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What is a career pilot?
A careers pilot is a professional pilot. Being a career pilot is very wide in terms of the different types of job opportunities (by any avenue) that allows earning an income from flying can be considered a career pilot.
What jobs can pilots do?
- Helicopter flying
- Airline flying
- Cargo pilot
- Survey pilot
- Military pilot
- Flying instructor
- Air taxi
- Air ambulance flying
- Search and rescue pilot
- Tug pilot (towing gliders)
- Crop dusting
- Ferry pilot
Career Pilot: How to become an airline pilot
I often get asked, as a professional pilot flying the B737, should I become a career pilot? Flying is an amazing profession, and for me has been a dream come true.
That said, pilot training is costly, and there is little guarantee of a job even if you do complete your pilot training. COVID 19 has unfortunately torn apart the aviation industry, with huge numbers of pilots out of employment.
Those lucky enough to remain in employment have had to take big pay cuts. Ive lost 40-50% of my income through a combination of part-time working and furlough.
In this post, I wanted to share the honest truths for those considering a career as a pilot to help you decide if flying professionally is for you!
Career Pilot Routes: Integrated Pilot Training vs Modular Pilot Training
There are two routes to becoming an airline pilot. Integrated pilot training is a full-time option completed by a single provider for a fixed price. Integrated pilot training typically takes around 18 months.
Modular pilot training is the route that allows you to complete your pilot training in stages to suit your time and budget. Modular pilot training allows you to complete different phases of your pilot training with different providers if you wish.
Certain stages of your pilot training have to be completed in a particular sequence and time.
The benefit of modular pilot training is that it allows you to complete your pilot training around existing commitments e.g. a full-time job. I completed my modular pilot training around my full-time engineering role in the oil and gas industry on a part-time basis.
With the flexibility of accelerating or slowing down your training via the modular route, I completed my training in 12 months (I had no life!). Modular pilot training normally takes between 2 to 4 years to complete.
Career Pilot Training Steps:
- Trial flight
- EASA Class 1 Medical
- Getting your PPL
- Hour Building & Night Rating
- ATPL Theory
- Multi Engine Instrument Rating
- Commercial Pilot Licence
- Multi Crew Course & UPRT!
- Pilot Interview
*If on an integrated course, the sequence of training may be slightly different. Some integrated courses complete the ATPL theory before commencing any pilot training, as an example.
How much does it cost to pursue a pilot career?
Pilot training will cost between £60,000 – £100,000 depending on which route (integrated or modular) you take and where you complete your pilot training.
To give an idea of the costs via the modular pilot route in the UK, my approximate costs are summarised below:
- Medical £1,000
- PPL £10,000
- Hour Building: £15,000
- ATPL Theory (distance learning): £6,000
- Multi Engine Instrument Rating: £25,000
- Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL): £8,000
- APS MCC: £10,000
An integrated course in the UK will cost around £90,000 + accommodation fees.
If you are willing to consider pilot training abroad, there may be an opportunity for further savings.
Entry requirements to become a career pilot
The minimum requirement for most pilot training courses is GCES Maths and Physics. Most airlines will want to see that you have completed your secondary school education
Class 1 Medical
You will need to pass an EASA Class 1 medical with an Aero Medical Examiner. The medical is to check your fitness to fly. Check with your local aviation authority to find your closest Aero-Medical Centre
There is no hard requirement to have a degree in order to become an airline pilot.
Despite the above requirements, what I have learnt as a professional pilot going through COVID 19, is that you need to come into aviation with a qualification or skill you can fall back on.
- Pilot jobs as a low hour pilot are extremely competitive, and it may take some time for you to find work.
- Having a skill or qualification, you can fall back on to earn a living outside of aviation will help you during job hunting.
- If you are lucky enough to get a job as a trainee pilot, there is a good chance that you will be on a seasonal part-time contract (working summer, off winters) and probably on a zero-hour self-employed basis.
- You will need some way of sustaining yourself during these periods.
