How to become an airline pilot? The concept of flight has fascinated humankind for centuries, so it is no surprise that the thought of becoming a pilot
has crossed many a mind. Global demand for air travel has rapidly increased in recent years, creating new job opportunities in the aviation industry. With airlines launching major pilot recruitment drives, it appears to be easier than ever to pursue a career in the air. However, the increased variety of training programmes might make it difficult to identify the most suitable route to the flight deck. The following guide visualises the different training options for aspiring pilots and covers some key points to consider before making your dream career a reality.
Researching your career
When starting your research into becoming a pilot, the first question you should ask yourself is: do I want to pursue a career as a pilot or do I simply enjoy flying leisurely? The thought of flying for a living may appear to be particularly attractive, but does it suit your current lifestyle? Will this lifestyle still appeal to you in 10 or20 years time? Working long, unsociable hours on a busy roster is very common in civil aviation and a military career usually has a mandatory service period of 10 years minimum. Whilst many airlines offer pilots the option to work part-time, the first few years of your flying career would commonly require full-time commitment. Also, do you have a back-up plan in case of medical or employment difficulties? Stringent regulations and ever-changing industry requirements may result in low levels of job security, particularly in an economic downturn. Securing financing for initial flight training is, however, the greatest obstacle for most aspiring airline pilots. Few airlines offer fully sponsored cadet training programmes and airline partnered courses commonly require a substantial financial contribution from the trainee. FTOs (Flight Training Organisations) may offer financing options through designated lenders. There are, however, alternative options for those unable or unwilling to secure a loan for their preferred training programme. Bursaries, grants and sponsorships are available through selected schemes, e.g. iFly, the Air League and the Amy Johnson Initiative. Alternatively, young aspiring pilots may choose to join the Air Cadets or a University Air Squadron. A professional flying career is, however, certainly not restricted to young graduates only. In fact, many airline pilots have a background in non-aviation related fields and some have even enjoyed successful careers in other roles, be it to fund their flight training. Also, airlines are increasingly looking for well-rounded, highly skilled and motivated individuals. Previous working experience and/or academic degrees may prove to be particularly advantageous when facing high levels of competition in search for that sought-after first flying job. Some airlines offer financial support or internal training schemes to employees who would like to pursue a flying career. Military pilots leaving the forces are still actively recruited into civil aviation and will usually be offered the opportunity to retrain as civilian pilots through sponsored schemes.
Once you have set your sights on becoming a pilot, you will need to research the various eligibility criteria. The first step is to look into the medical requirements. While strict health and fitness requirements might rule out a career in the military, you could still be eligible to obtain a Class 1 medical certificate, allowing you to pursue a career in civil aviation. Conversely, if you do not meet the criteria for a Class 1 medical, you might be able to obtain a Class 2 medical –allowing you to hold a PPL- or pass the health assessment for the various national pilot licences. Next, you will need to start thinking about your long term goal: do I have a specific future employer in mind? The current market climate has encouraged airlines to set up their own training programmes and others recruit exclusively from specific FTOs. Should a designated airline programme appeal to you, this would be the time to look into additional requirements set out by your potential future employer. These may include educational qualifications, nationality/residency and age limits. Some programmes might require upfront payment for the training, others have the benefit of guaranteed employment upon graduation, but come with a financial bond for a number of years. Also, do you understand the privileges of each licence type? MPL courses are usually more cost effective, but might pose restrictions or require additional training later in your career.
You might decide to keep your options open and enrol on a non-airline specific fATPL course, the so-called “white-tail” route. This type of flight training is usually self-funded and requires upfront payment of the course fees. Employment after graduation is not guaranteed, but airlines tend to headhunt cadets whilst still in training. If you decide to train as a “white-tail” cadet, you will need to start your research with your chosen FTO: what are their employment statistics? How large is the graduate holding pool? Who are their airline partners? Even if you do not have a specific employer in mind, it might be useful to look into the recruitment criteria of your FTO’s airline partners. Not meeting certain requirements might significantly reduce your chances of success in the job market. Also, consider setting aside some funds for your Type Rating. Some airline pay for Type Rating training, but in most cases you will be required to cover the costs, which may be in excess of £30,000.
The final route to the airline flight deck is most suitable for aspiring pilots who either cannot attend a full-time integrated fATPL course or are unable to raise the funds for their training course outright. This so-called “Modular” route gives trainees the flexibility to fit flight training around their lifestyle and allows for more freedom in their choice of FTOs. Due to licencing requirements, graduates from modular courses tend to finish their training with more flying hours than their integrated fATPL counterparts. Whilst modular flight training used to be a common route to the right hand seat, the popularity of this option has slightly declined in recent years. Certain airlines tend to favour integrated fATPL and MPL cadets over modular training graduates. However, the modular training route is certainly not a less appropriate choice for commercial pilot training.
Having carefully considered all your options, it is time to apply for the training programme of your choice. The first stage of the process usually involves completing an online form or questionnaire. If you meet all eligibility criteria, you will probably be invited to take part in the selection process for your chosen programme. Methods used for pilot assessment vary from a simple check of your qualifications and documentation to multiple stage competency-based, motivational and technical interviews, simulator checks, group exercises and extensive psychometric testing. Applicants for airline sponsored and partnered courses are usually required to attend several assessment days, especially if enrolment on the chosen course guarantees employment upon graduation. Skills assessment for “white-tail” and modular courses is usually conducted in one day, with the more advanced stages of the selection process taking place post flight training and prior to commencing Type Rating training with a specific airline.
Strict eligibility criteria, the limited amount of spaces available and fierce competition might result in an unsuccessful first attempt at the selection process for your preferred choice of flight training programme. However, this does not necessarily disqualify you for a career in aviation. Unsuccessful applicants may have the opportunity to re-apply after a certain time or be offered a place on an alternative training course.