So you want to become an airline pilot… or any kind of commercial pilot, flying for a living.

To fly passengers or cargo commercially with the airlines, you’ll need an Air Transport Pilot’s Licence, also known as the ATPL. There are an awful lot of abbreviations and acronyms in aviation but the ATPL is the pinnacle so far as a pilot is concerned.

There are two routes to achieve that precious ATPL.

First is the ‘Integrated’ route. This is a full-time course which will take you from zero to ATPL in about 18 months, with all the flight hours and exercises required as well as the enormous number of hours spent in ground school learning the books and taking the exams.

Second is the ‘Modular’ route. As the name suggests, you take each part of the training required to achieve an ATPL in sections. So, you will start with a basic Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL), then move up to a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) which allows you to earn money as a pilot, typically as a Flight Instructor (FI). The good thing about being a Flight Instructor, ignoring the fact that student pilots are trying to kill you, is that you not only earn some money flying but you are also clocking up flight hours.

The difference between the two is money. Following the Integrated route would be most pilot’s preference but you have to find around UK£80,000 to pay for the course – and you are not earning anything while training. The Modular course means you can pay for each part as you go, as and when you have the money. