Training to become a commercial pilot can be challenging but the rewards on becoming a pilot in commercial flying are extremely satisfying.
The sections below set out some of the career options and training pathways n commercial flying.
Commercial Pilot Requirements
Before you go any further you should be aware that there are specific medical requirements to be a pilot. Details of all aspects of these requirements can be found below. Please ensure that you read the following and understand the requirements before starting any license application process.
The following details have been prepared for us by Dr. Chris King, who is an experienced CAA Aviation Medical Examiner (AME).
If you are planning to fly either as a career or for pleasure, you will require a medical.
If you are planning to fly professionally you will require a Class 1 medical. The initial Class one medical is undertaken at an Aeromedical Centre (AeMC). For a list of current AeMCs see the CAA website
Before embarking on any flying training, it is worth having a medical performed at an early stage. This will enable you to find out if you have any medical problems that would delay or prevent you from flying and avoid any wasted expense on lessons if you are unfortunate enough not to reach the required CAA standards.
If you know about any existing medical problems it may be worth giving an AME a call to discuss them and possible implications.
Currently, there are limitations to the eye prescription (details on the CAA website) that are allowable. If you wear glasses or contact lenses you will need to take an optician’s report with you. It is worth speaking to the AeMC beforehand to confirm the details they will require, which will involve a check of your colour vision.Normal colour vision is necessary for commercial flying. You can only fly during daylight hours as a private pilot with colour vision deficiency.
Be aware that several months away from flying are required after refractive surgery (depending on the exact type of surgery) and that detailed pre-operative and postoperative reports will be required by the CAA.
It is worth ascertaining the costs of the medicals before you attend and remember you will need to provide some photo id.
When you do attend for your medical, it is important that you look and feel fit.
The following tips should help you to attend in optimum condition:
- Discuss with your AME if you feel unwell for any reason (flu etc).
- Ideally attend not fatigued or jet lagged, this can affect vision and also the heart tracing (ECG).
- Avoid excess alcohol and coffee before the medical. Excess alcohol could be detected on the breath. Remember the CAA allows AMEs to undertake any test or examination they see fit to establish fitness.
- Avoid excessive exercise 48 hours before the medical as this could cause blood in urine. Try to produce a mid-stream specimen at your medical, the initial and end part of the sample could be contaminated.
- Avoid over the counter medications (e.g. decongestants), Red Bull and coffee etc. These could affect the ECG.
- Attend having had little to eat; a large meal could cause an elevated blood sugar, which could cause sugar in the urine and also may affect the ECG.
If you are not at your best for any reason feel free to discuss this with the AME. I personally would be happy to re-schedule the appointment.
When attending for your medical, make sure you tick all the boxes on the application. All previous medical problems and medication should be declared on the form.
Be aware that the AME and/or the CAA will require copies of medical reports from doctors in relation to any medical problems or medication you have declared.
In addition, further tests and reports may be required to ascertain your level of fitness.
- Height and weight can enable the body mass index (BMI) to be calculated. A high BMI could reveal obesity with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Obesity can cause problems with evacuation of an aircraft plus putting pressure on flimsy seats in small aircraft with heavy landings. A low BMI may indicate anorexia.
- Pulse and blood pressure. Irregular or very slow pulses could indicate a problem with the conduction system of the heart. With high blood pressure there is an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
- The ECG looks at the health of the heart muscle and the rhythm of the heart and electrical conduction system.
- We listen to the heart to make sure the are no untoward sounds (murmurs), which could indicate a problem with the heart valves.
- We listen to the lungs to check that there is air entry in all areas of the lungs. A lung function test (spirometry) is performed.
- We feel the abdomen to check there is no enlargement of liver, kidneys spleen or other organs.
- Ears are examined for excess wax or any sign of a perforated eardrum. Hearing is either checked by means of an audiogram.
- We check eyes for acceptable vision with or without correction at 6 metres and also at 50 and 100 cms. If you wear contact lenses make sure that you attend with your glasses and be prepared to take the lenses out in order to have your uncorrected vision checked.
- Colour vision is checked at initial entry for obvious reasons. We also check your visual field and make sure that there are no abnormal movements of the eyes, which could indicate a visual or inner ear problem.
