How to become a pilot

Dreaming of becoming an airline pilot, but not sure how to get there?

A highly competitive job, being a pilot is both exciting and demanding. If you love to travel and have an interest in aircraft, then this could be a perfect fit for you!

We spoke to a Senior First Officer at a major commercial airline to find out what he had to say about how to become a pilot.

What does being a pilot involve on a day-to-day basis?

Flight crew routinely perform a large number of varied tasks, no two flights are the same and one thing that is always changing is the weather! Depending on the phase of flight, the type of tasks and their importance can change quite dramatically. The two roles that flight crew assign for any given flight are that of ‘Pilot Flying’ and ‘Pilot Monitoring’; these typically have certain duties attached to them and usually pilots alternate between the roles of PF and PM for each flight. 

The pilot flying is directly responsible for the flight path of the aircraft, use of the automation systems, entering navigation data, adhering with air traffic control instructions and manually flying the aircraft when required. The pilot monitoring has the responsibility of checking what the pilot flying is doing, communicating with air traffic control, obtaining weather reports, management of aircraft systems and monitoring the flight path of the aircraft. 

During the cruise there are still many tasks to be completed, including fuel calculations, flight plan paperwork (or PLOG, pilots log as it is sometimes known), performance calculations for landing, approach briefing and not forgetting the public address to the passengers! Some duties are shared or exchanged or may even be associated with only with the Captain or First Officer positions. 

Flight safety is central to many tasks that are performed on a daily basis, which is achieved primarily through standard operating procedures, but it is also important to remember that pilots have the responsibility for operating the aircraft in both a time and fuel efficient manner.

Key points 

Starting salary £30-40k p/a

Initial training for an Air Transport Pilots Licence costs £80k+

Uni degree advantageous but not essential

What sort of salary will I be looking at?

Basic salaries for Airline Pilots vary quite significantly between airlines and depend on type of aircraft and your operating capacity (i.e. First Officer, Captain, Training Captain etc). The most junior position is First Officer, which typically has a starting salary between £30-40,000 p/a with most commercial airlines. The most senior positions offer the best remuneration and the exact amount usually depends upon the number of years of service with the airline. In addition to basic salary, there is also an hourly rate which applies, known as Flight Duty Allowance (FDA). 

Although pilot salaries may at first look quite attractive, the expense of initial training for an Air Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL) has to be remembered. Nowadays, this is typically in excess of 80k, which means that starting down the career path of an airline pilot is a significant financial investment and personal commitment. 

There are many financing schemes and various funding methods widely available today, one of the most popular ways to fund initial training is through an airline sponsored scheme, however, these are highly sought after as they offer both a financial solution and employment prospects before the commencement of training.


What qualifications/subjects do I need to become a pilot?

Good results in GCSEs and A-levels are important- relevant subjects to flying such as Maths and Physics are always a bonus. A university degree is seen as advantageous, however, this is not a necessity. To become an airline pilot, it is required to study for an air transport pilot's licence (ATPL); this involves 14 ground school exams covering a large range of subjects and in addition there are practical flying exams to pass as well. 

Personally, I completed a master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering and then after graduating, began my ATPL studies on an integrated course at Flight Training Europe (FTE). Nowadays, some universities offer much more tailored degree programs for the aviation industry and some even have credit towards ATPL studies, something that is well worth researching.

What does the path to becoming a pilot look like?

Excluding the military, there are typically two types of training methods to becoming a commercial airline pilot, these are known as modular and integrated. Both have their own merits and modular training can be significantly cheaper; integrated training offers the whole ATPL licence in one complete package, currently the three major schools who provide these courses for UK pilots are Oxford Aviation Academy (OAA), CTC Aviation and Flight Training Europe (FTE). 

An integrated course typically lasts for 18 months and involves weekly classroom lessons building up to 14 ground school exams, in addition there will be flying instruction on both single and multi-engine aircraft in preparation for attempting the CPL (commercial pilots licence) and IR (instrument rating) flight tests. 

A new type of licence, known as the MPL (multi-crew pilot licence) has also been introduced in recent years and this was invented in order to place greater focus on multi-crew operation throughout the training process, as is standard practice in airlines in contrast to single pilot private flying.

What's the hardest thing about being a pilot?

The flight crew bear the ultimate responsibility for flight safety, as such, pilots are subjected to frequent examinations and medical tests every year, these range from recurrent ground exams on safety procedures to handling engine failures and emergency scenarios in the full motion simulator.

Working as a pilot also involves shift work, so early starts, late finishes and working over the weekend are not uncommon!


What's the most rewarding thing?

It is very rewarding to fly on a clear sunny day and see the world pass by from 38,000ft - it really offers a unique perspective! I also enjoy meeting new challenges that arise from a career in aviation and the new found experience that this brings- it is true to say that there is always something to learn in flying. A smooth touchdown after a long day of flying always helps to end the day on a high note as well! 

What skills are most useful to develop?

As with most professions, there is a wide range of skills which a pilot will frequently rely on, one of the most prevalent skills in my opinion, is that of decision making. Every flight operation involves countless decisions of varying importance and safety is always an underlying factor. Some decisions obviously have more significant consequences, such as when the crew make the decision to divert to another airport. At times like these, the team dynamic of the entire crew plays a vital role in assisting with time pressure and workload management.

Team working skills are fundamental to the success of an airline pilot, on a typical day you will be liaising with ground staff, dispatchers, re-fuellers, airline operations, air traffic controllers and cabin crew. It is a big team effort to plan and operate any single flight and the flight crew are a common link of communication between many different groups. The pilots are front line operations staff and as such will dictate the pace and instigate the flow of information and activities required for the flight to operate on time.

In particular, with the advancement of autopilot systems, the role of an airline pilot as a systems manager is ever more important nowadays, this includes monitoring the flight instruments, entering data into the flight management computer (FMC) or giving direct inputs to the autopilot control panel to alter the flight path. 

What does the career progression look like?

The natural progression within an airline is to earn the promotion to Captain, therefore, early signs of leadership skills are highly regarded throughout the application process for any sponsored airline scheme or flight training school. A career in aviation is highly competitive, most airlines and training schools will be seeking candidates who have a clear motivation and strong determination to achieve their career choice of becoming an airline pilot.

To join in the discussion about becoming a pilot, visit the Careers forum here or if you want to explore other career options take a look at our Careers Profile hub! 

More on TSR: 
How to get a pilot's license with the RAF 
Could I be a pilot? 
Advice from a trainee pilot