Flying for a commercial airline as a professional pilot, is it something you have always dreamed of doing? Maybe your career is becoming stale or you have finished your education and dream of cruising up in the air at 40,000ft with the best office view in the world. Airlines are hiring, and as the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic the shortage of airline pilots is rearing its head again. Becoming a pilot is more in reach now than it ever has been before; but, it can be difficult knowing where to start.
There are lots of flight schools vying for your attention and claiming to be the greatest in the world. The truth is though that there is no “best”. Not all flight schools are suited for everyone and it comes down to your individual preferences and situation as to which is the best flight school for you.
Firstly, what do you need in order to become a pilot?
Most importantly, you need to get the training and licence that the airlines are requesting. You need to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). A Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) is no longer enough if you want to be a professional pilot.
You may hear the terms “Frozen ATPL” and “ATPL,” but what is the difference? Upon graduation from flight school you will have 238 hours of flying under your belt. That may not seem like a lot, but it is enough for you to land that first job with an airline. You will have a CPL plus ATPL theory – this is a frozen ATPL. Then you join an airline and fly for them until you reach a total of 1,500 hours of flight time (including certain types of flying hours- Night flying, Pilot in Command, Instrument, Cross Country, etc.). At this stage, your frozen ATPL becomes “unfrozen”. There will be very little that changes for you at this point but you are now legally able to become a captain of an aircraft over 5700kg like a B737 or an A320!
Not all airlines are going to accept brand new pilots straight out of flight school. You need to be open to opportunities and willing to work for smaller and short haul airlines before large flagship airlines like British Airways, KLM, Emirates and others will want to hire you. There are lots of low cost carriers who hire pilots with less experience as they are cheaper and help them keep costs down. They can also train the pilots and mold them into the type of pilots they want because you haven’t developed any habits or routines from other airlines first. You can join these airlines with your frozen ATPL.
So how do you go about getting an ATPL? There are two options you need to choose from – Modular or Integrated.
Modular courses are becoming a thing of the past. This is where you complete individual portions of your training (modules). They are beneficial to people who are short on time and need to carry on working during their flight training. You complete one part of the training (e.g. Private Pilot Licence) then take a break before you start your Commercial Pilot Licence/Night Rating/Instrument Rating. The stopping and starting can slow your progress significantly and many find themselves losing handling skills or knowledge because of the brakes. Delays are common between modulus, especially as you research new schools that offer the module you want and have to relocate time and time again. Essentially, the modular approach is more geared up for people who want to fly for pleasure than future professional pilots.
Completing and Integrated ATPL is by far the most common route to obtaining your licence. It tends to be preferred by students and the airlines as the training is focused from day one of the training towards creating future commercial airline pilots. Not only that but you will be able to maintain a continuity to your training and get into a job with an airline in a shorter time period. An Integrated ATPL course takes people with little or no experience in aviation and provides them with all of the training and qualifications they need to become a professional pilot. Think of the Integrated course like a luxury package holiday company. You pay them the fee and they take care of everything. Now you only have to think about learning to fly!
Choose a school
Doing your research is very important. For most, flight training is a big financial investment and your future career depends on the quality of the training you receive. If it is possible, try to visit the school to see for yourself how life would be during the training. Keep an eye out for Open Days or ask the school if they would be willing to show you around. Have a talk with the Admissions Officers and discuss your situation with them. They will be able to tell you more information about the school, the course and sometimes life as a pilot.
Where should you do your training?
At the moment the EASA licence (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) is the most sought after licence in the world, in some countries airlines will only hire pilots with an EASA ATPL. This is obtained through flight schools in Europe or at schools with partnerships in Europe. The standard of training required for pilots under the EASA authority is extremely high which is why there is a global demand for pilots with an EASA ATPL moreso than other authorities (CAA, ICAO, FAA, etc).
Find a climate that is suited to flying. As a student there are lots of restrictions on the weather in which you can fly (wind/rain/cold/visibility/terrain). Go somewhere with reliable sunshine and regular ‘flying days’ to avoid frustrating delays to your
training. There’s nothing worse than sitting in the airport watching time pass by as you wait for the rain to disappear. The most popular place in Europe to learn to fly is Spain as it consistently has +300 flying days per year..
Speak to students
It is always recommended to hear first hand about how the current students feel about the school they are studying at. Flight schools won’t be able to give you personal details of their students due to data protection laws but there’s nothing stopping you looking on their social media and trying to reach out to their students that way. Flight schools will post pictures celebrating their students’ achievements and often tag them in the pictures. Send them a message and get first hand advice from people doing what you are planning to do yourself.
When contacting students and importantly the schools themselves show you have done your research by first reading through all the information you can find on their website and only asking questions you still aren’t sure about. If you ask them something on the home page of their website it doesn’t bode well. A professional pilot needs to show they are resourceful and able to think for themselves.
What are they offering?
Consider the package as a whole. Some schools have long courses whilst others offer the whole ATPL in as little as 14 months! Do they offer accommodation as part of the course or is this another fee you are going to have to consider? You’ll easily be spending €800-€1200 per month on accommodation. What about uniform, equipment, exam fees, meals? All of these costs add up and can make a “cheap” school a lot more expensive. You don’t want to be thinking about anything other than learning to fly, the less distractions you have the better.
Once you’ve found your perfect match it’s time to start your journey towards becoming a professional pilot. Start to refresh your memory of the fundamentals of both Math and Physics as you will need to pass admission tests in these. If English is not your first language, practice as much as possible. The better your English, the better your job prospects afterwards and the easier you’ll find the training. Start to get your personal affairs in order as you will need to focus for the duration of the course on aviation and not be juggling other commitments. Importantly, start getting excited, you are on your way to making your dream come true!
Becoming a pilot is a big career decision but one you won’t regret. Do what you can to reduce stress and increase your chances of getting a job at the end of your training. Find the best Integrated ATPL course at a flight school located in a reliably sunny location that suits your needs and offers you the best value as an overall package allowing you to focus solely on your studies by taking care of accommodation, meals and paperwork.