or an Airline Transport Pilot. If you have a Commercial Pilot Airplane Certificate and you want to have a Commercial Pilot Helicopter which requires 150 hours total flying experience, 100 hours must be in a powered aircraft and 50 hours must be in a helicopter.
NOTE: This overview is just an overview. Your situation and the Federal Aviation Regulations will determine the progress that you make in your flying career.
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