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Airline pilot: Entry requirements

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The usual qualifications needed to begin training as a pilot are a minimum of five GCSEs and two A-levels. A degree or postgraduate qualification is not required although some people may choose to take one to make them stand out in the tough competition.

Buckinghamshire New University offers a BA in Air Transport with Commercial Pilot Training but this degree is not essential to become an airline pilot.

The training to become a pilot requires a good level of understanding of maths and physics and so any qualifications that demonstrate this may be of an advantage.

In order to work as an airline pilot you must hold an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). This qualification is known as a 'frozen ATPL' and becomes 'unfrozen' when a certain number of hours and experience have been achieved.

The two main ways to achieve an ATPL are via the following courses:

  • Integrated course - an intensive full-time course, which takes around 18 months to complete. This course is carried out with a flight training provider and is a mixture of classroom theory work and practical flying. No previous experience is required for this route, with training providers taking students from zero hours of flying up to the required amount for the ATPL.
  • Modular training - this is offered by the same training providers and covers the same topics and examinations as the integrated route, but is carried out in chunks which can be completed with breaks in between. The theory side of the course can be completed as a full-time classroom course or as a distance learning course to allow the student to work at the same time. The modular training may be more appealing to those students who cannot afford the more expensive integrated course (which can cost from £80,000-£90,000) as they are able to complete sections as they can afford them and work in between if needed. To carry out the modular route the student must already hold a private pilot licence and have completed 150 hours of flying before starting the practical flying aspect of the course. Although a cheaper option, the modular route is still expensive and involves more self-study.

A full list of approved training providers can be found at CAA Approved Courses of Flight and Ground Training .

Full or part sponsorship from an airline which pays for the student's training is sometimes available, but usually only when the aviation industry is doing well and there is a high demand for pilots. It may be difficult to find such opportunities while the industry is still trying to recover its growth since the recession. When sponsorship opportunities are available, competition is extremely fierce.

Required skills for an airline pilot include:

  • an understanding of maths and physics;
  • an ability to understand technical information, as pilots need to know how their aircraft works;
  • excellent spatial awareness and coordination;
  • good communication skills;
  • team-working skills
  • the ability to think quickly and make decisions in difficult situations;
  • the ability to remain calm under pressure
  • discipline, self-confidence and commitment;
  • leadership skills, with the ability to give clear commands to cabin crew and passengers.

It is highly recommended that before you begin any training you take the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)  Class One Medical. It is a requirement that all airline pilots pass this medical, and if you do not, you will not be able to complete the training to achieve the ATPL. It is therefore a good idea to take this before paying out on the expensive course fees. The medical is available at the CAA medical unit at Gatwick.

The Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators (GAPAN)  provides an aptitude test, which is useful for those with little or no flying experience to see if they may be suited to a career as a pilot.

It is also possible for those who have trained as pilots in the RAF, Navy and Army to become commercial airline pilots. To do so, a civil aviation course must be completed and a conversion qualification should be gained.

For more information, see work experience and internships and search courses and research.

Written by Laura Stanley, University of Wolverhampton
March 2013

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