Becoming a pilot is the dream of many, however relatively few make it to the end of the difficult and expensive training required. To work as a commercial pilot, you will need an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL).
Training for this can take around two years and can cost as much as £100,000. It is therefore very important that you know all your options before you start applying for training courses and looking at pilot jobs. Our guide covers the different routes you can take to get your licence and includes a few things to watch out for before you apply.
Before you apply for a training course
To get onto a pilot training course, you will need to have performed well at school. You will need GCSEs at grades A*-C (9-4) and A levels in at least English and Maths. Subjects such as science or a second language would be an advantage.
You must also be at least 21 years of age to apply for an ATPL license and you’ll also need to pass a background security check.
You will also need to have a Class 1 Medical Certificate. The CAA have guidance material on their website for those who might be concerned about this. There’s no need to worry if you wear glasses or contact lenses, your vision just needs to be correctable to 20/20.
It could also be useful to take an aptitude test before you embark on years of expensive training to make sure you have what it takes to become a successful airline pilot. The Honourable Company of Air Pilots hold an aptitude test at RAF Cranwell and they use some of the tests used by the RAF in their selection process.
Preparing for pilot selection
Flight training schools will also want to make sure that you are suited to a career as a pilot before they invest so much training in you. Most Approved Training Organisations (ATOs – for a full list, see the CAA website) will put you through their own testing to make sure that you have the right personality and skills to be a successful pilot.
Over a series of written papers, interviews, group tests, and simulator tests, you will be expected to demonstrate skills such as problem solving, spatial awareness, and people skills.
You will also need to demonstrate your dedication to your chosen career with a good level of general knowledge about the aviation industry.
You should treat this stage as seriously as you would treat any job interview and do as much research and preparation as you can.
How much does it cost to become a pilot in the UK?
How you plan to finance your commercial pilot training is an extremely important consideration before you apply. The training required to obtain your ATPL can cost as much as £100,000 and can take around two years to complete.
If you are financing the training yourself, it is really important that you do the research before you sign up for a course. Make sure that you are aware of all the terms and conditions before you pay a penny.
Some ATOs have ceased trading unexpectedly before their students have finished courses and their fees have been lost. Make sure there is a scheme in place to prevent this from happening before you sign up.
Some UK airlines have fully sponsored training programmes, such as British Airways’ Future Pilot Programme or the Virgin Atlantic Future Flyers Programme. Places on such schemes are limited and highly contested, but are fantastic opportunities if you manage to secure a spot.
Types of courses
If you don’t have any previous flying experience, an integrated course is a popular option. This will teach you everything you need to know right from the beginning.
It will be run by an ATO and will be a full time. You will start your training in the classroom and with simulator exercises. You will start flying in light aircraft and pass milestones such as the multi-engine rating and obtaining your Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL).
This will allow you to train students or fly business jets. You will need to complete your training to earn your ATPL in order to fly airliners. These courses are often run in dedicated facilities with excellent equipment and they sometimes have established links with airlines.
If you already have some experience flying a plane, or want to keep working while you study, there is the option to take a modular course. The real advantage of these courses is that you can take modules individually and when they suit you.
They also end up costing a lot less than the integrated courses – sometimes they can be half the fees of the full-time course. It will probably take you longer than an integrated course to qualify via this route.
Multi-Crew pilot licence (MPL)
Another option to consider is qualifying for an MPL rather than ATPL. You don’t have to do as much training to qualify for this licence and the process is quicker. The disadvantage of this qualification is that you will only be able to fly as a First Officer as all Captains must hold an ATPL.
There are now apprenticeships available to trainee pilots. Students study in a similar way to those on the integrated course with both flight and ground-based training. This is usually done at a university and students will have access to financial support in the form of loans or even grants.
There are now degrees in aviation available that include commercial pilot training. Although the high fees for ATPL training still apply, these courses are increasingly popular because students can now get loans of up to £42,000 from the government to help them fund their studies.
In addition to the financial help this route offers, you will also qualify with a degree. This will give you further options for employment should you find securing a role as a pilot difficult.
Once you have earned your ATPL via one of the routes above, it will be a ‘frozen’ licence. You will still need to fly 1,500 hours in total before you become a fully qualified commercial pilot.
The next stage is to train for a ‘type-rating’ which allows to you fly different aircraft. For example, you will need to complete more training to earn the type rating necessary to fly an Airbus A380 or a Boeing 747.
You will usually have to pay for your first type rating training yourself and any further qualifications will be paid for by your employer. The training for each type rating can cost somewhere between £20,000 and £30,000.