As pilot training is so expensive you need to make sure before you begin that it's the right career for you. Discover the qualifications you'll need and the routes you can take 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 start 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.

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 Civil Aviation Authority (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 of 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 licence (MPL). Integrated and modular lead to the same licence (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 at the same training school. Schools often charge large upfront fees. The four main elements of the course are:

  • Theoretical training (ATPL theory)
  • Flight training
  • Multi crew course, such as Airline Pilot Standards Multi-Crew Cooperation Course (APS MCC), Multi-Crew Co-operation Course (MCC) or Jet orientation course (JOC)
  • Airline preparation course.

Once these elements are completed, you'll be issued with a 'frozen' 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. If you have previous flying experience, such as a Private Pilot Licence (PPL), these courses allow you to continue training without starting at the basics again. This method is more affordable than the integrated or MPL option, typically takes longer to complete and usually allows for paying as you go.

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. There have been instances of flying schools collapsing leaving cadets out of pocket, so it's wise to ensure your money is protected should this happen.

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. The majority of these programmes are fully self-funded. Your chances of securing employment with the organisation on completion of the programme are high, although not guaranteed. Both BA and TUI have fully-funded programmes to sponsor trainee pilots. Places are very limited and the process to be accepted is competitive.

While aviation degrees aren't essential, a number of universities run relevant courses. For example, Bucks New University offers the BSc Aviation Management with Commercial Pilot Training in Aeroplanes, 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 (AISB) 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 Approved Training Organisation (ATO), the CAA offers advice on finding a flight school, while it also lists approved flying schools.

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 - especially to current and recently graduated students - 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 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?

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.

Fees differ depending on the school and route you take but pilot training usually costs £70,000 to £130,000.

For example, taking an integrated course at a flying school such as L3Harris Airline Academy costs over £120,000. Modular courses cost notably less and allow you to spread the cost over a longer period.

Detailed information on qualifications, training routes, required skills and costs are covered in the British Airline Pilots' Association's (BALPA) Becoming a Pilot: The Inside Track.

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