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How to become an airline pilot

22There's lots to consider before you start on the route to becoming an airline pilot - not least how to go about it! In this article we'll cover the basics of the many different paths to gaining the qualification and give some insight into the work and costs involved. Every effort has been made to keep things accurate, but prices for training vary considerably so we don?t guarantee the accuracy of the numbers quoted here - though they should serve as good benchmark figures.

What does this article cover?

  • What is a frozen ATPL?
  • Integrated and Modular routes to a fATPL
  • What is an MPL?

What is a Frozen ATPL?

ATPL stands for Air Transport Pilots Licence - this is the qualification you need to be the commander of a commercial airliner. You need experience as a first officer to get to be a captain though, and in order to be a first officer you need a 'frozen' ATPL.

An fATPL is a Commercial Pilots Licence with a multi-engine instrument rating, an MCC certificate, and passes in the ATPL theory exams.

Why is it called 'frozen' Because it's everything you need to get an ATPL, except the experience - you need 1500 hours flight time, of which at least 500 are in a multi-crew airliner. Once you've got those (and pass a test), you 'unfreeze' your licence, and exchange your CPL for an ATPL

Getting an ATPL: the integrated route

The integrated ATPL is an intensive, full-time course, typically over 14-18 months, which takes you all the way to a frozen ATPL in one shot. There is no requirement for any previous flying experience (though you'd be well advised to do a couple of trial flights before you start, to make sure you enjoy it!).

An integrated ATPL course consists of 750 hours in the classroom, leading to the 14 ATPL exams, and a minimum of 195 hours flying training, some of which will be in a simulator. You must be at least 18 to start the course, and have a Class 1 Medical certificate.

The integrated route is looked upon fairly highly by airline recruiters, particularly if conducted at one of the major schools with a good reputation. It?s the more expensive option though: expect to pay ?80,000-100,000, which may include accommodation for some or all of the course.

Getting an ATPL: the modular route

The modular route still gets you the same frozen ATPL as the integrated route does, with the same privileges. However, by going modular you can break the course down into smaller components, pay for it in chunks, and perhaps work or study whilst completing training.

The first step is to get a Private Pilot's Licence (PPL), which allows you to fly small single-engined aircraft for private purposes (ie. you can't be paid to fly). You will do a minimum of 45 hours flying, at least 10 of which will be solo (you'll be alone in the plane!). You will also have to complete 9 multiple choice ground exams, which you can study for in your own time.

You can start flying training for a PPL at the age of 14; however, you must be 16 before you can go solo and you can't have your PPL issued by the CAA until you're 17.

The cost of a PPL varies considerably depending on the school or flying club, but typically you?ll spend £8,000-£10,000. When shopping around between schools, it's worth checking what's included in the quoted price - things like landing fees, club membership, exam fees, groundschool and study materials may or may not be included.

Once you've got your PPL, you can then start working towards a Commercial Pilot's Licence (CPL); there are three things you need, and they can be completed in any order (or concurrently with each other).

One of the biggest hurdles is the ATPL Theory Exams. These are the same 14 exams that integrated students take, but as a modular student you have a couple of choices about how you do them:

  • Full Time - you'll go on an intensive classroom course for 22-24 weeks. This is the more expensive option at around £5000-£6000.
  • Distance learning - you learn at your own pace from home in your own time, using study materials from the training provider, and attend occasional classroom-based revision sessions to brush up for the exams. This is a great option if you want to base your training around a day job, and is also a lot cheaper than the full-time option, but it does require the motivation and willpower to study on your own!

Whichever option you choose, you must have a PPL before you can start the theory course.

As well as the theory exams, you also need to start building up your flying time (known generally as Hours Building). In order to start a CPL course you will typically need around 175 hours total flying time, of which 100 hours must be Pilot in Command time (ie. time flying on your own without an instructor). Your PPL time counts here, but typically you'll need to do around 90 hours of solo flying to get up to these numbers.

One common way to save money on the hours building is to do some or all of it abroad, typically in the USA where flying is generally much cheaper. A word of caution here though: flying in the USA is very different to the UK in terms of airspace, air traffic control, navigation etc. and CPL candidates who have had more experience of the UK way of doing things will typically find the course easier, and are more likely to complete it in minimum hours. It's generally advisable then to do at least some flying in the UK to gain some useful experience before doing the CPL course. Most training providers will offer guidance to help you get the most out of this phase and to prepare you for CPL as much as possible.

