Becoming an airline pilot

Published: 01 Aug 2016

Freelance - Captain (Header Image)

Becoming an airline pilot is an extremely exciting option to take in your career, even more so should you decide to become a Captain.

Pilots fly passengers as well as cargo to different destinations all around the world. This is a challenging job, involving a huge amount of responsibility. If you have always been interested in aircraft and travel this would be ideal career choice for you.

Aircraft are typically operated by two pilots; one of which will be the captain, (also known as the pilot in command,) and the other would be the supporting first officer. Being a Captain would mean having overall responsibility for both the safe, efficient operation of the aircraft as well as the safety of the crew and on-board passengers.

You’ll need to have great teamwork skills as well as excellent concentration and hand-to-eye coordination. It’s imperative that you have the ability to remain calm when having to deal with challenging weather conditions. There are varying ways to enter this career path, from taking private courses, training with an airline, or learning through a university.

Necessary skills, interests and qualities

You will need/be able to:

  • Ability to follow instructions given by air traffic control
  • Ability to communicate clearly and confidently to crew members and passengers
  • Great teamwork skills
  • Ability to confidently use technology
  • Good hand/eye coordination
  • Ability to read maps and 3D displays correctly
  • Enhanced written communication skills
  • Ability to remain calm at all times

Typical work activities

Your duties would typically include:

  • Carrying out necessary pre-flight checks, including the instruments, engines and fuel
  • Ensure all safety systems are working properly in accordance with guidelines
  • Calculating the best route to destination, based on available weather reports and any other relevant information from air traffic control
  • Correctly following both airport approach and landing instructions given by air traffic control
  • Checking flight data and then making any necessary adjustments dependant on weather changes
  • Keeping both passengers and flight crew informed about the progress of the journey
  • Compiling flight reports following landing, including information regarding aircraft or flight path problems
  • Helping to load and unload luggage or cargo, (on small aircraft)

On long haul flights, there is often a flight engineer on board, who is responsible for checking the instruments. It’s also possible to work in other areas of aviation, including crop spraying, flight testing and flight training.

Expected working hours and conditions

Your working hours are obviously linked to your flight destinations and very often this will include nights, weekends and public holidays. Working hours need to be strictly regulated for obvious safety reasons.

Amount of time spent away from home varies. On UK and European routes, it’s possible to return home every day. Long-haul flights often involve overnight stays or longer. When this occurs, your employer provides accommodation.

Expected income

Captain’s earnings are generally between £55,000 and £90,000 a year, although with further experience and when flying long-haul, it’s possible to earn up to £140,000 a year. Further benefits, such as bonuses and health insurance are often additional payments. (These figures are for guidance only.)

Entry requirements

To become a pilot you need an Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence (ATPL).

You usually start as a first officer after gaining at least ‘frozen ATPL’. When you have enough flying hours you can apply for a full ATPL and qualify as an airline captain. (Minimum age 21.)

Qualifications such as GCSEs and A levels in maths, English and science may improve chances of training.

You will need a medical check and a class 1 medical certificate to apply for and hold ATPL. You need to be physically fit, with good hearing and eyesight and colour-normal vision.

Private training

You can train at a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approved training school. An ATPL course generally costs about £60,000.

Armed forces experience

If you were a pilot in the armed forces, a conversion course to gain a commercial pilot's licence can be taken.

University route

Some universities offer courses combining pilot studies and training with a related degree.

Company training schemes

Several passenger airlines offer pilot training schemes, allowing you to train with the company to gain your licence.

The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) and the Air League have details about routes into this career, airline sponsorships, bursaries and scholarships. You can also find careers information on the Royal Aeronautical Society website.

Training and development

Training to reach frozen ATPL level is between 9 and 36 months, depending on entry route. (May be less time if you already hold a Private Pilot's Licence, Commercial Pilot's Licence or have experience in the armed forces.)

Training includes:
  • Flight principles
  • Navigation and communications
  • Meteorology
  • Operational procedures
  • Aviation law
  • Use of flight simulators as well as flying real aircraft.

During training, you learn basic flying skills and work towards frozen ATPL. (A minimum of 195 hours' flying time is necessary.)

You’d usually start as a co-pilot (first officer) with a training captain on short-haul flights. This gives experience of take-offs and landings. Full ATPL is usually awarded following 1500 flying hours - at least 500 as a co-pilot. Eventually it’s possible to become a fully qualified captain.

Start your pilot journey today >>

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