How to become an airline pilot
Carl Rackman details the civilian training process, as it remains the most likely access route for most people to find a flying job in the airline industry.
25 Jan 2016
Written by Carl Rackman
How do you become an airline pilot? As a job, it holds a mythical aura for most people.
The truth is, of course, more mundane. Hard work, opportunism and luck play large parts in most airline pilot's’ career stories.
It must be said that the road to becoming a Pilot is not easy; but you can do it. Flying is not exclusive.
Apart from a licence, you don’t need any special qualifications. You don’t need to come from a rich family, have special connections or the right upbringing. Your schooling, accent and background don’t matter.
But your personal drive, belief in yourself and determination are critically important. There are formidable hurdles which must be overcome.
Before you start, there are three things you need to embed in your approach:
1. DRIVE YOURSELF. You have to want this career more than anything else in your life. It sounds clichéd, but the commitment required is probably more than you bargained for, especially in financial terms.
2. LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES. You have to keep a flexible attitude. Your training route, job opportunities and career path may not turn out to be your first or best choices. Don’t let that bother you. To make opportunities, you have to take opportunities.
3. TRAIN HARD. Be ambitious. Getting that first job is tough and requires an absolute commitment to training. Improving in the job and preparing for career steps requires the same level of effort if you’re going to reach for the top jobs.
Where do you start? Nobody ever got to be an airline pilot without a licence.
How To Get A Professional Pilot’s Licence
It cannot be stressed enough. Obtaining an Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence is very expensive.
The good old days of airline sponsorship are no longer with us. Apart from a very few, highly-competitive and selective schemes, the candidate must fund their ATPL on their own (self-funding).
You must obtain the necessary funding to last through the course, which may take around 18 months. Depending on your course performance (retaking failed exams or flight tests and so on) this may extend beyond two years.
Courses tend to be full-time, residential, and usually include some time abroad for flight training. Living, subsistence and travel expenses must also be covered for the entire period.
Don’t be surprised if the expected outlay exceeds £100,000.
To put this in perspective, I sold my house in London to provide the funding I needed (I have a very supportive wife). Some people take out career development loans, but this can be prohibitive if you can’t get employment quickly after graduation.
Younger applicants from well-heeled families can often secure funds from the Bank of Mum and Dad, which reduces the amount they need to find.
Modular courses can be paid on an instalment basis, but you run the risk of running out of money before completing the relevant module.
As mentioned above, there are some highly selective airline-sponsored courses which offer training from zero hours to full type rating. However, these are not “freebies” and may require full or part self-funding.
Training Bond schemes (secured loans) may land you with a significant bill to pay if you fail to complete the course. The advantage of these sponsored courses is that successful completion usually includes a provisional offer of employment.
In Europe under EASA rules, you cannot operate unless you have a valid, current medical certificate. The medical is part of the licence itself. The Class One medical required for airline flying is more stringent than the Class Two required for private flying.
Most reputable schools will require you to obtain a full Class One medical before asking for course fees, as it is the first major hurdle for candidates.
Some prospective candidates are put off by the medical requirements; family history of heart disease, stroke or other cardiovascular indicators can be a barrier. But eyesight requirements are generally less stringent than many people expect.
Unlike military flying, the eyesight requirements for uncorrected myopia are surprisingly generous. Colour perception requirements are less so. Normal colour perception is mandated.
Let’s say you’ve got your medical and your money in the bag. What happens next?
CPL/IR (Frozen ATPL)
Under EASA rules, it’s possible to begin flying as an airline pilot with a ‘Frozen’ ATPL. This is the basic Skill Test requirement for the award of a full Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence, but without meeting the experience requirements. An EASA-certified pilot can start flying passenger transport operations in a light jet aircraft with as few as 200 hours.
The licence is ‘unfrozen’ after amassing a total of 1500 flying hours, of which a proportion must be instrument, cross-country and night hours (in normal commercial operations, these requirements will be very easy to meet). It should take approximately 2-3 years to unfreeze an ATPL if flying short-haul, multi-sector operations.
ATPL Training Organisations (ATOs) exist across the world, but must be certified by the state rules pertaining to the licence you require. This means if you want to fly in Europe or any other EASA-regulated country, you need an EASA-certified school. Many corporate operators and foreign airlines require FAA licensing, so you must research thoroughly before parting with your precious cash.
Many of these schools are self-selecting (they do not require you to undergo a selection process). However, most require an entrance exam or aptitude test which will provide an indication to you how likely you are to succeed on the course.
Once enrolled, candidates are classed as Ab-Initio; beginners. The first step is obtaining a PPL or Private Pilot’s Licence (existing PPL holders are placed on a suitable hour-building regime).
Access to an EASA commercial flight training programme requires a minimum of a PPL and 150 hours flying including 100 hours as Pilot-in-command, night hours and a qualifying long-range cross-country flight. An ab-initio course will include this training.
ATPL Ground School
Just when you thought flight training was the greatest thing ever, you walk into ATPL Theory ground school. This is where the serious contenders are separated from the wannabes.
