Note: this article explains the modular route to become a professional pilot and for simplicity ab-initio training has been left out of the article. The article covers training in Europe only with focus on the British (CAA/JAA) system.
Piloting an aircraft is something many of us dream about - far less actually pursue the dream. What many do not realize is that flying is not an exclusive skill only achieved by the more gifted. With a bit of planning and determination this dream could come true for almost all of us - from any walk of life.
When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I'm a flight instructor, I often get a response signaling that I have done something special - that I belong to a group of people that have achieved something extraordinary. And that is true - I have achieved something extraordinary; I realized my dream. But I'm nothing special and I have not done anything that most other people cannot achieve as well.
If you are walking around with a dream of one day ruling the sky, I have a secret to tell you. You can do it. Becoming a pilot is not as hard as you may think.
In the United Kingdom alone Best Aviation has over 100 flight training organizations listed so it is reasonable to believe that if you live in the UK there is a school or a club close to you. The first step is to contact one of them to schedule a trial lesson. This is normally a ground introduction followed by a 30 minute flight. Depending on where you are, an introduction flight like this range from £50-100 and should leave you with most of your questions answered.
Once you have decided you want to be a pilot, your next step is to obtain a medical certificate. They come in two classes; class 1 for professional pilots and class 2 for recreational pilots. If you only intend to fly for fun or you are not sure yet if you wish to pursue flying as a career, I would advice you to get a class 2 medical. They are a lot cheaper and can easily (provided you are with good health) be obtained through an approved medical examiner.
OBTAINING YOUR PRIVATE PILOT LICENSE (PPL)
The private pilot license, commonly called the PPL, is the first license you obtain as a pilot. You can compare it to your driver's license and in many ways that is just what it is; "the driver's license of the sky." It allows you to hire an aircraft and take friends and family flying. Or, if you are fortunate enough to own an aircraft you can fly it for recreational purposes, be it a local scenic flight or a vacation trip to a far destination.
The majority of pilots are PPL holders and all pilots, even the professional airline pilots, have at one point been a PPL pilot. While this is the first stepping stone on the way to become a professional pilot, most people that obtain a PPL do so purely for recreational purposes.
You cannot fly for compensation or hire (make money flying as a pilot) on your private pilot license, but you can fly all by yourself the same way a driver's license lets you drive a car by yourself. And maybe the greatest thing of all - you can share this experience by taking friends and family with you.. You have to be at least 17 years of age to obtain the PPL but you can start training before then. There is no upper age restriction but you do have to be able to pass a class 2 medical examination.
"How can I afford all of this" you may wonder, and let me level with you - flying is not cheap. But compared to many other hobbies it is actually not that expensive. Training for a PPL in the UK will cost you about £3000-3500 but the cost is spread over your course of training. As flight training is normally charged per hour of flight (you will need at least 45 hours, however most students finish in about 60 hours), you pay as your training progresses.
So if you don't have all the money up front there is no need to panic - you can simply train and fly whenever time and money allows. Or alternatively, the popular way is to locate home study DVD courses or private pilot training online. These will help you save the cost of attending a flight school.
You also have to study for 7 written exams ranging from air law, to navigation, to human performance and limitations. This is mostly done as self study and the exams are multiple choice questions with four alternatives - one being the right answer.
If you have saved up enough money for a complete course, and have some vacation time, you can also complete your JAA private pilot license in USA. There are currently four schools in the US offering the required training and they all have excellent year round flying weather. This will allow you to complete the course in as little as four weeks (just don't expect to be spending much time on the beach) and are generally cheaper then training in the UK.
A high intensity course like this normally cost around $4000 (£2000), but when you factor in the cost of travel and accommodation, the total cost is about the same as if you completed the course in the UK (but with a "free vacation"). You can get a headstart by searching for private pilot courses online.
If you do obtain a PPL in the US, just make sure to take a few flying lessons once back in the UK. Flying in America and flying in UK has a few very important differences that you need to know about.
THE PURSUIT OF A FLYING CAREER
Before I tell you how to become a commercial pilot, let me first include a few common misconceptions.
Myth 1: All professional pilots fly for an airline
When I tell people I am a pilot, the most common follow up question is "what airline do you fly for?" Although many pilots do fly for airlines, and this is where most people see them in action, there are plenty of professional flying jobs that are non-airline related. This includes corporate flying (business jets and smaller propeller airplanes), cargo (large and small airplanes), law enforcement, crop spraying, search and rescue, air ambulance, flight instruction and many more.
Myth 2: Flying airplanes is a way to make easy money and live a great lifestyle
This is an old idea and 20 years ago it was not as false as it may be today. Although airline pilots generally make a decent living, the work pressure, the growing call for efficiency, and the competition from the low cost carriers have taken away much of the glamour. Regularly being away from home can also take its toll on family life. Depending on the airline, most pilots are away for 5 days and home 3-4 days on a normal work schedule (called a roster). Other areas of professional flying, like flight instruction, may be a bit more relaxed but you will never get rich doing it.
Myth 3: Once I become a commercial pilot I will get a job
In some professions it is relatively easy to get a job after you graduate. Flying is not one of them. Unfortunately there are too many students in flight school with the idea of an easy entry into a career at the end of training. Although there is a need for pilots these days (it has actually never been a better time to start your training) it does not mean that you get to pick and choose. For every commercial pilot there are at least three who will never fly for a living.
Most airlines and other aviation companies conduct tests and simulator checks together with the interviews. Being a commercial pilot is only the ticket for this audition and is far from a job guarantee.
In many ways it is a catch 22; the easiest way to get an airline job is if you already have an airline job. The reason for this is that many companies set a higher minimum experience requirement than a student fresh out of flight school will have. Getting the first job to move you up on the totem pole may require some sacrifice. The pay may not be very good, you may have to pay for additional training yourself, and you may have to relocate to get a job at all.
Are you still reading? Good! Then professional flying may be for you after all. Now let us look at what is needed to obtain the commercial license. The next step is to get back on the school bench and learn a breath taking amount of theory - the knowledge required to pass the 14 Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) written exams.
ATPL GROUND SCHOOL
Most pilots see this as the biggest hoop to jump through on their way to a professional career. One of the entry requirements is a private pilot license (which you will have by now). You can do the ground school as a residential classroom study or as a distance learning course and the course takes approximately 8 months to a year to complete. Depending on the school you choose, the course is normally split up into two-to-three modules followed by a series of exams after the completion of each module.
A distance learning course normally takes a little longer to complete because you do not have the structured environment of a classroom. However, the benefit of a distance learning course is that you can study at your own pace and they are generally cheaper. Either way, after enrolling in the ATPL Ground School you can kiss your social life goodbye for awhile. In a residential course you will not have much time for anything outside of school, and if you do a distance learning course you will need all your extra time and energy to study the books.
The ATPL written exams are multiple choice questions with four alternatives, one being the correct answer. Once you have passed all 14 exams you will have the general knowledge level required to be a professional pilot. The next step is to get the commercial pilot license (CPL), and here is how you do it.
BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL PILOT
After you have passed all of your ATPL written exams, the next step is the commercial pilot license. In my opinion this is the greatest time during your training. You have just finished all the theory and the stress of passing the written exams is gone. Since you may not have enough flying experience to be a commercial pilot yet (some students have to build up to 125 hours of flying to meet the 200 hour requirement), you have to build up your experience - hour building.
When you have enough hours in your logbook (approximately 175 hours) you have to complete a 25 flying hours (minimum) commercial pilot training course. Although the skill level requirements are higher than the PPL course and you have to complete the course on a more complex aircraft - you will find that it is highly achievable for a PPL with your level of knowledge and experience to complete this course. After passing the commercial flight test (check ride) you are now a commercial pilot and have the expertise required to "fly for pay."
If being a flight instructor is your goal, now is a good time to look into a flight instructor course. If you want to fly for an airline, then you have at least one more course to pass - the instrument rating. And here is how you become an instrument rated pilot.
FLYING IN THE CLOUDS
Up until now, all the flying you have done has been with visual references to the outside world for orientation. But as we all know - the airlines sometimes fly through the clouds and always end up several miles above the ground. To be able to do this you have to obtain an instrument rating, and like the word implies - you will learn how to fly solely by reference to the aircraft's instruments. This course is based on a minimum of 50 hours flight training (some of it often done in a flight simulator to lower the cost of the course) and is normally completed in a multi-engine airplane (airplane with more then one engine, usually two - one on each wing).
The instrument rating is the only flying course you cannot complete outside of the UK, and it is not a separate certificate. It is a rating added to the license you already hold. Many describe this as the hardest flying course, as it requires a good portion of your mental capacity while at the same time flying the airplane. Being good at multi tasking, combined with solid flying skills learned during your commercial pilot course, will definitely give you an advantage. The flying test (check ride) is also different compared to the private and commercial check rides. You have to fly with a representative from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), not a regular licensed examiner.
For the CAA, this is their last big chance to test your level of expertise before you join the professional world and is thus something they want to do themselves. Many pilots view this as "the final hoop to jump through" as it is the last flight examination you have to pass before you are eligible to apply for the majority of flying jobs.
But there is one last thing most airlines require you to have before you send in your application. And when I say most I really mean "all." You are now heading off to do a MCC course, or multi crew coordination course.
As all airlines and most commercial operations have more than one pilot in the cockpit, there is the need for good coordination and communication skills. Up until now in your flying career everything has been focused on you being alone - a world very different from that of modern multi crew operations. A normal MCC course is two weeks long and is not a "pass" or "fail" - you simply have to attend. The course is conducted in a simulator together with a training partner and an instructor. Your training partner will be another student in the course and you take turns flying from the left seat.
You are now eligible to apply for the airlines.
Almost everyone can become a pilot. It is mostly a question of motivation, determination and discipline. But before you do anything - do like all great pilots do - research and do proper planning.
Visit your local flying club, talk with pilots, shop around for the school you think suits you best (our website should help you contact most of them) and make a plan on how you will achieve your goal. As pilots, we often talk about the rule of the 6Ps - Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Don't get caught out by this rule.
Good luck in your quest to join a society of not so exclusive but very privileged people - the ones who can fly.
Hope you learnt something ,
Bruce 'Flybook' Hogan,
Certified Flight Instructor, Educator, Flying Enthusiast
P.S: But Before You Leave, Check Out My Private Pilot Course Below: