How do I Become an Airline Pilot?

Flying across the world at the controls of a highly sophisticated aircraft is a dream job. So understandably you’ve asked the question: How do I become an airline pilot?

On the road to a career as an airline pilot – or any commercial pilot job – you’re going to have to make many decisions – there’s no ‘normal’ route to a job in the left-hand seat, there are many different training routes, financing options, and career paths. In this article, we’ll answer just a few of those questions which will get you off on the right foot.
Where do I start? Before signing on the dotted line for any kind of commercial pilot training, you should look into obtaining your initial Class 1 Medical, which is necessary for anyone wishing to train for a commercial or airline transport pilot license. Don’t be fooled by some of the myths such as, ‘I can’t be a professional pilot because I wear glasses.’ Contrary to popular belief, you can fly commercial aircraft wearing glasses or contact lenses, as long as your vision is correctable to 20/20.

Applicants for an ATPL license must be at least 21 years old, and all medicals must be carried out by a UK CAA-approved Aeromedical Centre (for UK trainees). You can expect the medical examination to take up to four hours, and it examines your medical history, eyesight, general physical check, hearing, heart rhythm, and lung function, as well as blood and urine tests. More details on obtaining a Class 1 can be found here. Be aware that becoming a commercial pilot is a huge financial commitment and is also very competitive. Shop around a wide variety of training schools, consider all the different routes, and finally, gain experience.

Work placements with aviation companies can help, but if you’re at school – get involved with your local Air Training Corps or Combined Cadet Force. If you’re going to university, consider the University Air Squadron too. All of these experiences will help you to decide whether a pilot career is for you, as well as setting you in good stead once you get to pilot selection and when you’re competing for airline flight crew jobs.

I’ve heard about a pilot shortage – is it true?
Yes and no; there’s certainly mixed evidence. Boeing’s Pilot and Technician Outlook indeed projects that over the next 20 years, the world’s aviation system will require 790,000 new commercial airline pilots. One-third of these pilots will be required in the Asia Pacific region, another 206,00 in North America and Europe 146,000 – that’s a lot of pilots needed!

It’s also true that due to adjustments in pilots’ age regulations, there is a large number of pilot captains set to reach retirement age over the next few years, which has created greater awareness of the need to train pilots of the future with a captain’s skill set in mind.

How much will it cost and how do I pay for it?
Paying for your professional flight training is one of the most expensive investments you’ll ever make. Depending on the training route you follow, you should be prepared to pay around £70,000 to £120,000 to train for your initial license. You can borrow the money from certain banks and some schools can help with this. Many students though turn to the bank of mum and dad, or work their way through the training.

Whichever route you choose, you’re going to want to make sure that your investment is secure. So what steps should you take?

  • Research your chosen ATO. How long have they been trading? Do they have any history of financial problems? What links do they have with major airlines? Most ATOs operate on a very strong financial footing but sadly it’s not unknown for an ATO to go under, sometimes taking their students’ investments with them. It’s best to go with a well-established organization with impressive industry links.
  • If you can, pay module-by-module rather than all up-front. Even some integrated courses offer a pre-designated schedule to draw down payments in installments throughout your training rather than taking it all in one go.
  • Pay for the training by credit card, which can provide some sort of insurance in the event of an ATO going under.
  • Does your chosen ATO offer a payment protection program? These plans guarantee to refund of a percentage of your fees should you fail to reach the required standard to complete the course.
  • Throughout your training, keep your eyes on the bigger picture, in terms of the financial position of your chosen ATO and the industry in general.
  • Finally, remember the old adage: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. For more, see our article on safeguarding your investment.

What type of training and qualifications do I need?
As stated in the introduction, there’s more than one way to qualify as an airline pilot, and none of them is ‘normal’, but the license you will need to end up with is either an ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence) or an MPL (Multi-crew Pilot Licence). ATPL is currently the more common license, and this can be reached through two training routes, integrated and modular. You can expect to pay around £70-80k for modular training and £100-120k for integrated. The integrated route involves a full-time course of study, generally lasting around 14 months. This takes a student from complete beginner to a position where they are ready to take up a role as a commercial pilot. The main advantage is that a student enters an intense course of study within a dedicated and well-equipped training facility, surrounded by like-minded students and often with links to leading airlines.

Being a full-time student means your progress can be monitored at each stage of training. Should you fail your ground exams and flight tests during your training (and this is exactly the same whether you’ve chosen the integrated or modular routes) while the chance does exist to retake them, airlines do look more favourably on graduates who have passed first time and with top marks. While much of your training is completed as part of a curriculum that has been set by the CAA, it’s the specific character, location, cost and presentation of each FTO that will help you decide which is the best suited for you. With banks no longer keen to lend unsecured loans, and pilot training grants very difficult to come by, the modular training route is increasingly popular, offering training towards exactly the same qualifications at the same high standard but for typically half the cost of an integrated course – or less – and within a similar timeframe.

The big difference from the integrated route is that the study doesn’t necessarily take place as a full-time study option or over a set period of time – instead it can be done at the student’s own pace, module by module, as time and money allow. What’s more, in most cases the cost is substantially less and you can train in ‘blocks’, allowing the cost to be spread over a longer period, even allowing you to return to work between modules. Airlines recognise the benefits of employing graduates from the modular method. Pilots who graduate from the modular route tend to come from a wider range of backgrounds than those from integrated courses, which can be seen as an advantage when working as a member of a team in the cockpit. Modular graduates are also seen as having a greater determination to reach their career goal. However, it’s also important that commercial students undertake their training at no more than two different FTOs so that they can demonstrate both continuity in their training and the ability to provide clear feedback on their character and achievements from the FTOs supplying the training.

A typical student might complete a module and then take some time out to go back to work and earn enough money to start the next module. Alternatively, they might combine a weekday job with their pilot studies at weekends and in the evenings. This does create its own challenges. It can obviously take much longer to complete the training and the extra workload of holding down a job while also studying is extremely demanding. Without the support of a strict timetable, and being among tutors and other students, motivation can also be difficult to maintain. Fortunately for the students involved in modular training, FTOs will have experience in helping students to deal with these challenges. For more, see our article on Integrated vs Modular training.

What licence will I get?
If you follow a standard integrated or modular course in the UK, you will end up with a frozen ATPL. The ‘frozen’ part refers to the fact that you’ve passed the theory part of the Airline Transport Pilot Licence; to ‘unfreeze’ it you’ll need to have a total of 1,500 hours flying-time logged. You’ll also need a type rating, basically the result of a course of training undertaken that is individual to each type of aircraft, e.g. a Boeing 737-400. It’s now common to have to pay for your first type rating yourself, at a cost of between £20,000 and £30,000 – although this could change. You can generally expect any further type ratings to be paid for by your employers.

Alternatively, you can follow the MPL (Multi-crew Pilot Licence) training route, an increasingly popular option. MPL courses are usually run at integrated schools, in partnership with an airline. The huge attraction of this route is that you’re highly likely to get a job with the chosen airline at the end of the training, while for the airlines each curriculum is designed to feature its standard operating procedures. Source: ‚Pilotcareernews‚.

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