Pilot training isn't for the faint-hearted - you'll face a number of challenges such as high training costs, the affects of the pandemic on the industry and tough competition for jobs. But if your sights are set on a career in the skies then here's how to become a pilot

Pilot training at a glance

  • You'll need an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) and a Class 1 Medical Certificate to become a commercial airline pilot.
  • The minimum age to commence pilot training is 18, but you cannot get an ATPL until you're 21.
  • It can take 16-18 months to qualify as a pilot if you've no previous flying experience.
  • A two-year part-time 'modular' route is also available allowing you to work while you train.
  • It requires a huge financial investment. Training can cost anything between £70,000 and £120,000.

How has COVID-19 affected pilot training?

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic and resulting travel restrictions hit the aviation sector particularly hard. Some airlines and flight training schools went bust and even experienced pilots lost their jobs. As the travel industry gets back on its feet, the aviation sector will see some recovery - but this will take time. 

In November 2020 the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) gave the following message to aspiring pilots, providing insight into how COVID-19 is set to affect the aviation industry over the next few years.

This isn't the most positive picture, but with the cost of training to become a pilot so high, it's better to know the facts.

For the latest COVID-19 related updates, see:

If you've considered your options and weighed up all the risks and still want to embark on a career as a pilot, read on to discover how.

What qualifications do I need to work in aviation?

Trainee pilots need to hold good GCSE passes in mathematics, English and science. A second language will also prove useful. While a degree isn't essential, A-levels are viewed favourably.

To work as a professional commercial airline pilot and fly an aircraft with nine or more passenger seats, you'll need to apply for an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) from the CAA.

However, before you can do this, you'll be expected to have undertaken the necessary training and obtain a Class 1 Medical Certificate (valid for 12 months until you're 40).

Find out whether you're cut out to be a pilot by taking an aptitude assessment test from The Honourable Company of Air Pilots at a cost of £155. Tests are carried out at Air Pilots House in London. Check The Honourable Company of Air Pilots website for up-to-date information on test dates.

You'll graduate from flying school with a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) and an Instrumental Rating (IR), which combine to make up a 'frozen ATPL'. With a frozen ATPL you'll be able to apply for jobs as a first officer or co-pilot. To 'unfreeze' your ATPL you'll need to complete 1,500 hours flying experience, after which you'll be able to apply for jobs as a captain.

You'll also need to pass a practical skill test, in addition to ATPL theoretical knowledge exams in areas such as air law, operation procedures and radio navigation.

What are the routes to becoming a pilot?

Pilot training schools, otherwise known as flying schools, typically offer two types of professional flight training - integrated and modular.

Integrated courses enable trainee pilots with no previous flying experience to gain their ATPL within 18 months. Courses are intense and as such you'll need to finish the training in one go. Integrated courses incorporate both theoretical study and practical flying experience.

As its name suggests, modular training is completed in segments, meaning that it's more flexible, allowing trainees to work alongside their studies to pay course fees. To be accepted onto a modular training course you'll need to have already gained a Private Pilot Licence (PPL) and 150 hours of flying experience. While this method is more affordable than the integrated option, it takes longer to complete.

If you opt to train at a pilot training school you'll be expected to pay the expensive course fees yourself, and you won't have a guaranteed job at the end of it.

Alternatively, you could consider structured programmes offered by major airlines, including British Airways (BA)Ryanair and easyJet. They work with established providers that will carry out the pilot training. While commercial airlines used to sponsor trainee pilots in the past, this is no longer the case. The majority of structured programmes are now fully self-funded. However, your chances of securing employment with the organisation on completion of the programme are high.

While aviation degrees aren't essential, a number of universities run relevant courses. For example, Bucks New University offers the BSc Air Transport with Commercial Pilot Training, while Kingston University London runs the BSc Aviation Operations with Commercial Pilot Training.

Both these courses can be completed within three years, although the Kingston course allows you to undertake a sandwich year, making it a four-year programme. Tuition fees for both courses cost £9,250 per year but you'll also have additional fees to cover as you'll be training for the integrated ATPL qualification. At Bucks you should expect the extra cost to reach as high as £75,000, while at Kingston it's £70,000.

Many of these options are covered in advice provided by the industry's professional association, BALPA.

The first ever apprenticeship standard for commercial airline pilots has been approved. Developed by the Aviation Industry Skills Board and leading aviation employers, the standard aims to make pilot training more accessible.

Where can I undertake pilot training?

If you've decided to train through a flying school, the CAA offers advice on finding a flight school.

An example of a leading provider is FTA (Flying Time Aviation), a commercial flight academy based at Brighton City Airport. You could also consider L3Harris Airline Academy, a flight school with UK academies in Bournemouth, Cranfield and Crawley.

To apply for one of the major airlines' training schemes, you can visit the careers websites of BA, Ryanair and easyJet.

What job specific skills do I need?

To become a pilot you'll need a specific set of skills and attributes. These include:

  • a passion for aviation
  • technical aptitude
  • spatial awareness
  • aptitude for numbers and data analysis
  • the ability to remain calm under pressure
  • problem-solving ability
  • attention to detail
  • the ability to work well in a team
  • excellent communication skills
  • confidence
  • decisiveness and the ability to think on your feet.

How much does it cost to become a pilot in the UK?

We'll be honest, it's not cheap. In fact, training to become a pilot in the UK is incredibly expensive so you need to be sure it's the right path for you before committing to a course.

Exact fees differ depending on the route you take but we're talking thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands of pounds. To give you a better idea, pilot training usually costs £70,000 to £120,000.

For example, taking an integrated course at a flying school such as the FTA costs £87,950, while L3Harris Airline Academy charge £79,950 for their integrated course. Modular courses cost a bit less and allow you to spread the cost over a longer period.

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