The aviation industry is unpredictable and pilot training is incredibly expensive, but if your sights are set on a career in the skies then discover 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 £130,000.

How is the aviation industry recovering post-pandemic?

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.

While the sector is showing signs of recovery the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) stress that the airline industry is still hurting financially from the effects of COVID-19, because of this they're recouping their losses from existing resources, rather than recruiting external candidates.

As such, they advise caution to anyone wishing to enter flight training and recommend that trainees choose a training route that allows them to adapt their training timeline to the recruitment needs of the industry.

This BALPA video talks you through some of the things you'll need to consider before making the decision to become a pilot.

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. Good A-level passes are usually required, although a degree isn't essential. While a university education isn't vital, don't dismiss the idea out of hand. Aviation is a volatile industry and gaining a degree would give you qualifications to fall back on if you needed to look for alternative employment.

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 £75. 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 skills 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 three types of professional flight training - integrated, modular and multi-crew pilot license (MPL). Integrated and modular lead to the same licence, while the MPL results in a frozen ATPL.

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. The four main elements of the course are:

  • Flight training
  • Multi crew cooperation course (MCC)
  • Jet orientation course (JOC)
  • Airline preparation course.

Once these elements are completed, you'll be issued with an ATPL.

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.

The MPL should only be considered if you want to fly for a specific airline on a certain type of aircraft. It allows the holder to exercise the privileges of the Frozen ATPL, but is limited to a specific type, certificated for multi pilot operation only.

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 Aviation Management with 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 are  £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 within the region of £84,000 to £94,250.

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 or flight training organisation (FTO), the CAA offers advice on finding a flight school, it also lists approved flying schools.

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.

Consider the type of course on offer, aircraft types used, the location of the school, whether all training can be completed in the UK and the cost required. Before making a decision it's best to visit the school. Ask plenty of questions and use this visit to get an overall feeling of the school.

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
  • determination
  • attention to detail
  • the ability to work well in a team
  • excellent communication skills
  • confidence
  • resilience
  • strong interpersonal skills
  • 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 £130,000.

For example, taking an integrated course at a flying school such as the FTA costs £89,500, while L3Harris Airline Academy charge £94,960 for their integrated course. Modular courses cost a bit less and allow you to spread the cost over a longer period. For example, FTA modular courses cost £49,500.

Detailed information on qualifications, training routes, required skills and costs are covered in the BALPA's Becoming a Pilot the Inside Track resource.

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