ATPL Theory is tough. It requires full-time instruction in subjects as diverse as Aviation Law, Aircraft Systems, Human Performance and Limitations, Navigation, Meteorology, Communications and so on. Fourteen papers must be passed at a minimum pass mark of 75%. It’s pass or fail, so either you get an A-grade in every paper, or you fail.
This period of the course takes about one year to complete. Exams are generally taken in two blocks about six months apart, and the ground school usually runs concurrently with PPL flight training and hours-building so that you don’t die of boredom in the meantime.
The exams are held at approved examination centres once a month. If you fail a paper, you can’t retake it the following month but must wait until the month after. This effectively wastes a month for each failed attempt and can add significant costs and delay to your course.
I cannot stress more strongly that you should strive to pass all the exams at the first attempt. If that means putting your life on hold, do it. If you have to put in nine hours of study a day, do it. If you don’t go out for six months, do it!
Do whatever it takes to get those pesky exams out of the way first try, or you will pay for it. Literally.
By now you’ve probably had to renew your Class One medical after the first year, you’ve passed your theory exams and you’ve still got some money left. What comes next?
Commercial Flight Training is REALLY tough. You’ll be asked to work harder at flying than at any point in your future career while you have the least flying experience.
For the CPL, you’ll be flying a complex, piston-engined aircraft, learning to fly accurately, managing your aeroplane, navigating using heading, compass, chart and watch, operating your own radios, and doing it under pressure.
For the Instrument Rating, you’ll be doing all that in a complex multi-engined aircraft and thanks to strategically-placed screens around the windows, you won’t be able to see outside the aircraft from just after take-off until just before landing.
It’s not a competition, but everyone on your course wants to do well. Nobody wants to be the one left behind. Standards are high, and every single candidate, even the strongest performers, will find their Achilles’ heel during training.
You’ll have good days and bad days. You’ll need time alone with checklists, cardboard bombers and simulators to make sure you know your operation inside out. And then you’ll be required to fly your aircraft to an EASA flight test centre and fly your Skill Test as pilot-in-command. It’ll be the most stressful flight of your life.
But successful completion of the Instrument Rating Test will be your biggest high.
By now you’ve still got your medical, your newly stamped CPL/IR and hopefully, you’ve still got some of your money left. You are now certified for single-pilot commercial operations.
You could launch off now into a flying career as a working commercial pilot. But we want to get you into the airlines.
Commercial airliners are multi-crew operated. This means they have to have two certified airline transport pilots at the controls. That means there’s one more hurdle, a Multi-Crew Cooperation course (also called a Jet Orientation Course, or JOC).
Many integrated training courses include MCC as part of the course. Otherwise, you have to put your hand in your pocket again to pay for this.
The training is conducted with two candidates in a representative flight simulator (usually a light twin-engined airliner). It provides an introduction to handling jet aircraft and operating in a combined crew. It’s the first proper airline preparation training a newly-minted pilot will have done.
And, at last, it really IS fun!
Finally you’ve got your Frozen ATPL and you’re probably broke.
Congratulations, you just became an airline pilot!
Now you’re ready for the biggest challenge of all.
Getting Your First Job
Earlier, I said that nobody became an airline pilot without a licence. But the converse works just as well. Not everybody with a licence becomes an airline pilot. Unless you secured a sponsored ab-initio course with a provisional contract at the end, you will now be faced with finding that first job.
Don’t be fussy at this stage. If you get a sniff of a job, grab it with both hands. You can be picky later, once you’ve unfrozen your ATPL and have that all-important experience under your belt.
Let’s be realistic. You’re entering the market as an inexperienced, non-type-rated pilot. You are the bottom of the pile at this point, with no marketable assets other than your most attractive quality; you are cheap and flexible.
As a newly-qualified pilot, you believe the airline views you as highly motivated and a free agent. You have a stellar record of success in your training, and you are willing to relocate and work for next-to-nothing if it means getting that all-important experience.
The airline actually looks at you like this; you are an unknown commodity. You have no track record. You are going to cost them money to train. But you are willing to relocate and work for next-to-nothing if it means getting that all-important experience.
As mercenary as it may sound, that is the point at which the new pilot and the industry meet.
As a newbie, you need to approach the market realistically. Who’s hiring? Who’s offering opportunities to new pilots? Trawl the websites and forums where aviation employers, pilots and recruiters meet to chat and share information. Take a sheaf of CVs to aviation jobs fairs and talk to people. And apply for as many jobs as you can.
I had 22 rejections before I was selected for a type-rating training course. That eventually led to a job at a low-cost operator six months later. You need to develop a thick skin if you’re going to succeed.
Many new pilots approach low-cost operators for their first jobs. Low-cost operators recruit in volume and train new pilots throughout the year. They offer superior training and popular type-ratings like the Airbus family and Boeing 737.
But there are other lesser-known avenues. Regional airlines offer less marketable type-ratings but can offer superior career structures and time-to-command within their own airline.
