Learning the skills to be a professional commercial pilot

Published: 04 Oct 2013 By David Learmount

If you have read the four previous sections and are still interested in training to be a professional pilot, this is what the learning process will be like to win a commercial pilot licence (CPL). Training for an MPL (multi-crew pilot licence) is, in essence, the same, and the academic requirements are identical, but the differences will be summarised at the end of this section.

Military training is dealt with separately.

The academic subjects you will have to learn include: aerodynamics; the rules of the air (both local and international); aircraft engines and systems; navigation; aviation communications and communication systems; airspace design and air traffic control; aviation meteorology; and aviation law.

These subjects are all essential. They provide you with the tools to do your chosen job, and without this knowledge you cannot do it well. Keep the following in mind to focus your concentration: however much technology is taking over the business of routine flying, today’s advanced aeroplanes still fly – like birds do – according to the laws of aerodynamics. If you don’t understand and respect these natural laws, your aeroplane stops flying and starts falling.

You will also need to learn about the effects aviation has on human physiology and the senses so you can recognise the symptoms, understand the risks and do something about them. And if you are aiming to fly in a crew, rather than in a single-pilot cockpit, you will have to learn about crew resource management (teamwork). And threat and error management (TEM) is increasingly integrated into courses at good FTOs.

But will you be good at the actual flying?

Although almost anybody could learn to fly a simple light aeroplane within sight of the aerodrome, not everyone turns out to be able to fly and navigate at the same time. The sky, like the sea, has no roads or signposts to follow, so air navigation is a science of its own. If you think you can rely entirely on GPS and can bypass traditional terrestrial forms of navigation, professional aviation is not for you.

But after the basic flying training, you are accelerated into high performance machines, which is what modern airliners are. What you learned to perform at low speeds and low rates of climb suddenly has to be packed into much shorter timeframes. And learning to use the computing power and automated systems available to you in today’s flightdecks is a major part of the modern job.

Being able to “fly” is not as simple as just handling the aeroplane skilfully. Piloting task priorities are traditionally set out as these: “Aviate, navigate, communicate”. Being a professional pilot demands complete and simultaneous skills in all three.

Theoretically a CPL graduate can hold the licence without an instrument rating (IR), but employment opportunities would be pretty limited. Instrument flying (blind flying) skills are essential to all pilots except leisure and general aviation pilots who are prepared to restrict their flying to good weather, clear of cloud, in uncontrolled airspace.

If you consider “Aviate, navigate, communicate” as piloting’s golden rule, Airbus has recently produced a set of four new “golden rules” based on the original one. They acknowledge how computers and automation have radically changed the way pilots interface with their increasingly complex aeroplanes. The detail is important, and you will find it, like a great deal of other pilot-centric information, in the Learmount Blog, or specifically in this case at http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/learmount/2013/01/learning-to-fly-the-a350xwb-at/

Finally, at all stages of training, remember that even if your first job may be as a co-pilot, you should aim to recognise and develop command skills. Being an aircraft commander is much more than just being a pilot.

MPL differences

Now a note about the MPL course differences. Syllabus requirements vary slightly from country to country, but they do also for a CPL. As an MPL student you learn the same things as a CPL, but soon after you have gone solo, you do everything, in the aeroplane or flight simulation training device (FSTD), as part of a crew. The crew may consist of you as co-pilot with your instructor as commander, or vice-versa. It may be you in either seat with another student in the other, acting together as a crew with or without an instructor observing from the jump seat. You can actually get more time in the air and simulator by being an observer pilot during other pilots’ sorties, so it gives you more chances to embed your learning. A higher proportion of your training hours are conducted in FSTDs than for a CPL.

MPLs require a commitment early in the course by an airline to employ the graduate pilot, so during the course the airline’s standard operating procedures become part of the learning process. The last part of the course is the type rating training on the aircraft the pilot will fly with the airline, plus base training. Type rating and base training are integral to the course, so the actual licence document is presented when the pilot has been type-rated and base-trained. The legal requirement for MPL base training is 12 landings or touch-and-goes, but this may be reduced to six. Then he/she can go straight into line flying the next day as an oven-ready Second Officer.

On the other hand, if an MPL wants to get a single-pilot job in commercial general aviation, s/he would have to pass the same flying tests solo that CPLs have to pass on their own. But the benefit is that, where a qualified CPL has to add some multi-crew training to his/her qualifications to become employable by an airline, the MPL already has those skills.

As with the CPL, once an MPL has 1,500 flying hours in the log book, the licence is upgradable to an Air Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL).


Read the next article about becoming a pilot, The military pilot
Back to Becoming a pilot


Visit Careers Portal

Back to listing