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Why did I choose zero to ATPL via the modular route?
There I was, middle of 2016, with a letter in my hand telling me my job was at risk of redundancy, and in six weeks I could be out of work! How am I going to pay for my house? How will I be able to afford my car? Should I cancel my gym membership in preparation??
It does not seem that long ago turning up for work in my old job as a chartered engineer in the oil and gas industry to find that the workforce was being called to a town hall meeting to let us know that due to the oil price collapse jobs would be cut.
You never think it will happen to you until you are the one going through the consultation process – meetings room with random HR people in suits you have never met in your 10+ years in the company.
The coldness of it all: blinds drawn in meeting rooms, tissue on the desk in case colleagues start crying etc. The distant, formal communication via letter with people you have worked with for years. I would never wish going through that experience on anybody.
I was lucky though and kept my job, but I certainly got the wake-up call that I needed not to sleepwalk through life and figure out what I really wanted to do. Fast forward to 2020, I have just completed my ATPL skills test, and the paperwork is in the post for my ATPL Licence issue.
If you read on, I’ll share how I went from literally Zero to ATPL to share some of the mistakes! and lessons I learnt along the way to hopefully make your pilot training journey to ATPL easier.
Zero to ATPL UK (modular) or integrated ATPL course
Whilst trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, I knew I wanted to fly, but at the time, the avenues towards becoming an airline pilot were super expensive (training wise), and there was no guarantee of a job. Whilst browsing online, I came across an advert for an airline in the UK, recruiting for their integrated MPL course.
The opportunity was that the airline would provide a conditional job offer and subject to completing the training, I would become a first officer on the A320.
The price? Any eye-watering £120k! There was no way I could afford this, but I had heard that the company would guarantee a loan for suitable candidates. I thought fair enough – let’s give it a go!
I went through the application process, but unfortunately, I was not successful. The reason given by the recruitment team was that I had not shown enough captaincy. In hindsight, I agree, I allowed one of the louder members to dominate the group exercise we did at the assessment. Learn from it, move on!
Lesson 1: Sometimes, being told ‘No’ is an **excellent** thing. Don’t give up, though!
I would not understand the true magnitude of how much of a blessing being excluded from the Integrated MPL ATPL course would be until March 2020 – COVID! Not only for my happiness and well being but had I been on that integrated ATPL Course, the £120k debt would have been devastating.
I don’t want to use this blog post to bash MPL or integrated courses – Some integrated courses are excellent value for money and provide a high standard of training as a zero to ATPL route.
It has been documented enough how various airlines either through their collapse or due to the COVID crisis retracted MPL conditional job offers leaving their cadets saddled with massive pilot training loans, no prospects of a flying career and awkward questions for those still in training about how to gain a frozen ATPL licence.
Some were quoted £60k on top of the original £120k to complete their training.
Why Zero to ATPL via the modular route?
After the disappointment at the time of being rejected for the MPL, I was sat at home researching trying to figure out if there was a different path I could take to the flight deck.
Lesson 2: Start flying as early as you can and make use of free-flying/ scholarships
Through the air cadets at school, the university gliding club and towards the end of university, being fortunate to be awarded a PPL scholarship (Honourable Company of Air Pilots) – I had already accumulated some 86 hours in my logbook.
Check out my post on how to become a pilot with no money if you missed it! This experience would not have been given any time or cost credit when I was looking at the Integrated ATPL course in the UK. 86hours though as an inexperienced newbie is enormous.
I realised that I was probably already about 40% of the way towards a frozen ATPL licence based on the UK CAA requirements of 200hours total time for your CPL skills test.
What did my ATPL cost?
Even better, I figured out that I could have completed my training at a fraction of the course the integrated ATPL course in the UK would cost.
At the time, over the ten years working, I had saved up around £20k, and although I now realise that was a hopeless underestimate, I thought circa £30k should allow me to dust off my PPL, complete my hour building, move on to CPL MEIR and an MCC course.
In the end, my modular ATPL cost around £60k. The total figure to get into the flight deck of a B737 was £70K all in including type rating costs. I could have done it cheaper, e.g. hour building in a Cessna 150 instead of a PA28, or not buying a Bose A20 headset, enhanced APS MCC etc. The APS MCC was vital in helping secure a job.
Although flight training is still costly, the modular ATPL route was much more convenient for me as it meant I could continue working whilst undertaking flight training (evenings and weekend).
With the time modular pilot training takes, the ability to continue earning whilst training makes a huge difference.
Let’s take an example of student A who has a £45k job outside of aviation and continues to do their training modular and part-time (£60k cost of training). Compare that to student B, who does a fully integrated ATPL course (£90k plus £10k living expenses) over two years.
- Student A: Income £90k with tax deductions over two years minus £60k training cost
- Student B: Earns zero over two years minus £100k training cost.
Who is in a better position after training? Student A already in employment or student B with £100k training debt and now under severe pressure to find a job FAST?! As I mentioned in the Pilot Training guide, even after training, each job application costs around £1000. Check out the pilot training guide to see why and how.
