Meet Harrison, currently a student commercial pilot. Harrison's journey into his current role is a turbulent one, but an inspiring one, especially for those who may not be able to access Pilot training straight away due to financial position.
My dream of becoming a pilot is as cliché as it comes. Family holidays across the world fed my disbelief that something so big, full of people, could fly so high, so far and so fast which made me start applying for pilot jobs.
I remember being given a small logbook as a child on one of my first long haul flights by one of the cabin crew; and from that moment I looked forward to every flight to get the pilots to fill out the next line.
Often, this logbook would lead to me being invited into the flightdeck – of course, due to security concerns, once the flight had landed – much to the inconvenience of my parents who were eager to get off the plane. Being invited into the flight deck and sitting in the captain’s seat is every ‘wanna-be’ pilot's dream.
Becoming a pilot firmly set my dream job, I continued to work hard in school and before I knew it, I was given a ‘trial’ flying lesson by my parents. At the age of 14, it was the best day ever – and I already saw myself as a pilot to anyone prepared to listen. Of course, I wasn’t – but it felt like I was.
The instructor gave me a brief in the flying school, before heading out to the aircraft – a Cessna 150 – aviator sunglasses donned. The flight lasted an hour with the instructor showing me basic flying skills, like climbing and descending. We then returned to the airfield and did some landings.
Time went by and when I reached 16, I started slowly but surely, chipping away at my PPL with significant help from my parents. I’m not from a wealthy family. So, sacrifices had to be made on both sides. I picked up a weekend job, alongside studying for my A-Levels and my parents wanted me to achieve my dream, so they helped me as much as they possibly could financially.
At 18, my dream came true. I became a pilot - a private pilot, but a pilot, nonetheless. Even more exciting, this was my first step towards becoming a commercial pilot.
Now came some big financial decisions. The cost of a private licence is a lot – around £8-10,000. But the next steps from a PPL to a commercial licence is around 4 times that.
For those familiar with the various options to becoming a pilot, I shall briefly outline some of the considerations:
For someone with absolutely zero flying experience wanting to become a commercial pilot, you basically have two options. Your first option is to complete an ‘Integrated’ course. This see’s you taken from ‘zero to hero’ in less than 2 years. This way, whilst being guided through the process at a one-stop-shop, is very, very expensive – over £100,000. At the end of the course, you are ready to apply to airlines – but, by no means guaranteed a job.
Now for the second option – and the option I chose – ‘Modular’. Being a modular student means you steer your own ‘training’ ship. You start off by gaining a private license, then build hours (around 100 to 150 hours) whilst completing 13 theory exams (ATPL exams). Once the exams and hour building are done, you can commence the Commercial Pilots License (CPL) course. This course will not qualify you to get a job at an airline. Following the CPL is the Instrument Rating (IR) – the crown jewels in the training…but still not enough to get a job at an airline. You then need to get an Upset Recovery qualification and a Multi Crew Cooperation (MCC) course. Finally – you are ready to APPLY to an airline.
Now, when all is said and done – when considering Integrated vs Modular training, you get the same ‘piece of paper’ at the end. And both can be done in a very similar time frame. Some airlines currently are only taking from specific Integrated schools, but they’re unusual and most airlines nowadays don’t care. As I see it – the real deciding factor is the cost. Modular courses are (depending on A LOT of variations), £50-70,000. Integrated courses are £100-120,000. Again – you get the same license.
So, back to me.
After mulling over the Integrated vs Modular debate, it quickly became apparent that +£100,000 was unachievable. Modular it was. I started building hours at my local aerodrome, little and often. By this time I had finished school, so every penny I earned from my job in a shop, went on flying.
But I had a thirst to start working for an airline. I applied on a whim to a large UK airline to be Cabin Crew. I got an interview and drove to Heathrow for an assessment day. Fortunately, I was offered the job. I spent the next three years travelling around the world – for free…and getting paid for it. Not only did this feed my passion for travel, but also allowed me to spend almost every day on an aeroplane. It enabled me to sit in the flight deck for take offs and landings – let's be honest, every ‘avgeeks’ dream. Alongside working as Cabin Crew, I continued to build my flying hours.
But my biggest question was – how am I going to continue the rest of the flight training to become a commercial pilot? As much as I wanted to, I simply couldn’t afford it. I realised that my dream was going to remain just that – a dream.
Then – COVID happened. Not living near Heathrow meant a long commute to and from work. Not a problem when my roster was stable. But, COVID for the airline industry meant anything but stability. So, I decided to take redundancy.
At the same time, family circumstances changed – and now some money became available – and my parents were very keen for me to take the next steps towards achieving, by now, a shared dream.
Some months later, I started studying for the exams. 13 subjects and a lot of hard work later, I had them done. Whilst the exams aren’t ‘rocket science’ – they’re not easy. They require dedication and focus. Following Brexit, the UK is no longer part of EASA – the joint European aviation safety agency. This means that some airlines with aircraft on a European register, require you to have a European license, even if you’re based in the UK. Therefore, my classmates and I decided to sit both UK and European exams…. making it 26 exams.
Whilst unpleasant, in my opinion, it’s worth it to give yourself the best opportunity of getting a job as soon as possible.
I dedicated my entire life to getting the exams done, completing them in 7 months with an above 90% average for both EASA and UK exams.
And that is where I am.
I will be commencing the CPL element in the coming weeks and intend to have finished all elements necessary for me to apply for pilot jobs to an airline by the end of this year (2023).
Getting to where I am, only a few years ago seemed impossible. My dream looked like it was only that – a dream. And, whilst I am not there yet, I’m certainly closer than I ever thought. My advice to anyone that has a ‘normal’ financial background like myself is never, ever give up. Things work out and if you want it bad enough, you will get there.
Do your research. Go to every school open day, look at every price list possible and speak to pilots and students. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Work and save money. It doesn’t matter what you do.
Also, don’t be afraid to take the ‘long route’. Whilst I was forced to take the longer route, I’m actually very pleased that’s the way is panned out. It enabled me to see the world and gain so much life experience and stories – something I know will come in handy when it comes to an interview.
If you want it, don’t give up and find a way to make it happen.