‘Pilot’ is the term used to describe an individual with the qualifications and skills necessary to fly a plane or helicopter. More specifically, an airline pilot is responsible for flying passengers and cargo on long-haul or short-haul flights. This can be for a number of purposes, such as leisure or business trips. There will usually be two pilots on board an aircraft; a captain and a supporting first officer. They will share the responsibility of the directional controls of the aircraft but the captain is responsible for the overall safety of the passengers and crew. On longer flights there may be more pilots on board and they will work in shifts to command the aircraft.
If you are well organised, prepared to study and train hard, have quick reactions and can keep a cool head under pressure, you may have what it takes to become an airline pilot.
The day-to-day schedule of pilots can vary greatly depending on whether they fly regular short-haul flights or travel longer distances. Examples of tasks that a pilot will encounter are:
- Checking that logistical information has been received, such as the flight path or route information, the forecasted weather conditions, the details of the aircraft that is flying and the passengers or cargo that are on board.
- Once these details have been acquired, the pilot must plan the journey, which not only includes the route, but takes the amount of fuel and level of altitude that is needed when taking passengers and weather into account.
- Run routine checks of all the safety equipment on board in case of an emergency.
- Brief the cabin crew so that they can efficiently prepare the cabin for take-off and keep in contact with them throughout the flight.
- Make contact with air traffic control to coordinate take-off. They should maintain this contact throughout the entire flight process.
- Use the on-board controls to analyse flight data and make any necessary changes.
- React to changing weather conditions and adjust the flight plan accordingly.
- Must make sure that the aircraft complies with noise regulations during both take-off and landing.
- Write reports in the aircraft’s log book after every flight, informing the management team of the quality of the flight, picking out any issues that arose during the flight, or any difficulties with the aircraft.
In order qualify as an airline pilot, you will need to gain an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL). This can be achieved through any course approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), but a series of steps must be followed to start a course.
To begin with, you will need four GCSEs at grade A*-C (9-4). Recommended subjects include English, Maths and Science. If you can achieve a grade in a second language, this can also boost your chances over other candidates. You will also need at least two A-levels in similar subjects.
You must then pass several checks which are carried out by the CAA, to determine your suitability for flying. These will include a background check, a security check, and an Authority Class 1 Medical. These check whether you have a criminal record and ensure that your physical fitness, vision and hearing are appropriate for controlling an aircraft.
There are also advanced courses that you can take to boost your skills before gaining an ATPL which could improve your employment chances. Some universities offer a degree in Aviation which could make you a very strong candidate, however, these can be very expensive on top of an ATPL course. Another great way to gain experience is through a Professional Aviation Pilot Practice apprenticeship. This can be of little cost if you are still in education and is a great way to familiarise yourself with key skills before seeking further training.
Above all, it is wise to know whether a career as an airline pilot is for you. The Honourable Company of Air Pilots offers tests to inexperienced people, which aim to determine whether you are a suitable figure to become a pilot. This is an important thing to discover before spending money on course fees.
Once you have the necessary background to begin an ATPL course, you need to choose what type of course you wish to do. You must be at least 21 to achieve a license. The course can be completed in an ‘Integrated’ or ‘Modular’ format. An integrated course is a sustained period of training that lasts around 18 months. This is a combination of practical elements and theory work and requires no prior flying experience as this is an inclusive scheme that aims to give participants the necessary flying time to warrant an ATPL. This is an expensive option, with most courses costing in the region of £87,000-£89,000.
Another option is the modular training scheme. This method gives you the option to take training in chunks so that you can achieve specific modules at chosen times, letting you train when you want to. This is a popular method as it allows you to earn in between modules and reduces the overall stress of the course. As this course is more intermittent, you might need to have a private pilot’s license with 100-200 hours flying experience to allow you to complete the practical modules.