Corporate operators offer fewer opportunities but can be lifestyle-friendly with state-of-the-art equipment.
The important thing at this stage is to start applying. The experience gained is valuable, especially if you are called to attend an Assessment Centre.
Most airlines use an online application form in the first instance. Use these wisely:
If you did that stage right, hopefully you will be asked to an Assessment Centre. Prepare, prepare, prepare!
Find out as much you can about the company. Show an interest:
A cursory internet search will reveal many example tests that can be practised. It’s a matter of becoming familiar with the style and presentation of aptitude questions.
Most tests will include numerical, verbal reasoning and analytical elements. There will also be a psychometric test and, for first-time pilots, a battery of specific coordination, capacity and perception tests.
Group exercises are about interpersonal skills, critical reasoning, teamwork, advocacy and communication:
Assuming you do well at the Assessment Centre, you can expect to be invited to attend a simulator assessment, usually the next day. This may well be conducted in an aircraft type with which you are unfamiliar, so don’t sweat it.
You’ll be under assessment and feeling the pressure. You WILL make mistakes, but just try to put them behind you and crack on.
The simulator check will assess at least some of the following:
With a bit of luck, you passed your airline assessments and were offered a contract!
You’ve just joined an elite and highly-regarded professional group.
My advice to a new First Officer is simply to stay put and learn the trade for the first two years. You have an incredibly steep learning curve and high standards will be expected.
Once you’ve unfrozen your ATPL, you can take stock of your situation. Are you happy here? Do you have a good career path in your airline? Is there a variety of work or basing on offer?
Even if only one of these answers is yes (especially to the first question), I would advise staying put. You’re in a good situation.
If there are more no’s, you’re perfectly placed to start looking around for other opportunities.
Now, you have something to offer. You have a track record, a type-rating and experience.
The date of joining a major airline often dictates your future career prospects. Here’s a quick illustration:
Pilot A joins Airline X, a mainline, seniority-based airline in January 2007. Airline X is in the middle of a major expansion due to favourable economic conditions. Up to June 2007, the airline recruits a further 300 pilots.
Pilot A is now at number 1500 in seniority out of 1800 pilots after just six months.
Pilot B joins Airline X in September 2007. In August a major worldwide economic crash has put the airline’s plans on hold. Up to January 2008, the airline recruits only 50 pilots. Up to June 2010, it has a recruitment freeze.
Many senior pilots elect to stay on past the age of 60 in order to maximize their earnings during the economic downturn. After three years, Pilot B has barely climbed in seniority out of about 1800 pilots.
In 2009, Airline X merges with a smaller airline which is in financial trouble. After much wrangling by the respective unions, the seniority lists are merged at the 1500-mark.
Pilot A retains their seniority in the top 1500. Pilot B drops another 250 places as the senior pilots from the other airline are inserted into the list above them.
Four years later, the economy is back on track and recruitment has experienced another upturn, and 400 new pilots have joined, whist many others have retired. Total pilot strength is now 2200 pilots.
Pilot A’s seniority is now around the 1300 mark, placing them almost halfway up the ladder. Pilot B, meanwhile, is still comfortably in the bottom third.
Pilot A & B’s six month difference in joining could mean several years’ difference in promotion and other opportunities. It’s just the way the numbers work, and there is nothing you can do about it.
This hopefully illustrates why changing airlines is a huge commitment for a pilot to undergo.
Having worked in an airline for several years accruing seniority, moving to a different airline means a drop to the bottom of the seniority list and having to start all over again.
Voluntarily moving to another airline once established should be considered for personal, social or lifestyle reasons, unless the benefits of moving outweigh the long-term losses in seniority.
It’s something to think very hard about!
Sometimes your move will not be voluntary. Airlines are volatile companies, and their economic fortunes seem to operate very much on a ‘boom and bust’ model. Most airlines seem at any one time to have too few or too many pilots, but never just enough!
The recent closure of Monarch Airlines in the UK was a good example. A well-respected and long-serving airline of distinction in the charter world, Monarch survived some close calls to remain an established fixture in UK commercial aviation. It employed over 400 pilots who found themselves redundant overnight.
The prospects for such pilots were not entirely bleak. Other airlines in the UK were expanding, and sought to offer opportunities to the experienced pilots of Monarch.
But coming from an established seniority-based airline into the looser structure of European low-cost airlines is not as straightforward as it sounds, and for some the international scene would be more attractive.
Most airline recruiters’ ‘ideal’ candidate is a 25 to 30-year-old first officer with 2500 hours, as they make good options for current co-pilots and suitable promotions to captain. If you’re in that category, you stand a good chance of finding work anywhere in the world. Your options are far less limited today by geography or nationality.
Opportunities now exist worldwide in emerging markets like the Middle East, India and China.
Once your foot is in the door and your ATPL unfrozen, the world is literally your oyster, though you need a fair amount of luck to get a job that fulfils your personal terms!
But today’s jobs market is very open and filled with unexpected opportunity, so go and make all that hard work pay off!
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