How To Become A Pilot

In this article, the AirlinePrep team give details on the steps necessary to achieve your dream job as an airline pilot.

The Medical

Anyone wishing to train for a commercial pilot's licence MUST obtain an initial class 1 medical certificate as part of the licensing requirements, and it is best to do this prior to commencing any training. You would rather find out if there was a hidden medical problem before investing lots of time and money. The initial medical must be obtained from an AME (Aero Medical Examiner) and is quite extensive. It includes an ECG, audiogram, lipid profile, ophthalmology examination, lung function and a cholesterol test.
The CAA can be contacted on 01293 573700, or visit the CAA website for more information.

Pilot Attributes

The first absolute requirement to becoming a pilot is determination and passion. Without those it will be extremely hard to succeed. The reason we say this, is that for most pilots, there will be highs and lows not just throughout the training process, but also when it comes to the significant challenge of trying to find your first, and potentially second, or third job. The airline industry is a turbulent place, and very few pilots are fortunate enough to land a position and stay there for their entire career. Airlines frequently go out of business, or merge with other operators and with this comes uncertainty. This can be hard to manage, and the option of having to move to another part of the country or even the world often remains a possibility.
You also must recognise that this industry is a 24/7 and 365 day affair. You will miss Christmas, birthdays, social events, and many more. You will be waking up in parts of the world when your family are asleep, and delays will let people close to you down. You must be a flexible individual if you are to cope with this.
From a management perspective, you must be able to effectively and confidently talk to people around you. A pilot has to interact with cabin crew, engineers, ground teams, passengers and air traffic control to name a few. They must do that effectively and efficiently. There will be occasions when team players are in disagreement with one another, and as a pilot, as the leader on board the aircraft, they must manage this.
You must also be willing to focus on the customer. Airlines are starting to expect pilots to interact with passengers more and more, and focus on them when it comes to delays, passenger announcements and premium passengers etc. You must consider how you as the pilot, will make each journey special for them.
There are of course many skills you must demonstrate to be a quality airline pilot, attempt to research the position as much as you can and try to subject yourself to as much of the aviation world that you can - this demonstrates to an airline your continued dedication to the profession. Have you considered the Air Cadets, or work experience? Even spending time at your local flight school will help you out, and you will likely make contacts that will prove invaluable later on. Try to consider anything that will put you one step ahead of your competition and don’t wait until just a couple weeks before your interview to achieve this. Start now!

The Academic Side

Pilots often have to come up with back up plans, for when things go wrong. This is the case when it comes to choosing your academic path too. What happens if you aren’t successful? What happens if you lose your job for any reason? Having as many qualifications behind you, not only puts you at the front of the queue for your flying career, but gives you options if finding a flying position proves challenging. You may find that airlines aren’t recruiting when you have completed your flying training, having qualifications allows you to do something meaningful with your time.
You must never underestimate the experience you get from part time jobs and work experience. These help shape you as a person and help you develop the skills required to be a pilot. How will you demonstrate that you can work effectively within a team, if you haven't any experience of doing so? Make sure you participate in activities outside of school and college, and make yourself the interesting person people want to sit next to in the flight deck. Join organisations like the Air Cadets if you can - not only will this subject you to many fantastic experiences, but will demonstrate to any prospective airline that you are serious about a career in aviation.
From an academic point of view, the more impressive your qualifications, the better. You need to be at the top of the pile and airlines can afford to be quite picky when it comes to recruitment. Putting the work in when you’re young will ensure you are in the best possible position. For GCSE’s you need to be focusing on achieving grade C or above in Mathematics, a science subject, preferably Physics and also English. You will also need to consider your A Level choices carefully, focusing on the same subjects mentioned above. BBC grades are likely to be minimum entry level qualifications if you are expecting to join a sponsorship programme, with lower grades being acceptable if you are funding the process yourself.
As far as a University degree is concerned, whilst this is not an essential requirement for a career as a pilot, and most airlines will not insist on it, the qualification gives you a back up option. Having a back up is a great pilot skill, and airlines will want you to prove to them that you consider “what if” scenarios. Having a back up plan goes some way to prove this, and also genuinely provides you with a different option should your dream of becoming a pilot not materialise for whatever reason. In addition to all of that, the experience you will gain at university will prepare you extremely well for the social interactions and experiences that you will encounter as a Pilot.
Try to have a range of diverse and interesting hobbies - think being part of a team. Whilst individual hobbies are useful, and help round you as an individual, team sports enforce your skills in this regard, and provide evidence to airlines that you are an active and current team player. There are many organisations you can become involved with, that will improve your leadership, communication, management, and team skills. Have you considered the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme?