I completed my ATPL exams in 8 months through distance learning. If the COVID 19 crisis has taught me anything, it reinforced the need to have a backup plan.
I have learnt first hand how fragile the aviation industry is. Whilst I have been fortunate to hang on to my airline job, we’ve all had to take significant pay cuts. With most pilots now on part-time contracts and furlough, I’d estimate my income has probably reduced by 30-40% at least.
Lesson 3: Aviation is a lot more comfortable if you come into the industry with other skills / non-aviation qualifications that you can fall back on.
Whilst I have found this COVID 19 period extraordinarily challenging, I struggle to compute what I would be like if all you know is flying, and have unfortunately lost your job. It is so important to have a backup plan in aviation.
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What are the zero to ATPL prerequisites?
- EASA Class 1 medical
- GCSE Maths and Physics
- You need to be 18 years or more to hold a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) & 21 years to hold an ATPL
As a result of COVID 19 and that causing many pilots to lose their jobs, I would recommend that anyone thinking about a career in aviation have a good back up plan.
This ideally will include having a skill or qualification outside of aviation as it may take some time to find a pilot job after training. Even if you do find a pilot job, there is a good chance that low hour pilots would initially have to work on self-employed seasonal contracts.
How does a modular zero to ATPL work?
Via the modular route, my sequence of training went as follows:
Step 1: Medical
You will need to pass an EASA Class 1 medical. Check with your local civil aviation authority for the closest aeromedical centre.
Step 2: Private Pilot Licence
The private pilot licence requirements consists of completing:
- 45 hours dual flight instruction
- 10 hours of supervised solo time including at least 5 hours of cross country
- 1 cross country flight of at least 150NM (270km) with landings at two different aerodromes (different to that of departure)
You will also need to complete your PPL theoretical knowledge examinations:
- Air law
- Human performance
- Principles of flight
- Operational procedures
- Flight performance and planning
- Aircraft general knowledge
Step 3:Hour Building
Hour building is the most incredible time for any pilot. The freedom that hour building will provide is unlike any other experience. You arrive at the airfield and fly halfway across the country for lunch!
During modular hour building, you will need to complete:
- 100 hours pilot in command
- 50 hours cross country (for your multi-engine instrument rating)
- 20 hours cross country (for CPL)
- VFR cross country flight of at least 540km (300 NM) for which landing at two aerodromes (different from aerodrome of departure) must be made
Step 4: Night rating
The night rating has to be completed at some stage before your commercial pilot licence course. The night rating consists of:
- theoretical knowledge instruction (no exam though!)
- 5 hours instruction at night of which, 3 hours are dual instruction and 1 hour of cross country (at least 50km/ 27NM)
- You also have to complete five solo full-stop landings.
I completed my night rating during my hour building.
Step 5: ATPL exams / ATPL theory
- Air Law
- Operation Procedures
- Human Performance and Limitations
- VFR Communications
- IFR Communications
- Principles of Flight
- General Navigation
- Mass and Balance
- Flight Planning and Monitoring
- Radio Navigation
- Aircraft General Knowledge – Airframes/ Systems/ Power Plant/ Electrics
- Aircraft General Knowledge – Instrumentation
Step 6: Instrument Rating (restricted)
Doing my Instrument Rating (Restricted) during my hour building was not the standard route most would take and is optional. The reason I completed my IR(R) was that I had booked some time off work for hour building, but the weather was not suitable. Rather than waste time, I chose to do the IMC rating.
The course itself was a 15hour course with a theoretical knowledge exam. The benefit of the IMC rating was that I would then be safe and legal to fly in IMC/ IFR conditions. In the UK, you are not allowed to fly in Class A airspace with an IMC rating.
If you are planning on using the IMC rating as a stepping stone towards the competency-based instrument rating to achieve a MEIR then make sure your IMC rating is taught by an IRI and you complete a Basic Instrument Flight Module.
Step 7: Competency-based Instrument Rating / Multi Engine Instrument Rating
I did not complete the standard 55-hour Multi-Engine Instrument rating because I already had an IMC rating. Instead, I was eligible to complete the competency-based instrument rating.
If you already have instrument flight time as PIC (which I did as a result of my IMC rating), then the requirements for the CBIR are:
- Theoretical knowledge exams fro CBIR or IR(A) or EIR or ATPL(A)
- You can claim up to 35hours towards the 45hours course from previous IFR and IMC experience
- Dual instrument instruction must be at least 25 hours with 15 hours completed in a multi-engine aircraft
If proceeding down the CBIR route, check the requirements with your CAA before starting. The above is shared for information purposes to illustrate the route that I took and may differ for your specific circumstances.
Step 8: Commercial Pilot Licence Course
Depending on how your total hours are looking, it is up to you whether you complete your commercial pilot licence (CPL) first or you complete the Multi Engine Instrument Rating first.
