Wondering how to become a commercial pilot? This post has everything you need to know. Commercial pilot training is expensive and may not necessarily guarantee landing a flying job at the end. In this post, we’ll share the honest truths about how to become a commercial pilot.
If you want to get started right away with your commercial pilot training, check out my best selling Pilot Training Guide on Amazon for how to become a commercial pilot.
How hard is it to become a commercial airline pilot?
To become a commercial airline pilot you need access to a lot of money, hard work and a bit of luck. Commercial pilot training is expensive and expect to pay anywhere from £60,000 to £120,000 depending on the type of training you have and where you complete your training.
Becoming a commercial pilot requires a lot of dedication and hard work to complete your ATPL exams and resilience to get through pilot training. Whist, it is a lot of effort, hard work and dedication to become a commercial airline pilot, it is not impossible if you put your mind to it.
Getting that first job requires a bit of luck to be in the right place at the right time particularly for inexperienced low hour pilots.
Steps to take before applying to start commercial pilot training
Flying an aircraft for a living has always been the dream job for thousands of school children in the UK. However, most of the time these dreams remain just that as the harsh realities of becoming a professional pilot set in.
Commercial airline pilots in the UK are required to undertake one of the most arduous, stressful, and expensive training programs in the country. Preparation starts long before an aspiring pilot gets anywhere near a flying training school.
A prospective candidate must have the necessary levels of mental agility along with the ability to absorb and retain information, which are pre-requisites for the demands of flying a complex aircraft.
How long does it cost to become a commercial pilot?
It takes around 12months (extremely fast) to 18 months (average) to become a commercial pilot. If progressing via the modular route, then it may take around 36 months depending on how fast you wish to progress your commercial pilot training.
Eduction prerequisite to become a commercial pilot
All aspiring commercial airline pilots must have 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C (levels 9-4) and have 2-3 A-Levels in at least English and Maths with science being an additional advantage.
You do not need a degree to become a pilot but it is important to have a backup plan in case flying does not work out. e.g. not being able to find a flying job, or you lose your medical or you get made redundant at some stage during your career.
Book a trial flight before commiting to a commercial pilot course
The next step is for you to take a trial flight in a light aircraft (if you haven’t done so already). This will give you an idea as to whether you have the self-confidence to get behind the controls of an aircraft and to be responsible for the safety of the passengers entrusted to you.
A trial flight will give you an idea of how an aircraft handles and will allow the instructor to assess your potential aptitude for flying.
Complete your CAA class 1 medical
In order to become a commercial airline pilot, it is also essential to have 20/20 eyesight or have prescription glasses and to be in good health.
This means an applicant will need to obtain a Class 1 medical certificate if he or she wants to aspire to a CPL (Commercial Pilot’s License) or ATPL (airline transport pilot license).
Once all the necessary initial preparation has been completed, it is then advised that you think carefully about the training route that you wish to take.
In the UK there are three main routes that an applicant can take when training to become a commercial pilot.
There is the modular pilot training route where all the training is broken into separate modules. Then there is the Integrated pilot training route where ground school and flight training are integrated into a single course that is done through a training organisation. Lastly, the applicant can also choose to apply for the newer Multi-Pilot License.
It is also essential to make sure you can properly finance your training course before you apply. The training required to obtain an ATPL can cost as much as between £60,000 – £120,000 and can take around two years to complete.
Financing pilot training
Such a substantial financial outlay inevitable means that the vast majority of applicants take out pilot training loans in order to finance their training course. Whilst sponsored commercial pilot training is all but non-existent self-funded applicants can complete programs where they are mentored by an airline.
Whilst no promise of a job is given, mentored students typically get preferential treatment in applying for the given airline once commercial pilot training is complete.
Commercial Pilot Airline Schemes
- Ryanair mentored program (open)
- British Airways Future Pilot Porgramme (closed)
- Virgin Atlantic Future Flyers Programme (closed)
- Generation Easyjet Pilot Training Programme (closed
Aside from getting a loan with how fragile the aviation industry is (COVID), stressed airline balance sheets, it is advisable not to rack up massive loans in the hope of getting a high paying pilot job as frankly, that won’t exist.
It may be worth having a career in another field that allows you to save up for pilot training (or at least save up a sizeable chunk) before commencing pilot training to reduce your reliance on pilot training loans.