- The airline industry is very fragile and easily affected by economic events. As such, you need to have a fallback plan should you lose your job (or flying medical) at some stage during your professional career
Career Pilot Tips – how to become a pilot for free
I encourage everyone to take advantage of opportunities to try out flying and learn to fly for free. There are scholarships available from the Honourable Company of Air Pilots, Air League and Air Cadet Organisations. From my pilot training UK post:
The Honourable Company of Air Pilots have the following pilot training scholarships:
- Private Pilot Licence Scholarships
- Gliding Scholarships
- Flying Instructor Scholarships
The Air League have the following flying scholarship and bursaries:
- Powered Flying Scholarships (towards your Private Pilot Licence)
- Gliding Scholarships
- ATPL Theory Ground School Scholarships
- Airline Pilot Standard Multi Crew Course (APS MCC) Scholarships
The Air Cadets provide:
- Air Experience Flights
- Gliding Scholarships and Advanced Glider Training
- 12 Hour Powered Flying Scholarships
Whilst researching your pilot training, try and speak to as many people as you can who are current pilots. Speaking to as many pilots as I could before and during my pilot training helped me stay focused and motivated.
It is often said that you become the person you surround yourself with. If you want to become an airline pilot, spend time with airline pilots!
Gliding is a low-cost, excellent avenue to begin learning to fly. There are many professional pilots flying gliders today. Gliding provides an excellent education in flying, i.e. how the flight controls work, understanding the weather, etc.
Develop as many non-flying skills as you can outside of the flight deck. If you are at school or college, participate in extracurricular activities. Skills like teamwork, problem-solving, time management, organisation and prioritisation is important for a pilot.
For more tips on how to progress your flight training, check out my best selling pilot training guide to see how to become a pilot.
What does it take to become a career pilot
The truth is you are just going to have to work harder than everyone else. I had always wanted to become a pilot even though I enjoyed my time working in the oil and gas industry.
The only way I could ever begin to afford to make the jump to progress my pilot training and afford the minimum £60k price was to progress my flight training alongside my full-time job.
To become a professional pilot, you have to complete your Airline Transport Pilot Exams (ATPL exams). I enrolled on a part-time distance learning course. I would set my alarm for 4:30 am every day during the week in order to find the time to study before work.
I would take my iPad (with my course notes) to work and study again on my lunch break.
Once I got home, after making dinner, if I had the energy, I would study again for another hour or so. It was then off to bed early to repeat this all again the following day. This is how my Monday to Friday went.
At the weekend, to reset and take a break from studying- I would progress my hour building. You have to complete 100 hours of pilot in command flying to start your commercial pilot licence training.
The intensity of the work required to succeed with whichever route you choose (integrated or modular) is very high.
It is not particularly well documented, but after completing your pilot training, you will need between 20-40k to secure a job. Most airlines now charge for type ratings which is the course you will need to complete in order to learn how to fly the specific aircraft type that the airline operates.
Formula to get an airline job = HARD WORK x LUCK x £60-£100K
You control how hard you work. You can create your own luck by working hard and being in the right place i.e. selecting the best school etc. Unfortunately, nowadays, there is no dodging the huge upfront £60-£100k needed.
I did it by spending 12 years working in the oil and gas industry by saving and then topping up with a pilot training loan. There is a danger with taking a loan out as the present part-time zero-hour contract new hire airline pilot salaries are very low. Be warned!
Skills and knowledge needed for a career as a pilot
In determining what skills are needed for a career as a pilot, the best place to start is to look at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) pilot competencies. The 8 ICAO pilot competencies are:
- Aircraft Flight Path Management – Manual Control
- Aircraft Flight Path Management – Automation
- Leadership and Teamwork
- Problem Solving and Decision Making
- Application of Procedures
- Work Load Management
- Situational Awareness
In the pilot training guide, I mentioned that many of these competencies could be developed well before starting your pilot training outside the flight deck.
If you are still at school or college, take advantage of extracurricular activities. Sport is an excellent way of developing teamwork and leadership.
I found the air cadets to be amazing for all the experiences offered – during adventure camps, we had many opportunities to work on our problem solving and decision making.
My 12 years in the oil and gas industry as an engineer before flying definitely developed many non-flying competencies.
What you’ll do as an airline pilot
My day normally starts around 3 hours before departure. Before I get ready to go to work, I’ll log into my iPad (electronic flight bag) and download the flight plans and weather for the day.
I’ll also look at the aircraft information, where it came from, build a picture and anticipate the type of day ahead.
I then get ready and head to the airport. After getting through security, I head to the aircraft and meet the crew. I am a first officer so meeting the Captain we will discuss the day and decide who will be flying in which sector.
Although the captain is in charge, we take it in turns to be pilot flying and pilot monitoring.
With me starting as ‘pilot flying’, I’ll set up the flight deck and load the flight management computers whilst the captain is outside carrying out the walk around.
We then combine to brief the departure and negotiate our departure clearance with air traffic control.
