How to become a pilot in 9 steps

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Step #1: Figure out of you REALLY want to become a pilot

I love nothing better than taking off in the Boeing 737 I fly for work on a dull grey, rainy morning in Manchester knowing that in a few minutes, we’ll be passing 10,000 feet and with that leaving the gloom and dreary clouds below us and into the basking sunshine as we head to warmer destinations.

Being a pilot is an incredible job, but I’ll be frank with you, it is also one of the toughest (in terms of upfront cost, competition for first jobs etc.) and very fragile for job security. COVID19 has left many pilots out of work – if thinking of joining the profession, you need to think very carefully about whether professional pilot training is really for you.

What do pilots actually do?

To try and help you decide if pilot training is for you, I wanted to share what I actually do on a day to day basis at work. My work pattern is based on doing 5 days off ‘earlies’ followed by 4 days off. I then have 5 days of ‘lates’ followed by 4 days off.

Different airlines have different roster patterns. A typically early would have my alarm go off at about 4am.

My routine is to get myself ready and then before leaving the house; I check the weather, download the days’ flight plans, and see what the passenger loads are like and give myself a good idea of how the day will progress.

It is then off to the airport where I meet the crew. We start with a briefing where the Captain and I and discuss the day. We then meet the other crew members, and then it is straight into the process of setting up and getting the aircraft ready for our flight.

We take it in turns to be Pilot Flying and Pilot monitoring.

At this stage, the passengers are at the gate getting ready to board. Once everyone is on board, we complete our checks and paperwork, and off we go! The actual flying consists of periods of high activity for the departure and arrival, and in the cruise, we are monitoring the various systems on the aircraft.

Get a trial flying experience

Before you start spending serious money on flight training, get a 30min or 1hr trial flight to see if you enjoy flying and have the aptitude for it. Call up your local airfield: and typically, the smaller the airfield and flight school, the cheaper it is.

A trial flight will normally cost in the region of £200-400. The ‘gift experiences/ adventure days from big brands that also sell you racing track days – may be more expensive.

How to become a pilot for free?

When organising your trial flight, you want to investigate if you are eligible for any flying bursaries or flying scholarships. I was lucky enough to win a Private Pilot Licence (PPL) scholarship with the Honorable Company of Air Pilots and this definitely saved me money during my training to become an airline pilot.

The Air Cadet organization helped me tremendously when I was at a school too with gliding scholarships and flying scholarships. Don’t forget to take a look at the Air League too!


Step #2: What Qualifications are required to become a pilot?

To become a pilot, it is generally advised that you complete high school with a minimum pass of GCSE Maths and Physics. From my experience, I would say it is advisable to have further education and develop additional skills that are not related to flying as a backup plan.

There is a good chance that even after pilot training, it will take you some time to secure a job and you need to have some way of earning a living.

Having a qualification outside of flying will also give you a good backup plan should you find that unfortunately, at some stage during your flying career, you are made redundant.

Do I need a degree to become a pilot?

You do not need a degree to become a pilot. I would advise though developing some skill and qualification separate from flying as a backup plan. I studied aerospace engineering and worked as a chartered engineer in the oil and gas industry for 12 years before becoming a pilot.

Common skills and core competencies to become a professional pilot

Communication

You will enhance your communication as part of your pilot training, but you can certainly work on this aspect beforehand through extracurricular activities or employment.

Aircraft Flight Path Management – Manual control & Automation

This will be taught as part of your training.

Leadership and Teamwork

It is important to start honing your leadership and teamwork as early as possible at school and beyond.

Problem Solving and Decision Making

Pilots have to solve problems regularly and for that, need to have a solid framework for their decision making.

Application of Procedures

To be safe as an airline pilot, you will have to follow your airlines’ procedures carefully. Discipline is key.

Workload Management

The fast-paced and at times high workload situations mean you need to be able to organise and prioritise your tasks.

Situational Awareness

You will be developing your command skills from day one. It is vital to be able to remain aware of what is going on around you.

As you can see, many common skills need to be developed, most of which can occur outside of the flight deck. You do not need to wait until you start your pilot training to develop these skills.

Age, visa entry requirements and assessment

You need to be 18 to hold a commercial pilot licence (CPL) and 21 to hold an Air Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). The ATPL is the highest level of licence you can hold and is normally achieved after flying professionally for a number of years.

You need to make sure you meet the immigration requirements of where you plan to complete your pilot training.

