How to become a pilot
Being a pilot is a fantastic job for people who enjoy responsibility, technology, meeting people and the excitement of flying a commercial aircraft
However, with private training offering the main route into the profession, trainee pilots will need to take out a large loan for this.
You might be surprised to hear that there is a generally accepted world shortage of pilots. Despite this, finding your first job is not always easy, especially if there is an economic downturn.
As the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) puts it:
Skip ahead to learn more about becoming a pilot:
- What does a pilot do?
- How to become a pilot
- Pilot education and qualifications
- Average pilot starting salaries
- Pilot career progression
- Where to find more information
Not interested in becoming a pilot? Browse all of our careers and job guides.
What does a pilot do?Pilots fly aircraft in turn with their co-pilot, often employing a combination of manual operation and monitoring computer-controlled flying systems. In an emergency, such as extreme weather conditions, the pilot will fly the plane manually.
Pilots don't just start the engine and set off. The pilot creates a flight plan that covers the route, altitudes and fuel requirements for the journey. They also keep a record of the flight, recording any technical problems or incidents such as bird strikes, drones or abusive passengers – even pilots can't get away from a bit of admin and paperwork.
Pilots check that they have the appropriate information required on passengers, weather, route and technological systems, and ensure that fuel, safety systems and navigation systems are performing well before, during and after the flight.
They’ll also communicate with the co-pilot, cabin crew, air traffic control and passengers throughout.
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How to become a commercial airline pilot
There is a huge amount of jargon in a pilot's world: ATPL, Frozen ATPL, PPL, ground instruction, flying hours – and so on.
Becoming a pilot is all about getting the Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL), which involves two main components:
- passing theoretical knowledge examinations (14 in total)
- gaining the appropriate amount of experience and flying hours.
When you finish your training you will be issued with a 'Frozen' ATPL, which allows you to get a job with an airline as a first officer/co-pilot working under a captain.
Only when you have gained 1,500 hours of flying experience – meeting certain conditions along the way – will your ATPL become unfrozen and you will be able to apply for jobs as a captain.
Remind yourself of why you want to be a pilot by revisiting the 14 topics of the theoretical knowledge exams, below:
- Air law
- Aircraft general knowledge: airframe/systems/powerplant
- Aircraft general knowledge: instrumentation
- Mass and balance
- Flight planning and monitoring
- Human performance
- General navigation
- Radio navigation
- Operational procedures
- Principles of flight
- Visual flight rules (VFR) communications
- Instrument flight rules (IFR) communications
Pilot education and qualifications
What qualifications are required to become a pilot?To get your ATPL, you’ll need to train with an aviation academy or flight school.
The qualifications required to begin your pilot training may depend on the academy or school you train with. Go directly to the flight school or the employer to see what they say.
We have focused on what the aviation training services provider CAE says is needed, which is typical for flight schools.
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Common skills required to become a pilotTo start on your journey, here are some of the requirements to begin training as a pilot:
Personal qualities: a passion for flight, motivation and ambition, self-discipline, technical aptitude, tolerance of pressure, maturity for your age, and spatial awareness.
Completed secondary education: budding pilots are required to have completed secondary education (high school), ideally achieving a pass in English, mathematics and physics at GCSE.
Medical certification: you’ll need an examination to test your hearing, eyesight, coordination, and overall health. Upon successful completion, you will receive a valid Class 1 Medical Certificate. All pilots are required to have this certificate throughout their flying careers.
Age, nationality eligibility and entry requirements: you may apply from the age of 17 but can only begin training as of 18. Depending on your programme of interest, you must be eligible to live in the country your training programme takes place in.
- Assessment: assessment involving computer-based aptitude testing, personality questionnaires, teamwork exercises, and competency-based interviews identifies individuals who are most likely to succeed in pilot training and who are suitable for a career an airline pilot.
Vocational vs academic routes to becoming a pilotGoing to university is not an essential part of becoming a pilot. If you're absolutely sure that you want to become a commercial airline pilot, you may want to dive straight into private training, as this will work out cheaper in the end.
If you're unsure, you may want to consider some of the university routes that lead to part qualification, such as a Private Pilot's Licence. If you are looking at this university-based route, there will usually be additional entry requirements to the above, such as A-levels or equivalent (with specific A-levels required if the pilot studies is with Aerospace Engineering).
The three main ways of getting an ATPL licence are:
Aviation schools will often offer both integrated and modular courses.
1. Integrated training
Modular and integrated routes can be done individually and with airlines. The big difference is that integrated training will allow you to start from scratch, whereas modular training requires you to have gained a PPL and 150 hours at least before you begin training.
This is private training and it's expensive. Costs normally range from £80,000 to £90,000 plus other extras. There are finance options where you can take out a loan and pay it back once you are working for an airline. Like any loan, you need to check the small print.
These courses are intensive, normally around 18 months long, and will involve theoretical teaching and flying time.
But it’s worth it, according to Wendy Pursey at BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association):
While the clear downside is the cost, an advantage of this route is that you will be considered with zero flying time under your belt. However, you do not want to commit to this expense if you are not cut out to be a pilot. One way of checking is to take the assessment run by the Honourable Company of Air Pilots.
You must also check your health. You could do wonderfully in the theoretical exams and get your flying hours, but if you fail the medical, all your money and time will be wasted. Read the guidance on the medical examination in the BALPA booklet The Inside Track and the section 'Before you begin, do one thing'.
2. Modular trainingThe modular route has advantages and disadvantages:
- It's more flexible, allowing you to work to pay for costs.
- As there's no clear end date, your training can take longer.
With modular training you will not start your commercial pilot training until you have gained your PPL and have 150 hours' flight experience.
Modular course ground exams (theory) can be studied remotely through virtual learning. While this route can be cheaper, it is still expensive.
3. Multi-Crew Pilot LicenceThis is a new concept and restricts pilots to working for a particular airline and a particular type of aircraft.
BALPA does not recommend this route unless you have a clear job offer once you finish your training.
The training can take less time but your options are much more restricted.
Who offers training and education?
List of approved Pilot Training Providers: Civil Aviation AuthorityThe big players are CAE and L3. You should explore the range of options on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website.
Sponsored TrainingWhile sponsored commercial airline pilot training was offered in the past, this is no longer the case. It now must be self-funded.
At the time of writing (March 2019), Ryanair offers cadet training that is self-funded with a much smaller upfront payment.
The British Airways Cadet Programme is now fully self-funded by the trainee and you would be based with L3 Airline Academy.
Easyjet is strongly linked with the Middlesex University Programme.
If you're looking for a scholarship to fund your training, see the Honourable Company of Air Pilots Flying Scholarship Programme.
Best universities for pilot coursesOur course search currently shows 12 courses for budding pilots.
Before applying, it is really important you understand what these courses each offer and where they'll lead you, whether that's helping you:
- gain a PPL (Private Pilot Licence);
- gain your PPL and ATPL ground instruction (theory);
- or achieve a Frozen ATPL and is linked to Private Aviation Training Schools, giving you the full integrated experience.
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