With the passengers on board and the paperwork finalised, we complete our take-off performance calculations and complete our checklist.
We are on our way. Once in the cruise, we monitor the various aircraft systems keeping up with the various checks we have to do along the way. It is then time to set up, prepare and brief for our descent and landing.
Once on the ground, we swap roles for the next sector!
Safety is the primary focus of everyone involved in the operation. To maintain the highest levels of safety, everyone is treated equally and very much encouraged to advocate their position if they see anything out of place.
The environment is collaborative, friendly, but professional. I thoroughly enjoy flying and the responsibility of getting our passengers from A to B safely, comfortable and on time.
Career path and progression
Junior First Officer/ First Officer
Your first role in an airline will be in the role of the junior first officer before progressing into the first officer role. After completing your type rating, you will start your transition into airline operations under the watchful eye of a specially qualified training captain.
After a number of sectors and when you reach the required standard, you will be released onto the ‘line’ and be able to fly with a regular captain.
You would normally stay in the junior first officer/ first officer role for around 2-3 years or once you have around 1,500 hours of flying under your belt.
Senior First Officer
Once you have 1,500 hours, the next stage is building your experience to hopefully one day become a captain. You will still be doing the same job as a first officer but you will now be learning from the captains your fly with to prepare you for command.
When you are ready and have reached the required experience level, your given airline will invite you to complete your command upgrade course. For short-haul, this can be as soon as 4 years from when you start but in a long haul airline (that is seniority-based) it can be 10-15 years before you have an opportunity to become a captain.
The captain is the commander of the aircraft and as such has overall responsibility for the flight.
Line Training Captain
A line training captain carries out checks on aircrews to make sure standards and procedures are maintained along with training new hires in the day to day operations and procedures of the airline. A line training captain is considered a senior captain role.
Type Rating Instructor
A type rating instructor is qualified to teach pilots in the simulator. This can be both for initial training when first joining the airline or recurrent training. Pilots are assessed every 6 months in the simulator. To become a type rating instructor, you will normally need around 1,500 hours of experience.
Type Rating Examiner
The type rating examiner role is one of the most senior pilot roles in the airline. The type rating examiner can assess pilots during licence proficiency checks and be authorised by the relevant aviation authority.
Current opportunities as a career pilot
Whilst airline jobs may be few and far between particularly for low hour pilots, As a career pilot, some of the opportunities available include:
- Flight Instructor
- Airline Pilot
- Cargo Pilot
- Military Pilot
- Survey Pilot
- Ferry Pilot
Although COVID 19 has decimated the airline industry, it is more important than ever that those entering the industry keep an open mind for potential opportunities.
How much do Pilots earn a year?
A pilots salary will depend on their experience and the type of flying that they do. New airline pilots can expect to earn from around £17,000 to £40,000.
The most senior pilots (typically captains) on large jet aircraft can expect to earn anywhere from £120,000 – £250,000. COVID 19 has meant many pilots have unfortunately lost their jobs and those remaining in employment have had to take pay cuts (around 20-50%) through furlough and part-time working.
How much do pilots earn UK per month?
Pilots can earn from around £1000 per month (newly qualified) to around £7,000-£8,000 after tax for (most senior pilots in an airline who have training and other management responsibilities).
Is pilot a good career?
Being a pilot is an amazing career – the training is tough and expensive (costing between £60k- £100k). Once you have completed your training and hopefully land that first job, then the satisfaction of doing what you love (which for most pilots is flying) is incredible. Being a pilot has many challenges that require skills like:
- Problem solving
- Time management
- Working to procedures
- Working under pressure
The flight deck views are amazing; you get to travel and meet people from many different cultures and backgrounds. The best part is definitely getting to fly the latest, best and safest aircraft out there.
Do pilots fly for free?
Pilot travel benefits vary and depend on the company involved. Most airlines will offer discounted travel of some sort to their staff, some of which may be free, but this is not always the case.
Do pilots work everyday?
The pilot works pattern varies by company and the type of flying involved. Pilots will work some days, but not every day, as certain legal rest limits need to be observed. In Europe, for example, EASA state that a crew member shall not exceed 100 hours of flight time in any 28 consecutive days. Other flight time limitations apply, and all of these must be observed.
If you have any questions about a potential career as a pilot, please leave me a comment in the section below. I would love to hear from you!
Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 captain with over 3,000 hours of flying in Europe. He holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, is a chartered engineer, and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self-funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.