- A finger prick anaemia test is taken to measure haemoglobin. Too high can represent a blood disorder. Too low (more common) could show anaemia due to blood loss (e.g. heavy periods), or inadequate iron intake such as being a vegetarian, or both. Blood lipids are also checked at the initial examination.
- Urine is checked for blood, sugar and protein; this could indicate kidney disease or diabetes.
- We check reflexes and movements of limbs for normal function.
- We record scars and tattoos for identification purposes.
- We make an observational assessment of the mental state of the pilot to see if there is any obvious mental disorder, stress, or evidence of excess alcohol or drug use.
What qualifications do I need?
Obtaining a commercial pilot’s licence will involve a fair amount of time in groundschool studying a variety of aviation subjects. These range from learning how a wing works, to the rules of the air and how humans cope with the physical affects of flying. The top licence (an ATPL) requires exam passes at 75% or greater in 14 separate subjects. While the topics do not go into complex detail, the quantity of material and the fact that it is maths/physics based means that you should have a good grounding in these subjects (GCSE or higher) before you start.
In addition your ability to learn will be tested as you progress through your flying training. Knowing which study methods or revision techniques you prefer will help you make the most of your groundschool course. This is likely to be what has worked for you at school/college/university.
Individual employers may ask for higher level qualifications.
Should I go to University?
The tuition fee system for university courses leaves many prospective pilots wondering whether they should go straight into flying training instead. Ultimately it will come down to your personal situation. A university degree may give you a range of experiences as well as another string to your bow should you be unable to continue as a professional pilot.
Another option is a course that combines an aeronautical degree and a professional pilot licence. After a couple of years of studying for your degree you then head to a flying school for 18 months. Once you’ve gained your ATPL you return to complete your degree. There will be some more information later when we talk about training options.
Hand-eye coordination is of course important, as well as other physical skills such as foot-eye coordination (for an aircraft’s rudder pedals), spatial awareness, reactions, observation & memory. Your aptitude & mental capabilities can be established by a computer and you can expect these skills to be tested by flying schools (FTOs) and some employers.
Ideally you should seek independent aptitude testing before you invest too much financially & emotionally in pursuing a career as a professional pilot. Be guided by the result however disappointing this may be. On the plus side if you do well you can be confident in your skills and use the result as part of an application to a sponsor or financial institution.
The Guild provides industry leading independent aptitude testing in conjunction with RAF Cranwell. Try Air Pilots Aptitude Tests for further information.
Teamwork, leadership, followership, communication, decision-making & problem solving are skills that are important in any career, especially one as a commercial pilot. Employers may test these with group exercises or discuss your experiences at interview.
You can continuously build these ‘soft’ skills by taking up extra-curricular opportunities. Sports clubs & societies at school/university or externally, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and other volunteering placements along with your current employment will all develop your skills, even if you don’t realise it. The learning & improving never stops!
In addition airline employers look for your motivation behind setting out on the path to become a professional pilot and what kept you going along the way. Whichever route you take, there will be successes and failures which add to your experiences.
There is no way of avoiding it; civil aviation is a very expensive business. When you are researching FTOs ensure that you really are comparing like-for-like and that all costs are included. The following areas that you should budget for and their potential cost are.
Course Costs – circa £90,000
Details of courses will be given later but this figure is for a typical integrated course. Alternatively a modular course can cost £45,000. Wherever you choose to train, do not pay for all of your training up front, even when offered a discount. You may lose all of your money if the school fails. All reputable FTOs will have no difficulty in accepting payment in agreed instalments during the course.
Living expenses – £5,000 – £10,000 per year
These will vary wildly depending on whether you are living at home and commuting during the course or in FTO accommodation with meals provided. Also include living expenses for 6 months after you complete your course to give you time to find your first job.
Extra Training – £5,000
Hopefully your training course goes without a hitch, however it would be wise to budget for extra flying or retaking a test.
Lost Earnings – variable
If you’re doing a fulltime course you won’t be able to work at the same time. If you’re doing a part-time or modular course then you may be able to earn money to put towards your flying.
Supplemental Training – variable
Once you’ve obtained your licence, it may be sometime before you secure that first job. During that time you may want to budget for refresher sessions in a simulator to keep your skills sharp in preparation for an interview. Alternatively you may choose to invest in a Jet Orientation Course or similar to increase your employment chances.
Before these figures put you off entirely, have a look at the funding information below.
At the present time sponsorship opportunities for commercial pilot training are few and far between. However it is recognised that there is a global pilot shortage on the horizon and this policy may well change. While a return to full sponsorship is unlikely, airlines may advertise other alternatives and so keeping up to date with the industry is vital. You can do this with publications such as Flight International & Flight Training News.
If you are considering paying for your own training (self-sponsoring), it may be worth investigating a career development loan. The state of the financial industry changes daily and much will be determined by your personal circumstances so you should speak to a Financial Advisor.
If you are planning to self-sponsor your own training there is another option to consider. Some airlines run mentoring schemes where a successful candidate is taken under their wing before they start training. The candidate still pays for their training, but gains the moral support of the airline and the incentive of a job on gaining their licence, subject to good training results & the airline’s current situation.
Although there are a few full sponsorships available, there are many others that prospective pilots should consider. A number of organisations sponsor Private Pilots Licences (PPL) which is the first step on the ladder. Once you have your licence there are sponsorships to help you gain the next or obtain different flying experiences such as Flying Instructor or Jet Orientation Courses. Further details can be found on the Sponsorships tab.
Do’s & Don’ts
Here is a reminder of some recommended advice before spending large sums of money on training as a professional pilot:-
- Establish your skills aptitude
- Attain good academic qualifications
- Obtain a Class 1 medical
- Explore sponsorship opportunities
- Research your options, make a plan & budget
- Pay upfront for training, even when offered a discount.
- Expect foreign licences (e.g USA) to automatically qualify for an EASA licence. Extra training will be required.
- Build up flying hours in an unstructured manner, which may allow bad habits to develop.
What are the training options?
You can train to be a pilot on either a full time course or part time courses. Here is a comparison of the main options.
A full time residential course at an approved Flight Training Organisation (FTO). Courses typically take 15 months starting from zero flying hours and result in a frozen ATPL, although there are variations, costing up to £90,000.
The pilot training syllabus is broken into components – PPL, ATPL groundschool exams, CPL/IR & MCC. A student may choose where and when they study each component. Total cost is in the region of £45,000.
A university “sandwich” degree course where you spend a year or two studying for your aviation-themed degree before heading to an FTO for your ATPL training. On gaining your licence you return to university to complete your degree.
Already you will have noticed some licence acronyms appear. Continue on to our Licences page to discover what they all mean and flowcharts showing your possible routes through pilot training. After that you can find out how different pilots made their training choices by reading our range of Pilot Profiles.
Types of licences
There are a range of pilots’ licences achievable and at first the choice can be confusing with an array of acronyms and aviation terminology. This page gives a brief summary of what each licence allows you to do, what training & minimum flying experience is required and what your next steps could be.
Assuming you want to fly professionally then you will typically require one of three licences – a CPL, ATPL or MPL. You can compare these below for your chosen aircraft type. Previously we looked at the integrated or modular training options and you can also see what these entail.
If you do not want to fly professionally, but recreationally then our Private Pilot page has more information on the range of private pilot licences.
The generic careers advice that you have already received applies equally to aviation as to any other professional industry. Ensure you get the basics right – follow instructions on application forms, limit your CV to 2 pages, personalise the covering letter, dress smartly and be prepared for the interview. All of these are recruiter’s favourites, remember they want to give you the job!
In addition to the usual interview, teamwork exercise and aptitude/psychometric testing an applicant for a commercial pilot’s job is likely to be put through a simulator check (simcheck). This may be in a familiar or unfamiliar aircraft type and generally asks you to perform basic manoeuvres so that you can demonstrate your flying skill level.
The recruitment of commercial pilots varies on a daily basis and so it is inappropriate to speculate here about current prospects. Typically airlines recruit in the winter & spring to be ready for the next summer’s demand. However consider that it may take a number of months from obtaining your licence to securing that first job. In that period you may need to budget for flying to keep your skills fresh so that you can make the most of an opportunity that comes along. Also you will need to decide whether you are willing to move, perhaps to a different country, to take up a new job.
Once you have obtained your professional pilot’s licence there are additional ratings that you may be required to acquire either before or after you secure employment. Within employment there are opportunities to change aircraft type or attain qualifications for different routes. There are groundschool teaching positions, instructing positions, management roles (including becoming a captain) and special projects that enable you to develop your career.