Training Options

There are a variety of training pathways to becoming a pilot and you should conduct some thorough research before commiting to your training. Pilot training options are:
  • Airline Sponsorship
  • Integrated
  • Modular 
  • Multi Pilot Licence (MPL) 
  • The Military

Airline Sponsorship

Airline sponsorships are rare in today’s economic climate, and although recognised as the best way into the flight deck of an aircraft, competition is tough. Sponsorship doesn’t exist in the traditional sense anymore either. In days gone by, airlines would recruit and completely fund a candidate’s training upfront. These days, the best you can hope for is a fully managed integrated solution whereby the sponsoring airline will expect you to fund a significant part of the training yourself, sometimes acting as guarantor, and then they will pay back this training fee over a number of years when you have successfully completed your training and joined the airline as a First Officer.
This scheme is certainly the most efficient way to obtain your Commercial Pilots Licence and allows you to start you career straight away. You are unlikely to need to move positions later, as only very few operators operate in this way. You effectively will have a career for life with this solution and therefore competition for places are extremely high. You must work hard to put yourself in the best possible place for success.
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This option is probably the most popular route at present. This method requires the cadet pilot to fully fund all of their training and most of these routes cost approximately £90,000. The major flight schools offering programmes are L3 Harris, CAE Oxford, Flight Training Europe and FTA-Global. Each school offers pro’s and con’s and they should be visited and reviewed prior to you joining one of them. You are likely to spend approximately 18 months at one of these training providers so make your decision carefully.
A factor that you MUST consider, is how strong are the links between your chosen Flight School and the Airlines. For example, L3 Harris have placed many of their cadets with easyJet and CAE Oxford with Ryanair.
The integrated solution takes you with zero flight hours, and trains you until you are ready to be placed with an airline to commence their type specific training. All aspects of the licence issue are managed and trained for by the flight school in question. This route is generally the most popular because airlines are now forging relationships with the major flight schools, and in many cases will only recruit from their chosen school. Some Integrated schools will even place you with a partner airline at the end of the training if your results have been good enough.
Each of the schools are likely to train part of their course abroad, potentially in New Zealand or Arizona for example. Give some thought to this significant period of time abroad, and how you will fund your lifestyle while you are there.
Because the flight schools want to keep their relationships with the airlines, they obviously want to provide only the best pilots, so you must consider what happens if you don’t get placed with an airline at the end of the training. Do significant amounts of research and generate some what if scenarios.
Entry into the flight schools are assessed and you will have to undergo a recruitment day event where you are assessed for suitability. Passing this day is hard work and should be taken seriously. The flight schools reputation is on the line so they want to only train pilots they feel will succeed.
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This solution, from a cost and choice point of view, delivers many benefits. Essentially, you can choose where to complete each element of the licence requirements. The licence you will receive from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is exactly the same, however you must remember that when you finish your training you will be left on your own as far as job searching is concerned. It will be up to you to send your CV to airlines and develop your own contacts. That’s not to say that this solution won’t supply you with a job at the end of it, but the integrated schools tend to have relationships with airlines that MAY increase your chances of being placed with an airline.
The obvious two advantages to this solution are cost and choice. This option tends to be significantly cheaper, as you can choose where to train and complete the relevant sections where and when it suits you. Shopping around is the best policy, so make sure you choose training providers that you feel comfortable with. It may even be an option to complete some of the elements abroad, such as the hour building section. This solution can often be more practical if you have other things going on in your life, as you can structure the training around what you have going on already, such as your current job.
The elements you will need to budget and plan for are as follows - the Private Pilots Licence (PPL), hour building, ATPL Ground School, Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL), the Instrument Rating (IR), and Multi Crew Co-Operation (APS-MCC) training. Once you have completed all of these elements successfully, you will be able to go to the CAA and collect your CPL/IR, otherwise known as a Frozen ATPL (Airline Transport Pilots Licence). You will then have to search for your first job, which is generally the most challenging part of becoming a pilot. At AirlinePrep we recommend FTA-Global and The Wings Alliance for modular flight training.

Multi Pilot Licence - MPL

This option is relatively new, and is offered by some of the larger Flight Training Schools. Your training is different to the that you would receive on the modular and integrated courses, and requires the flight training school and a partner airline to be participating together in the scheme. You will be recruited by the partner airline alongside the training school with which you are applying. Right from the start of your training, you will be immersed into the standard operating procedures (SOP) of your sponsor airline and aircraft type, and much more of your training is simulator based, focussing on crew resource management (CRM), and team working skills. This is a more modern approach to pilot training with the emphasis being on tailoring your training to make you more ‘airline ready’. This route focusses more of your training on the target airlines way of doing things. The integrated and modular routes, by comparison, are more licence focussed, and this method is intended to route you directly to the right hand seat of a multi crew aircraft.
The downside to this route is that your licence and training is airline and type specific. This means that should something happen to your sponsor airline in the time that you are training, such as the airline going out of business, or making Pilots redundant you would have to convert your licence. This is because all of the training is sponsor airline specific, with your training being specific to that airline. You will have to ask many questions of the flight training organisation (FTO) as to what would happen in this case, as this could cost you additional money should something happen to your sponsor airline.
Ordinarily, your MPL licence will ‘unfreeze’ when you achieve a certain amount of flying experience (providing other restrictions are met, too). This means that at this point you would now have a licence that is transferrable to other airlines and this licence is referred to as the ATPL - the Airline Transport Pilots Licence. For comparison, the ATPL that you would achieve via the modular and integrated routes would be known as a frozen ATPL - frozen because at the time of award you would not have the required amount of hours or experience, to ‘unfreeze’ it to full ATPL level.
Essentially, each MPL scheme is bespoke and specific to the target airline and aircraft type, whereas the integrated and modular routes provide you with the same licence that mean you have to be airline trained after attaining those licences.

