What it really takes to become a pilot

The inside scoop on learning to fly

Being a commercial airline pilot is perhaps one of the coolest jobs out there: flying around the world, seeing a different country every day and knowing what all those tiny buttons in the cockpit do. But is it as glamorous as it seems, and how hard is it to become a pilot? We investigate some of the requirements you need in order to bag everyone’s dream job.

You’ll need to pass a medical exam

If you’re thinking of becoming a pilot, the first step you should take is to obtain a Class 1 medical certificate to make sure you’re fit to fly. The test takes up to four hours, and checks everything from your medical history and eyesight to your heart rhythm and lung function. You’ll also take blood and urine tests. If you pass, you’ll get a medical certificate on the day. You’ll have to revalidate the medical every year until you’re 60, after which you’ll have to do so every six months.

Background checks are required before training

As well as medical tests, you’ll also need to undergo a number of other background checks, including employment and criminal record checks. You’ll also need to have a valid passport allowing worldwide travel. Your mental health will also be checked, although some aviation experts have argued that psychological tests should be more rigorous considering shocking recent events, such as the 2015 Germanwings incident in which co-pilot Andreas Lubitz crashed a plane full of passengers into a mountain.

You’ll have to be a certain age

You can hold a license for an aeroplane at the age of 17, can begin training at 18 and can get a full Airline Transport Pilots Licence at the age of 21. However, many people train to become pilots throughout their 30s and 40s, so it's a common choice for those after a career change.

You can still be a pilot even if you wear glasses

Many believe that if you wear glasses or contact lenses you can’t become a pilot. That's simply not true. As long as your vision is correctable to 20/20 via glasses, contacts or laser eye surgery, you’re free to follow your aviation dreams.

You don’t need a degree

While it’s helpful to be skilled in maths and physics to be a good pilot, there’s no need to be educated to university level before you train.

You can’t be color blind

It’s imperative that pilots are able to recognize colors, meaning those suffering from color blindness would be ruled out from becoming a pilot. This is because, when the plane lands, runways are fitted with lights that change color according to the angle of the plane's descent. However, a test developed at London's City University can tell the severity of the condition, giving hope to those wanting to become pilots, as they are eligible if their vision meets the minimum requirements.

There's a height restriction

Many airlines require prospective pilots to be a certain height. For example, British Airways states their pilots must be between five-foot-two and six-foot-three. If you’re taller, you can still apply, but might have to undergo a functionality check. This is to ensure you can comfortably reach the necessary pedals and switches in the cockpit.

It’s an expensive process

You have to be committed to making it as a pilot if you’re going to apply to start training, as it’s an eye-wateringly expensive process. Training and qualifying can cost up to $135,000 (£100,000). While in the past it would be funded by airlines with the promise of a job upon passing exams, student pilots now often have to pay for their own training with no guarantees of a job once they’re qualified. There are a few highly competitive sponsored programs run by airlines and flying schools.

You can take an aptitude test

Before forking out for a course, you can take an aptitude assessment test with the Honourable Company of Air Pilots. The course is designed for those with no flying experience, but will assess your innate piloting ability before you sign up for a concrete commitment.

Don’t expect sky-high salaries

It's a common misconception that pilots have fat salaries, but you shouldn't expect to make a fortune at first. When you first start out, you’ll make between $27,000 (£20,000) and $40,000 (£30,000). Once you have years of experience behind you and are promoted to a captain, you can expect to make around $188,800 (£140,000) a year.

You’ll need to make some sacrifices

While you have to love your job to be a pilot, it’s not always plane sailing (pun intended): you have to spend a lot of time away from home, which can be a strain. Peter Heritage, a pilot with BMI Regional, says this is the one downside of the job. “I'm a devoted family man and sometimes struggle with the time apart,” he says. “Every job has its negatives but the upside is they sometimes have the opportunity to travel along.”