You may want to consider further training. A Jet Orientation Course (JOC) follows on from your MCC by introducing you to the handling characteristics of jet powered aircraft during about 30 hours in a simulator. An Upset Training Course is approximately 5 hours of recovering an aircraft from unusual attitudes and basic aerobatics to develop your handling around the stall.
A number of newly qualified commercial pilots are choosing to self-sponsor their own type rating in order to make them more attractive to potential airline employers. For more details please see Employer Training.
Becoming a flying instructor is a great way to be employed in aviation while you wait for an airline job. Not only are you staying involved in your chosen industry, but you will also build up vital flying time that will improve your CV as your experience increases month by month.
You will find flying schools across the country offering Flying Instructor (Restricted) courses which take about a month to six weeks to complete – weather dependent. You will spend 125 hours in ground school, 30 hours flying and after successful completion of a test, you will be a Basic Flying Instructor.
During the course you will learn how to teach the PPL course, both flying and ground school. You will become proficient at giving lectures on ground school subjects and be able to give standard briefings on every flying exercise. Sometimes this can mean going back to basics yourself.
There are many ways to be employed as a flying instructor at a variety of flying schools which can suit different lifestyles and expectations. Work can range from full time permanent work, summer season contracts and part time weekend work, to “pay as you fly” arrangements.
Once you have gained your basic instructor rating you can work towards additional ratings; for example, a night flying instructor, a multi-engine instructor or an instrument flying instructor. These will all help hone your flying skills and look impressive on your CV.
The cost of the course can be between £6000 and £7500 depending on which school you choose and on which type of aircraft you complete the flying. There are scholarships available to cover the cost of the course. Check out GAPAN Scholarships tab on the Am I right for flying? page to find out more.
Congratulations, you’ve made it through the recruitment process and are starting your first job using your hard-earned commercial pilot’s licence. Your employer will guide you through the last items of training that they require you to have.
If you’re working for an airline you will need to hold a Type Rating for the specific aircraft that you will be operating, for example the Boeing 737. The course examines the mechanical systems on the aircraft before you spend approximately 50 hours in a simulator practicing emergencies. The course concludes with training during day-to- day route flying with passengers. In the past the majority of airlines would pay for this course, however ‘bond” the employee to work for them for 3-5 years. However the current trend is for airlines to ask a prospective employee to pay for this training, approximately £25,000, although they typically have finance schemes in place.
The day job
Commercial pilots find that they are one of the most examined and tested professions. For example an average airline pilot will be:
- Examined in a simulator on emergency procedures every 6 months.
- Checked on a normal day’s flying once per year (a linecheck).
- Medically examined by an Aviation Medical Examiner once or twice a year.
- Tested on safety procedures & aircraft technical knowledge once per year.
The lifestyle is incredibly varied. You will typically be working a roster so may not be able to plan your life too far ahead. You can expect to work at weekends and at all hours of the day and night. For many it is this variety that is so appealing, but why not read some of our profiles about a commercial pilot’s day-to-day job in their own words?
Pay & Conditions
Pay varies across the aviation industry. Some companies have incremental salaries, some a flat rate and in addition some have a supplemental flight pay system (eg £3 per hour flying). Conditions such as a company pension, private health insurance (PHI), loss of licence insurance & company travel are worth considering.
A new licence holder starting as a First Officer for an airline can expect a salary approximately £21,000 flying a jet and £19,000 on a turbo-prop. As experience builds a First Officer could expect approximately £30,000-£50,000. On promotion to Captain, salary could start at £55,000-£75,000. For a rough idea of a company’s specific remuneration package, try www.ppjn.com.
Aviation is a small world and so you can expect to cross paths with people you meet at some point again later in your career. You will find that you build up a network of friends who work for different companies and areas of the industry who you can call on for advice.
There are a number of organisations that represent or would be of interest to pilots:
Honourable Company of Air Pilots & Air Navigators – www.airpilots.org
Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) – www.aerosociety.com
British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) – www.balpa.org
Independent Pilots Association (IPA) – www.ipapilot.com
Senior First Officer and Cadet Liaison Pilot
Virgin Atlantic Airways
I first got into flying when I was 17 and started gliding. I was bitten by the bug.
I went on to win the Breitling PPL scholarship from the Honourable Company of Air Pilots when I completed my university degree. From there I searched for airline sponsorship.