The Military 

At first glance this option is great because your flight training is fully paid for by the military! Of course the payback for this is a number of years service, before you can then join an airline. You must want to join the military though, and have this as part of your life rather than simply using this as an avenue to joining an airline. You must also think that you will be spending a significant part of your life within the military environment, before joining an airline and therefore joining it “late”. This can have an effect on your airline lifestyle, as most airlines operate a seniority system where joining an airline earlier in life can improve your lifestyle later on in life with respect to leave, time off and progression to becoming a Captain.
Of course the experiences that you will be subjected to in the military will be second to none and will be unforgettable! The training you receive will be of an extremely high standard, and some airlines even have a managed programme for ex-military pilots to assist them in the transfer of their military skills and experience to the airline environment.
Ex Military?
If you are an ex military pilot looking for commercial airline interview training then please get in touch with us.

After Training

So what happens when you have finished all your training? The first thing you need to do is search for your first job - there are many websites to help you, including Jooble! This is a tough process and one that is likely to involve a lot of disappointment. You have to keep going though and recognise that keeping your licence current is extremely important. If you don’t get a job straight away, consider that there are other options available to you to keep yourself flying. Positions as a flying instructor, or taking people parachute jumping or various other flying positions are all valid options and provide good experience. They also provide you with the opportunity to network and develop contacts who may be able to help you later on.
When it comes to finding that all important first position, take some time in setting out and structuring your CV. Make sure that you develop as many contacts as possible and work hard to keep your flying licence current. You cannot be picky with that first job and you should be thinking on a global scale when it comes to employment for your first flying position. Even spending time at your local airfield will help you. Think about taking up employment within an airline, in another area so that you can attempt to gain employment from within a company. Many airlines have trained Pilots working for them in Operations or as Cabin Crew, where Airline knowledge and experience can be developed. You will also potentially have the opportunity to develop contacts in areas of the business that may assist you in getting an interview, although admittedly, this is more likely in a smaller company.
Essentially, you have to do whatever you can to put yourself in the best possible position to get your first flying job.
When you get an interview, study hard and prepare well - we can help you here so feel free to get in contact with us.
If you choose the integrated solution you may now find yourself at an airline, either full time or on a temporary contract. You may find that after that temporary contract has ended, you are in the same position as a modular candidate searching for another job with very little experience.
If you choose the modular solution, you may find that to increase your chances of employment you start to consider self funding a type rating on an aircraft. Each aircraft you fly for an airline, will require you to complete a type rating course on that aircraft. Some airlines train you and pay for this themselves, other airlines pay for this and then ‘bond’ you for a certain time period. This means that if you leave the airline within that set period of time, you will have to pay a proportion of the training cost back. Other airlines will only take on candidates that have taken the risk on a type rating already and paid for this training themselves. Be aware that there are unlikely to be any guarantees with this route, and you may find yourself with a type rating but no job, and worse, no experience so other airlines are unlikely to find this very appealing. Think very carefully before you invest in more costly training with no promise of a job afterwards. It is certainly best if you can find an airline where you don’t have to pay for your own training - you’ve spent enough already - but we realise that this might not always be an option.
When you join an airline you will have approximately two months of training before you get to fly passengers or cargo. It is a tough process with a steep learning curve. You will have to complete the aircraft type rating, which will involve ground school and simulator sessions. You will then have to complete airline training in security, dangerous goods, Safety and Emergency Procedures (SEP), and then you will have to do some landings for real in the actual aircraft. This will be amazing fun, and since you only do this on your first commercial aircraft type, make the most of it! You have to do 6 take off and landings to a successful standard, on an empty plane before you can take passengers. Once this has been done, you will receive the type rating on your licence and commence line training, with a training captain, on the aircraft with passengers. A daunting experience but one you will never forget.
For more information, read our Airline First Officer Guide.
From AirlinePrep - the very best of luck!
If there is anything we can do to help you succeed, please get in touch with us.