Some flying schools may have an assessment before allowing you on their course. This typically consists of some aptitude testing, a competency-based interview and a group exercise.

The idea is to check your suitability before starting the pilot training course. I’m still on the fence with regards to the validity of this testing. I failed an assessment to get into a flight school, but progressed my flight training on a part-time basis myself around my engineering job and did not have any problems during pilot training and managed to have several job offers after training. Just be careful with how much you pay for ‘aptitude testing’.


Step #3: EASA Class 1 medical certificate

If you want to fly professionally, you need an EASA class 1 medical. If you want to fly recreationally, a Class 2 will suffice. Other pilot licenses allow you to fly with less, but I won’t be covering those in this blog as they are limited to recreational flying.

Visit your local Civil Aviation Authority to find a suitable Aero Medical Examiner (a doctor allowed to certify your fitness to fly) for where and how to complete your medical.


Step #4: Decide on your pilot training route

There are 3 main routes to pilot training: Integrated Flight Training, Multi Pilot Licence and Modular Pilot Training.

Integrated Flight Training

Integrated flight training is when your training is completed from start to finish with one organisation on a full-time basis. Integrated courses do tend to be more expensive, but if you shop around and look in continental Europe, you can get excellent value integrated courses with a great standard of training.

When choosing your flying school you want to pay particular attention to how and where recent students have found employment. Most expensive does not always equate to the best.

Integrated Flight Training Cost

Integrated courses cost anywhere from around £60k to £100k plus. When I was applying for an integrated course, the integrated flight training was typically financed by a secured loan against a property.

As I suggested in my Pilot Training Loan post, you want to be very careful when borrowing significant amounts for pilot training.

COVID19 has put many pilots out of work and for those fortunate enough to still be in employment are on part-time contracts and have taken pay cuts. My earnings as an example have been reduced by 40-50%.

The issues with a significant amount of borrowing to pay for your pilot training is if you are lucky enough to get a job at the end, there is a good chance you will initially be on a seasonal part-time contract, i.e. working summers and being off during the winter.

You really don’t want the stress of keeping up with pilot loan repayments when out of work.

A secured product would mean that if you do not keep up with loan repayments, then the property you used to secure the loan against could be repossessed. You do not want your parents to be homeless at retirement!

An integrated course lasts around 18-24 months. Integrated courses had the reputation of being the ‘guaranteed way’ to the flight deck but times have changed. I did modular pilot training and was not discriminated against in any of my airline assessments for taking that route.

Multi Pilot Licence (MPL)

MPL is a subset of an Integrated course. The MPL licence is based on the philosophy of conducting your pilot training specifically for the airline environment.

You are introduced into the airlines multi-pilot environment via a simulator early on in your training and trained specifically to operate that type of aircraft.

The MPL licence is attractive because the training is tailored specifically to an airline and students on an MPL program have conditional job offers. The downside of the MPL licence lies in the fact that your job offer is only conditional and to complete the training you need the sponsoring airline to be around.

Airlines have gone bust and left students in the lurch. The students have been unable to easily transfer their training to the traditional route. Equally, during COVID19, many airlines have let pilots go and many cadets on the MPL program had their offers of employment cancelled.

I do not wish to be overly negative on MPL as a training path, but it does have some very serious risks to the student with the course fee being around £110-£120k.

Modular Pilot Training

This is the route that I took. My flight training all in cost around £60k. I could have completed it for cheaper but there were certain areas I did not want to compromise on.

The modular pilot training path is where you complete your pilot training one stage at a time suiting your timetable and budget.

The benefit of modular pilot training for me was that I could continue working in my engineering job and progress my pilot training at a pace that suited me. I completed my modular pilot training in 12 months, which was in less time than integrated course providers were advertising. That was quite an intense experience but it is possible!

Is modular flight training for everyone?

Modular pilot training has got its issues too and is far from perfect. Unlike integrated courses, there is no total ownership of your flight training as you would on an integrated course. Modular pilot training can be isolating too as the nature of the do it your self-nature means you can often find yourself progressing on your own for large periods.

The ultimate decision on which path you choose will lie with your personal situation and how you like to learn. Figure out what would work best for you your specific circumstances or needs.


Step #5: Finding a flight school for pilot training

Your CAA will have approved schools for pilot training. Check with them. You then need to consider variables like location, cost, travel, and how much extra your training would cost if you lived away from home.

What drove my selection of flight school for all stages of my training was finding locations that were close to my home and work.