Low hour commercial pilot employment will most likely be on zero-hour contracts, seasonal (work summer, off in the winter) and will barely cover your living expenses let alone allow for hefty loan repayments.
Integrated route to become a commercial pilot
The integrated route is essentially an ab initio course for those with limited or no flying experience. This training course, as the name suggests, brings together all the training on one course.
The course normally begins with a selection process in order to filter out those who don’t have what it takes to complete the arduous and lengthy training package. If a trainee makes it through the initial selection process, then the next step is to proceed to the ground phase.
This part of the training consists of classroom lectures and exercises in simulators. The ground phase lasts approximately 6 months, after which the trainees proceed to basic and advanced flight training.
During this phase of training, trainee pilots will build up flying hours in light aircraft until they are qualified to proceed on to a Multi-Crew Cooperation Course which is occasionally combined with a Jet Orientation Course. We recommend completing the Airline Pilot Standard Multi Crew Course (APS MCC)
At some point during training a trainee pilot will be awarded a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) which allows a pilot to fly aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of 5,700 kg. Trainee pilots will need to complete all of the training in order to earn a ‘frozen’ ATPL, which is the licence that allows pilots to fly commercial airliners.
Modular route to becoming a commercial pilot
Modular pilot training is the likely route for applicants who already have some experience in light aircraft and who want to or (more likely) who have to continue to work during their training.
They can take each of the training modules separately and can plan their training to fit around their work schedule.
This flexible training schedule means that the financial outlay can be reduced or at least spread out, but the drawback is that your pilot training may not be able to be completed under one roof and may take longer to qualify as a commercial airline pilot than the integrated course, due to work commitments interrupting training.
The great thing about modular pilot training is you dictate the pace yourself and you go as fast or as slow as you wish. I for example completed my modular pilot training in 12 months vs integrated students taking 18-24months around my full-time job.
Modular pilot training steps
1. Make sure all the prerequisites are met before starting the modular training course
- Have 5 GCSE’s including Maths and Physics
- Must be 18 years old to hold a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) & 21 years old to hold an ATPL.
- Recommended (but not required) to have a university level qualification or alternative skill you can fall back on to earn an income
2. Take a Trial flight
- A trial flight is a good idea in order to determine whether an applicant feels confident flying an aircraft and has the necessary aptitude before committing money to pilot training.
3. Get an EASA Class 1 Medical & create a budget
- An EASA Class 1 Medical is required if an applicant wants to fly professionally. If they only want to fly for recreation, then all they need is an EASA Class 2 Medical.
- It is important to have a realistic budget before commencing a modular course. A good idea is to create a spreadsheet with all the milestones that need to be achieved, along with a rough spending plan.
Once all of the prerequisites have been met then the training course can begin. The structure of a modular course varies with different training organisations, but a typical structure might look like the following:
4. Obtain a Private Pilot Licence (PPL)
This licence allows a pilot to fly aircraft recreationally. In order to obtain the licence, instruction needs to be completed in the air and on the ground.
Flying requirements for a PPL
- 45 hours flight instruction
- 25 hours dual
- 10 hours of supervised solo
- At least 5 hours of cross-country solo time
- 1 cross country flight of at least 270km (150NM) with landings at 2 different airports
The ground school phase consists of various theoretical knowledge exams which include the following topics. Feel free to click each of the links to see the books on Amazon. You will need to pass Air law first to be allowed to go solo.
- Air law (See it on Amazon)
- Human performance (See it on Amazon)
- Meteorology (See it on Amazon)
- Communications (See it on Amazon)
- Principles of flight (See it on Amazon)
- Operational procedures (See it on Amazon)
- Flight performance and planning (See it on Amazon)
- Aircraft general knowledge (See it on Amazon)
- Navigation (See it on Amazon)
5. Complete your hour building
In order to build up flight hours for the Modular Training Course, the following criteria need to be met:
- 100 hours pilot in command
- 50 hours cross country (for multi-engine instrument rating)
- 20 hours cross country (for CPL)
- VFR cross country flight of at least 540km
6. Complete a night rating course
The night rating course consists of the following:
- theoretical knowledge instruction
- 5 hours instruction at night.
- Complete five solo full-stop landings
You can complete your night rating anytime before starting your commercial pilot licence course. Ideally, the night rating is completed during the winter months to take advantage of the shorter days.