The CPL course pre requisites are:
- 150 hours total time
- 100hrs PIC
- CPL qualifying cross country
- Theoretical exams (Either CPL or ATPL)
The CPL course itself is either 15 hours (if you already have a Basic Instrument Flight Modular) or 25 hours if you do not.
Step 9: Multi Crew Course (APS MCC)
I completed the 40 hour enhanced Airline Pilot Standard Multi Crew Course. The MCC course forms the bridge between single pilot flying (your flying so far) to the multi-crew airline environment. Your MCC course is probably the most important aspect of your training as that directly shapes your chances of getting an airline job (if that is what you want).
During your MCC course, you will have 4 days of theoretical knowledge instruction followed by 40 hours the simulator. This is typically in a B737 or A320 platform.
The great thing about modular zero to ATPL was that you could carry out your training at a pace and time that suited you. A word of caution though, modular pilot training for ATPL is not for everyone! So think carefully and decide if you can motivate yourself and manage your own training. It took me exactly 12 months to complete my journey – but that was intense! If I was not studying, or at work, or flying, or eating or asleep, something was wrong!!
You don’t have to do it at that tempo – do what works best for you!
Where did I do my training from Zero to ATPL?
I did all my training from 0 to ATPL in the UK.
- Initial EASA Class 1 Medical – Centerline Aviation Medical Services
- PPL – Ravenair
- Hour Building, Night Rating & IMC rating – ANT Flight Training
- ATPL exams – CATS Aviation
- Competency-Based Instrument Rating – PTT Leeds (unfortunately now closed)
- Commercial Pilot Licence – Westair
- APS MCC – VA Airline Training
What were my most significant difficulties from 0 to ATPL in the UK?
There were LOADS, and I probably wouldn’t be able to cover them all in this blog post. Check out my Complete Pilot Training Guide – How to Become a Pilot in Europe. There are 80 pages of my pilot training mistakes/ lessons/ tips in that book!
Here are a few of my difficulties during pilot training :
- The constant worry of running out of money – flight training is super expensive, so try and plan as the payments can be quite lumpy. I had a spreadsheet charting out the cash outlay necessary each month. I would recommend you do the same. You can then see where issues will arise and make a plan i.e. delay training, agree split payments with your school etc.
- I completed my ATPL exams in 8 months around my full-time job and hour building. There were a LOT of 4:00 am alarms to study before work. The weekend didn’t bring much respite as I was usually out of the house at 6 am to drive to Blackpool to get the most out of each day when hour building. Once hour building was done, I would be progressing my CPL and Competency-Based Instrument Ratings at the weekends.
- You say goodbye to your relationships. I was super lucky in that my partner was self-sufficient, understood and entertained herself during those crazy 12 months. My family were amazing and very supportive. It was selfish of me on the one hand, but none of those close to me demanded any time from me as they knew I didn’t have any!
- You just don’t have time for anything else – forget going out in town on a Friday night – my attitude was ‘get my head down and smash through’ to minimise the amount of time ‘suffering’. I enjoyed my flight training though.
- In terms of flight training, the part that I most struggled with was my IR. Everybody will go through a rough patch at some point during their pilot training, and when you hit your wall, take a deep breath, pause, re-energise and keep trying again. You will eventually succeed if you keep going.
Lesson 4: Don’t give up
Reflections on zero to ATPL journey so far:
The aviation industry is still in a challenging place right now, but I hope with the COVID vaccine, in 6months time things will be very different. We may not get straight back to 2019 levels of activity for some years, but things should start to get better.
The BALPA commentary on pilot training caused a lot of passionate reaction. Whatever your thoughts are, become a pilot, don’t become a pilot etc – there are some early signs of airlines considering resuming recruitment for summer 2021 and summer 2022.
Salaries will be lower, type rating fees passed onto cadets may be higher, but the positive is there are some signs of moving on from COVID.
The airline and aviation industry change so fast, and it is impossible to say what will happen in future. I guess if you are thinking about undertaking the zero to ATPL journey, my advice is if you want to fly, go and fly. Just do it in a responsible way that suits your circumstances and doesn’t leave you financially bankrupt. Have a backup plan and be prepared that you may not get a job straight away.
My attitude during training was: just take one step at a time and see what happened next. If I got a job great, if I didn’t, I was sure I would thoroughly enjoy pilot training (and I did, mostly!). I was confident I could continue to be involved in aviation in some capacity if airline flying didn’t work out – and there are many other avenues to professional flying: flying instructor, part-time survey work, gliding club towing etc.
The compromise I would have to take is maybe I would need to remain in engineering for a bit longer – which was fine. I was fortunate though and finished at a time when the industry was booming and landed a job 4 weeks after my APS MCC course in Oct 2018. For reference, I started my PPL in 2008 and had to be patient for conditions to eventually allow me to move into professional flying.
Lesson 5: If you want it enough, you will get there, eventually.
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Do you have any questions about the modular pilot training route? Please leave 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.