You may find that doing your pilot training abroad my work out the cheaper and it may make sense to take a sabbatical from work. Figure out what works best for your specific situation and circumstance.

A great place to get flying school advice and feedback is to join the various pilot training Facebook groups.

Before committing to a particular school, get feedback from current and previous students. Once you commit to pilot training and find the chosen school has issues, e.g. not enough instructors, not enough aircraft etc., it becomes complicated and expensive to reverse your decision.

Sponsored pilot training – airline funded pilot training

Unfortunately, there are no current sponsored airline pilot training schemes (in the UK). Please feel free to leave a comment in the section at the bottom of this post if I have missed any opportunity. I do not believe that there are currently any pilot apprenticeships available either.

University course with pilot training schemes

University courses with pilot training schemes offer a number of options. These include:

  • Gaining your university degree and a private pilot licence
  • Gaining your university degree, private pilot licence and ATPL theory
  • Gaining your university degree and a full frozen ATPL

Ensure you understand what outcome each university degree would give you in terms of progressing your pilot training. Have a look at the UCAS course selector to choose your course

Integrated pilot training with university

The option that I could find which is currently accepting applications is the Aviation Operations with Commercial Pilot Training BSc (Hons) degree from Kingston University.

This degree program has you based at Bournemouth Commercial Flight Training (BCFT) in your second year to get your EASA Multi Engine Instrument Rating and Commercial Pilot Licence – frozen ATPL. The course cost is an additional £70,000 on top of your normal university tuition fees.

Modular pilot training with university

Some University degree courses allow you to gain a PPL during university and following that you would then progress along the modular path. I guess you could technically progress your pilot training during university.

I am not sure how realistic this would be cost and time-wise given the intensity of the ATPL theory and university demands on your time. Please leave a comment in the section at the bottom of the blog if you are familiar with this route or know someone that has been successful.

Military flying

The military route of becoming a pilot is often overlooked. The Army, RAF and Royal Navy can be excellent career options and most importantly you get paid to learn to fly!

Being in the cadets at school can give you a head start in getting into the services and would encourage you to look into this path if of interest.


Step #6: kick-off your training with your Private Pilot Licence (PPL)

The PPL consists of a minimum of 45hrs flight training, of which 25hrs minimum are dual, and 10hrs supervised solo is required. This culminates in you completing your qualifying cross country (150NM round trip with landings at two different airfields other than the one you set of from – a great milestone).

Completing your PPL allows you to fly recreationally in good weather. I did my PPL with Ravenair. Please check out my PPL flight equipment complete guide to see what gear you need for your PPL.


Step #7: Hour Building & ATPL theory

Get your hour building done, and most people normally progress their ATPL exams simultaneously (if modular pilot route). I did my ATPL Theory via distance learning.

Integrated frozen airline transport licence course students may find you complete your ATPL exams first, before commencing flying. Either way, it is important to hour build effectively to ensure you do not struggle when you get to the next stage of your training (your CPL course & CPL skills test).

I did my Hour Building with ANT & my ATPL theory with CATS aviation. Check out my blog post on how to get through your EASA ATPL Theory. You will have to pass the 14 EASA ATPL theory exams. The theoretical exams consist of:

  • Air Law
  • Operation Procedures
  • Human Performance and Limitations
  • Meteorology
  • VFR Communications
  • IFR Communications
  • Principles of Flight
  • General Navigation
  • Mass and Balance
  • Performance
  • Flight Planning and Monitoring
  • Radio Navigation
  • Aircraft General Knowledge – Airframes/ Systems/ Power Plant/ Electrics
  • Aircraft General Knowledge – Instrumentation

Are you hour building? Click here for the FREE Structured Hour Building Web App to help you get the most out of hour building and prepare for your CPL course!


Step #8: Multi Engine Instrument Rating (MEIR) and Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL)

The Mulit Engine Instrument Rating was definitely the most challenging part of pilot training for me. This is where you are taught how to fly in poor weather. The commercial pilot licence is the qualification that allows you to earn money from flying.

When you finally achieve your MEIR + CPL, that forms the basis of having a frozen airline transport pilot licence – a very happy and proud moment after all the hard work. I did my CPL with Westair.


Step #9: Multi Crew Course (MCC) & Advanced Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT)

Although the final part of your training, the MCC is probably the most important part of your flight training as that directly shapes your chances at airline assessment and getting a job. So far, during your pilot training, you would have been operating in a single-pilot capacity.

That is you are the sole pilot operating the aircraft.