It’s good to start young

Before you embark on the huge financial commitment that is the journey to becoming a pilot, consider getting to know the industry from a different perspective. Some routes recommended by Pilot Career News include work experience with aviation companies, getting involved with your local Air Training Corps or Combined Cadet Force if you’re at school or, if you’re studying at university, joining the University Air Squadron. You could even try a flight simulator – here's what happened when we tested one out.

The training is full on

There are several different elements of training to become a pilot. There are exams covering a wide range of topics, from aviation law to flight planning and navigation. There's also actual flight training and multi-crew co-operation, in which you’ll learn how to work as a team and much more. To get onto a course, you’ll need to display a range of skills, including good spatial awareness, problem-solving, hand-eye coordination, people skills, mental math and a knowledge of the industry.

You’ll need a cool head under pressure

All kinds of stressful moments can occur while flying, so a calm manner is vital. “Every day in my job is different,” says easyJet pilot Kate McWilliams. “It’s the most enjoyable but also the most challenging part. This could be anything from bad weather to a poorly passenger, but we are well-trained and ready to deal with any problems as they come. The most recent challenge came in the form of Storm Eleanor. We are prepared for varying weather conditions by training in the simulator."

Be prepared for some early starts

If you’re looking for a nine to five, predictable job, flying isn’t for you: hours can vary hugely according to flight schedules. “There are some very early mornings,” says McWilliams. “Setting my alarm for 3.30am is a real chore but once I get to the ‘office’ it definitely doesn’t feel like work. I don’t feel like I have a job, I just have a really fun hobby that I get paid to do.”

How long it takes depends on your route

The time it takes depends on the route you choose. There are three routes to becoming a pilot: taking an integrated or modular course to get an ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence), or going for an MPL (Multi-crew Pilot Licence), which is more geared towards flying with specific airlines. An MPL training program and an integrated course can take you from no flying experience to operating an aircraft in just 18 months, while a modular course will typically take longer as it's more flexible.

The training doesn't stop

Even once you’ve qualified and are happily flying passengers around the world, you’ll still be tested regularly, with pilots undergoing simulator tests to practice emergency procedures every six months. Every year, you’ll also need to pass a medical assessment, technical testing, security training and complete a “line check”, in which an examiner watches you operating the plane to make sure you’re following company rules and regulations.

There are perks for all the family

Full-time pilots and their immediate family are usually given access to complimentary transportation throughout the carrier’s network, and can even expect upgrades if there’s space.

You need to absolutely love to travel

It might sound obvious, but a love of travel and discovering new places will make long working hours and early starts all seem worth it. On longer flights pilots have layovers, sometimes for a few days, during which they can tour the destination as well as catching up on sleep and preparing for the next flight. Though if you’re mainly flying short-haul within Europe, you’ll usually be able to come home every night.

It's not all about flying

Once you make it as a pilot, it’s not just flying you’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis. Your jobs will include checking out pre-flight checks of engines, fuel, safety systems and instruments, working out routes using weather reports, checking data during the flight, writing reports about in-flight issues and, of course, updating the passengers and crew about the journey. A sense of humor always helps to add some personality to in-flight announcements.

It’s a great time to be a woman in aviation

Only 6% of UK pilots are women. However, many airlines have launched initiatives specifically seeking female pilots, meaning there has never been a better time to apply. Budget airline easyJet has said it will ensure 20% of new entrant cadet pilots recruited by 2020 are female, while British Airways has launched a campaign to increased the visibility of female pilots.

You don’t need to have traveled on a plane before

If you’ve never been on a plane before, even as a passenger, that won’t stop you becoming a pilot. The world’s youngest female pilot, Anya Divya, had never been on a plane before she began flying lessons in her hometown in India. She’s now an advanced pilot at Air India, flying a Boeing 777 around the world.

Safety always has to come first

If you work in aviation it’s no surprise that you can't cut any corners: unusual working hours have to be carefully planned for. “Safety is paramount and, as we say in aviation, ‘a healthy safety culture always begins with the individual’,” says Peter Heritage. “Unsociable working hours are part and parcel of our industry so the ability to perform under this is important but is easily workable with the correct planning.”

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