Airlines will sometimes offer sponsorship to participants in order to complete their course. This is a helpful way to fund your training which can be offered if pilots are in serious demand by airlines. This is something to look into early on as the contest for sponsorship is heavy.
If you are a qualified pilot in the armed forces, you can complete a civil aviation course to become a commercial pilot.
Throughout your career as an airline pilot, you will need to undergo regular training in order to maintain your license.
A career as a pilot is a very technical job and there are several skills that will help you become successful:
- You need to show competence in working with technical data and engineering. Understanding how an aircraft operates and how the changes you make will affect the flight is vital for safety and efficiency.
- This ties in with your knowledge of maths and physics, which need to be of a level that allows you to make educated decisions on flight paths and energy outputs.
- The ability to communicate with others is key, as each pilot needs to be sure of the tasks they have to do, the cabin crew will need to know of any changes to the flight plan, and the passengers will want to know regular updates of their journey. All of these require you to explain yourself clearly to others so that they have the best experience possible.
- Leadership skills are important as you will be responsible for a team of cabin crew and maybe even other pilots. It is important that you can work efficiently with others in order to maintain high levels of service and safety for everyone on board.
- Teamwork is as important as leadership as you need to respect the rest of your crew in order for them to perform. Building a good relationship with your team will make operations more efficient and higher quality.
- Having good coordination is extremely important when flying an aircraft because you will often have to do several things at once as well as complete precise manoeuvres for take-off and landing. This also involves things like spatial awareness when understanding the size of the aircraft you are flying.
- Quick thinking is important as there will be plenty of times when you will have to make decisions in order to protect the aircraft from risks or potential hazards. The quicker you can react in situations such as sudden weather fluctuations, the easier it will be to avoid catastrophe.
- Should any incidents occur, it is crucial that you have the ability to remain calm under pressure. A cool head will make far more sensible decisions and could be the difference between safety and disaster.
As a pilot, you will be expected to work long hours, and the role will be mentally and physically demanding. If you work on standby, you’ll be expected to live close to the airport, but you should expect that a job like this will require you to be away from home alot. You will experience jet lag, which in time you will become accustomed to, since you will frequently cross different time zones during flights.
Want an insight into life as a pilot? Take a look at this short video:
The factors that determine your salary as an airline pilot are detailed and can make the earnings range very wide. Most sources state that the range can be anywhere from £24,000 to £150,000+. Flying time, flying experience, aircraft type and airline can all be factors that affect your salary. For example, a first officer who operates a smaller aircraft for a small airline may only earn about £24,000 in a year. However, if you are captain of a long-haul Airbus for a major airline, you could be earning in excess of £140,000.
Experience is everything as a pilot. As you gain experience year on year, you will be worth more to an airline and your salary will continue to rise. You are likely to develop sets of benefits with your airlines as you move on.
Starting salary: £20,000 to £30,000
Experienced co-pilot or captain: £38,000 to £90,000
Experienced captain: £140,000+
Figures taken from the National Careers Service.
When you begin work with an airline you will start as a first officer and work under the captain’s orders. There will also be restrictions for where you can fly to and what conditions you can fly in. This allows you to gain experience before you progress. First officers will work towards becoming a senior first officer before being promoted to captain. It can take around 15 years however, to become a captain, although it doesn’t tend to take this long for everyone. Career progression will depend entirely on your employer and your level of experience (flight hours).
There are additional training courses that you must take before becoming a captain. You are more likely to move up to captain faster with a smaller airline which has a higher demand for talented pilots.
There are more progression goals you can set as a pilot, such as upgrading the size of aircraft you fly and transitioning to long-haul flights. You can also start to train other pilots to get their license or take a role as an examiner. More experienced pilots may want to take on management roles but this reduces the amount of flying time you get. Pilots have also moved over to flight instructor roles. Some have also pursued inspector jobs for the Civil Aviation Authority.
Read our guide to find out more about working as an airline captain.
*Salaries are meant as a guide and may vary depending on a number of factors.
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