7. Complete the 13 ATPL theoretical exams
How many exams are there in ATPL?
There are 13 ATPL exams which consist of:
- General Navigation
- Human Performance and Limitations
- Radio Navigation
- Aircraft General Knowledge: Airframe and Systems, Electrics, Power Plant and Emergency Equipment
- Air Law
- Flight Planning and Flight Monitoring
- Operational Procedures
- Principles of Flight
- Mass and Balance
You can complete your ATPL theory exams either via distance learning or a full-time course. Figure out which works best for your situation. Distance learning may be better for those juggling a full-time job. Alternatively, some may prefer the full-time contact of the classroom environment.
8. Pass a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) Course
9. Complete a Multi Engine Instrument Rating (MEIR) course
- This is a 55-hour course
- This rating allows pilots to fly and safely navigate in low visibility conditions using only the aircraft’s instruments.
10. Complete a mandatory Multi Crew Cooperation course (ideally APS MCC)
Multi Pilot Licence (MPL) Commercial Pilot Route
The Multi Pilot Licence is the newest pilot training route on this list. The multi-pilot licence is tailored specific to airline operation and does not allow a multi-pilot licence holder to fly single pilot recreationally or professionally (without further training).
Whilst the multi-pilot licence is beneficial for those who want to go straight into the airline environment, this lience carries a lot of risks as a route to becoming a commercial pilot:
Risks associated with the MPL
- Very high training cost with licence issued at the very end. If for whatever reason training is interrupted and not completed you will be left with nothing vs modular or integrated route that allows you to get your licences endorsed as you go i.e. PPL > Night Rating > CPL & MEIR etc
- MPL route relies on a sponsoring airline as you are trained on their procedures from the start. If the airline decides that they no longer wish to sponsor/ mentour your training, you are left with thing and a difficult and expensive conversion process
- The conversion process from MPL route to traditional CPL, MEIR is not well defined prior to MPL licence issue. This can leave you with very high conversion costs if the MPL program collapese for whatever reason.
- MPL training is directly linked to an airline and a specific aircraft type which means a pilot will not be able to easily move from one airline to another.
The MPL training route differs from the other two due to the fact that the majority of flight training is conducted in a simulator of the aircraft type to be flown with the remainder carried out in light aircraft. The course is split into two different sections.
The first section includes 750 hours of theoretical knowledge training with examinations at the end.
In accordance with the Civil Aviation Authority directives the main theoretical knowledge areas include:
- 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
MPL training stages
Flying training makes up the second half of the course. In order to pass this section of the training, the trainee pilot must log at least 240 flying hours in simulators and light aircraft. The flying training is split up into four phases. These are, in ascending order:
Phase 1 – Core flying skills
- basic single-pilot training
Phase 2 – Basic Flying skills
- Introduction of multi-crew operations and flying with instruments
Phase 3 – Intermediate Flying skills
- Multi-crew operations in a multi-engine aeroplane
Phase 4 – Advanced Flying skills
How much does a commercial pilot make a year?
Don’t expect to become rich as a commercial pilot fast. As a result of the COVID pandemic, new commercial pilots if lucky to find a job are likely to be paid an allowance to cover living expenses when they first qualify.
New pilots can expect to earn between £12,000 – £20,000 for the first year or two once they qualify. Most new entrants will be on zero-hour seasonal contracts (work summer, off during the winter).
Salaries increase with experience and captains of medium size jets can expect to earn around £100,000 to £130,000 plus a year. A pilot with additional responsibilities such as training and management duties may earn more than this.
Commercial pilot pay normally consists of a basic pay element, flight pay, expenses (medical, airport parking etc) and holiday pay.
Is pilot study hard?
Commercial pilot study broken down into individual elements provided you are comfortable with GCSE maths and physics and have reasonable hand/ eye coordination is not too hard.
What makes commercial pilot study hard is the volume of material that needs to be covered, particularly ATPL theory. The financial barrier to commercial pilot study also adds to the stress of commercial pilot training.
To be eligible for a commercial pilot position, you ideally want first-time clean passes at all stages of your pilot study and pilot training. This pressure is what makes pilot study hard.
If you want to learn more about how to become a commercial pilot, check out my best selling Pilot Training Guide on Amazon for the best advice on how to save money and time during commercial pilot training.
Do you have any questions on how to become a commercial pilot? Please leave a comment in the section below. We 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.