The MCC course is where you get introduced to working in a multi crew environment (i.e. two crew required to operate the aircraft as you would in an airline flying larger more complex planes).

There is a debate about which type of MCC course is best, and I am a big advocate of the APS MCC. I did an enhanced MCC (APS MCC) with VA Airline Training.

If you wish to learn more about how to progress your pilot training journey, check out my best-selling Pilot Training Guide on Amazon.

Listen to the Pilot Training Guide FREE with Audible here

See it on Amazon


Pilot Jobs and Career

Pilot Salary

Pilot salaries have taken an absolute battering as a result of COVID19. Most of the ones lucky to remain in employment have had to take significant pay cuts.

Newly qualified pilots may expect salaries paid proportionally to the amount of time worked during the year as most rookies will be on self-employed earn as you fly seasonal contracts.

Flying instructor: £20-25/hr. Expect only to be paid when you fly on a self-employed basis

Turbo Prop: £15,000 – £30,000

Short Haul B737 /A320 – £25,000 – £40,000

Long Haul (typically after 5 years experience) – £45,000 – £55,000

The lower wages in the current environment emphasise how important it is not to borrow excessively to fund pilot training. Realistically, the wages won’t support more than normal living expenses at the start, especially as you’ll most likely not be flying in the winter.

What does the career progression of a pilot look like?

Second officer/ Junior first officer

This will be your first rank after employment. Depending on airlines, you normally fly with a specially trained line training captain until released. For a certain period, you will have restrictions on what you are allowed to do based on the weather conditions and airfields.

First Officer

This would normally be achieved after roughly 1 year of flying. You would have around 1000 hours of flying and be operating comfortably ‘on the line’.

Senior First Officer

The senior first officer rank typically marks the stage when you have reached 1500 hours, have unfrozen your ATPL and are now building your experience in preparation for command (captain) opportunities in the coming years.

Captain

After a minimum of around 3500hours (short haul) and subject to command positions being available, you would complete your upgrade course to allow you to become a captain. This typically takes 4-7years in the short-haul environment. This is dependant on specific airlines and vacancies being available.

Line Training Captain

Experience captains are normally invited to become line training captains and train future pilots on the aircraft. This is probably the most challenging job in any front line pilot roles.

Type Rating Instructor & Examiner

A type rating instructor is someone who instructs in the simulator environment. You normally need 1500hours to be able to become a synthetic flight instructor. The examiner rank is the most senior operational flying pilot role outside of airline management. Examiners are responsible for standards, passing or failing students during a licence skill test.


How to become a pilot frequently asked questions

How long does it take to become a pilot?

It takes around 18-24 months to become a commercial airline pilot, but it can be completed sooner.

How much does it cost to become a pilot

Commercial pilot training costs between £60,000 – £100,000 in the UK. The below is an approximate breakdown of what modular pilot training route costs could look like:

  1. Medical – £750
  2. PPL – £1,000
  3. Hour Building & Night Rating – £15,000
  4. ATPL Theory course cost – £6,000 (includes exams and accommodation)
  5. Commercial Pilot Licence – £10,000 (there is no need to complete your CPL course on a twin aircraft such as a DA-42. The CPL can be completed on a complex single-engine aircraft e.g. Piper Arrow (which is much lower cost to run)
  6. Multi-Engine Instrument Rating – £20,000
  7. APS Multi-Crew Course – £10,000 

There are certain extras like a Bose A20 noise-cancelling headset (Check out my PPL Flight Training Equipment Guide) and an electronic flight bag that you may consider getting.

I bought a Bose A20 headset once I started my commercial training for £1,000, but that is not a necessary expense. During my Instrument rating, I also purchased an iPad to have my plates and navigation charts in electronic form on ForeFlight. 


Conclusion: Should I become a pilot?

Being a pilot is amazing but has its friction points, particularly in the current environment, with reducing salaries and very little job security. The decision ultimately depends on how much you want to become a pilot. You have to REALLY want to be a pilot.

Gone are the glamorous days of pilots sitting on the beach in exotic locations! I would never change my decision to become a pilot though especially when I experience views like this at work!

Want to become a pilot? Check out my best selling Pilot Training Guide on Amazon for all the best information to save you money and time during pilot training.

Listen to the Pilot Training Guide FREE with Audible here

See it on Amazon

If you have any questions about how to become a pilot or if I have missed anything, please leave me a comment in the section below. I would love to hear from you!

B737-800 sunset

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