How to become a pilot

February 21, 2023

Gathering information about how to become a pilot can feel like a complicated task at the beginning. This blog post is the place to start!

Some professions have one training route which everyone has to follow, but with flying there are several routes – all slightly different – but all resulting in a professional qualification. That’s why finding out your options is an important place to start. 

Firstly, what kind of pilot do you want to be?

Private pilot

Learn to fly for fun with a Private Pilot Licence. A PPL can be obtained for aeroplanes (PPL(A)) or helicopters (PPL-H) and allows you to fly as a hobby. It’s also the first stage of commercial pilot training, if you take the modular route (more on that later).

In order to gain a PPL you’ll need to pass some theory exams alongside your flying training. We can help you with the theoretical knowledge part of PPL(A) (we don’t yet have PPL-H books). Read more about PPL(A) theory and how to download the ebooks or find a training provider here.

Commercial pilot

If you would become a pilot flying airline passengers, cargo, corporate/business jets or helicopters and getting paid to fly you’ll need either a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) or Airline Pilot Transport Licence (ATPL).

A CPL allows you to act as pilot in command of a charter or corporate flight and an ATPL allows you to command an airliner with nine or more passenger seats. Almost all fixed wing (aeroplane) professional pilot training programmes include the CPL but take students all the way through to obtaining a (frozen) ATPL. With helicopter pilot training it is usual to gain a PPL-H first and then a CPL-H. Some also go on to gain a ATPL(H).

What is the training to become a commercial pilot?

If you’re an aspiring commercial aeroplane pilot, you’ll need to decide on your preferred training pathway.

It’s important to note that whether you choose a modular or integrated course, the theory exams you study for will be the same, the qualifications you graduate with will be the same, and you’ll be able to apply for the same airline pilot jobs once you’ve graduated.

The two training pathways are slightly different because the training is conducted under different approvals from the authority. So which is better? Different things suit different people …

Integrated pilot training courses are sometimes called ‘ab-initio’ (from the beginning) training or ‘Zero to ATPL’ or even ‘zero to hero’!

An integrated ATPL programme is usually the fastest way to become a qualified commercial pilot. It’s full time, intensive, and usually starts with ground school before the flying training starts. There may be extras built into the course like employment support and professional development. A few integrated courses have links with airlines, but this doesn’t mean they are funded by the airline. Check the specific details of each course as an airline collaboration rarely means a guaranteed job.

You will graduate from your integrated ATPL course with a collection of licences and ratings (CPL/MEIR/APS MCC) colloquially known as a ‘frozen’ ATPL. The ATPL becomes ‘unfrozen’ once you have 1500 hours flying hours, including 500 hours in a multi-crew environment.

Modular pilot training means that you complete your licences and ratings in stages or modules. It can take longer (although doesn’t have to if you train full time) but the advantage is that it’s more flexible. You can ‘pay as you go’ and ‘earn as you learn’. You’ll need to be self-motivated and focussed but the modular route allows you to complete your training while also balancing work or family commitments. Almost all helicopter training is modular.

The first module in the modular pathway is the Private Pilot Licence, followed by ATPL ground school (theory). Then comes commercial flying training which includes the CPL, multi-engine Instrument Rating (MEIR) and Airline Pilot Standard Multi Crew Cooperation (APS MCC) course. Some modular programmes also offer extras like professional development, but this is less common, so check with the provider. As we always say, do your research and visit every school in person to ask lots of questions

As with an integrated course, you finish modular training with a collection of licences and ratings (CPL/MEIR/APS MCC) known as a ‘frozen’ ATPL which becomes a full ATPL once you have 1500 hours flying hours, including 500 hours in a multi-crew environment.

What qualifications do I need to begin?

Despite the high levels of academic and practical training required in order to become a commercial pilot, you do not usually need a degree, or any particular academic qualifications, to embark on a training course.

Pilot training organisations usually require applicants to have high school passes (eg GCSE in the UK) in Maths, English and Science. Most will also assess your potential through a formal assessment process before you can enrol. During these tests you’lll need to demonstrate an aptitude for flying as well as important non-technical skills such as communication, resilience and decision-making. 

Pilots will also need to obtain a security pass to go ‘airside’ which involves submitting a 5 year employment history and a clean criminal record.  

To prepare for a pilot training assessment, we suggest researching current news topics within the aviation industry, practising your interview technique (eg. explaining why you want to be a pilot) and refreshing your maths and science knowledge. For help with this, download our free Maths and Physics ebook or for a more in-depth refresher, our STEM for Aviation book.

Medical 

It’s important to obtain a medical certificate before you begin any training. If you want to fly with a PPL you’ll need a Class 2 Medical, but if you want to fly commercially you’ll need the more rigorous Class 1 certificate. These medicals are conducted by an approved AME (Aeromedical Examiner) and an initial Class 1 medical assessment takes several hours. You’ll have a very thorough physical check-up at the initial medical and then a yearly check-up.

Choosing a flight school

This is a big decision so do your own research. Try not to be swayed by the marketing (or lack of). Excellence in training can be found in schools of all sizes. Look for quality, results and a career focus. Invest time in your research, talk to current students and ask the instructors lots of questions – including which ground school materials they use for the classroom phase of training, of course! You can browse our international directory of partners in excellence here.

We recommend attending independent careers events such as Pilot Careers Live, Pilot Expo, Careers in Aerospace and EATS. You’ll meet pilots, airlines and training providers who can help you gather the information needed to decide on the right course and training school for you.

You can also download our ebook ‘You, Yourself and Aviation’ which covers careers information and training options and do check out all the free resources from The Airline Pilot Club.

Next steps

If you’d like to read more about the typical routines of different commercial pilots, check out the ‘Day in The Life‘ section of Leading Edge Aviation’s website.

And for more help with choosing a pilot training academy or ground school, read our blog on ’How to choose a flight school‘.

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