The third thing you need is a Night Rating. This is an addon to your PPL which allows you, surprise surprise, to fly at night! It's a 5 hour course, with no test at the end - you just need a certificate from your training organisation to say you?ve completed it, and then the CAA will add it to your licence. Cost for a night rating is typically around £1000.

Once you've got all of that, you can start your Commercial Pilot's Licence course. This is a 25 hour course and teaches you to fly to the standards required for commercial operations. Of these 25 hours, 5 of them must be on a complex aircraft - that's one with a variable pitch propeller and retractable undercarriage. You can also combine the CPL with the multi-engine rating, in which case 6 of the 25 hours must be on a twin-engine aircraft, and you'll then do the CPL test on a twin. Whether you do this or not is a decision to be made in conjunction with your training provider as there are pros and cons to both approaches. Either way, you end up with the same qualification though costs can vary.

You?ll pay anywhere between £5-6000 for a single engine CPL, or £7-8000 for a multi-engine CPL. As with the PPL, make sure you're aware of what's included (or not) in the quoted course costs. Of particular note is the examiner's fee for the test, currently £785 - as this is often not included; you?ll also have to hire an aircraft for the test.

If you do a single engine CPL, you'll then need to do your Multi-engine Piston Class Rating (MEP). You'll spend at least 6 hours in a multi-engine aircraft, and at least 7 hours of groundschool time. As always, there's then a test, for which you have to hire an aircraft and pay an examiner. Expect to pay around £3000, not including all those extras.

The final flying hurdle is the big one: the Multi-engine Instrument Rating. Here you'll learn to fly a multi-engine aircraft by sole reference to the instruments, in controlled airspace, and to fly instrument approaches.

The standard IR course is a minimum of 55 hours; however, if you hold a CPL you get a 10 hour reduction - so it's generally worth doing the CPL first! Of those remaining hours, at least 15 of them must be in an actual multi-engine aircraft; the remainder can be in a simulator or a single-engine aircraft.

This part's the big one as far as cost is concerned - anywhere from £10-14,000. You?ll also need to budget for approach fees if they?re not included, and for the inevitable test fee (another £785).

There?s one last little bit to do now: the Multi-Crew Cooperation Course (MCC). This is a short simulator course that teaches you how to fly an aircraft as part of a two-person crew, giving you a valuable introduction to the world of Crew Resource Management (CRM). This isn?t a rating (you get a certificate at the end, but nothing added to your licence) but it's a prerequisite for doing a multi-crew type rating. Expect to pay around £2000 for this.

And that's it! All in all you'll have spent anywhere up to (or beyond) £60000 depending what options you choose; this makes it a lot cheaper than the integrated route, and gives you the option to train part-time while working. The downside is that some airlines prefer the integrated students because of the continuity of training, so if you're going down the modular route, it;s a good idea to pick a single training provider for CPL, MEP and IR to minimise this problem.

Getting an ATPL: MPL

The Multi-crew Pilot Licence is a relatively new route to an ATPL. It was included in international aviation law by ICAO in November 2006. The Licence was added to address the shift in focus from single-pilot operations to the multi-pilot, highly cooperative modern flight deck. It was also the first licence to focus specifically on airline pilots.

The structure of training is integrated in nature - a training provider creates a partnership with an airline to offer the course. This confers several benefits - not least that the airline usually has some obligation to employ MPL cadets on graduation.

Most MPL courses are structured according to the ICAO guidelines, with Core, Basic, Intermediate and Advanced modules and is completed in approximately 14 months.

Candidates must achieve 750 hours of ground-school, and pass the 14 ATPL knowledge exams. MPL cadets also complete a small number of hours (as few as 30) single-engine basic flying training before transitioning to a simulator to continue training in a multi-crew environment. In total the candidate will have to complete a minimum 240 hours of flying training in order to achieve the MPL. However, as this training is largely in simulators, the cost of an MPL is lower than the cost of an integrated fATPL course at around £60-80,000 though the course can only be accessed by passing the Airline and training providers selection processes.

Importantly, the MPL is a stepping stone - after 1500 hours it can be converted to an ATPL just as an fATPL can.

To Conclude:

We've looked at the possible ways to achieving a pilots licence, including several factors that are important to consider prior to investing in training. There is no one 'best' route to the right-hand-seat of an airline, different options come with both benefits and drawbacks - it's important to evaluate your situation and carefully consider the route that?'s best for you.

We are happy to help if you have any questions.

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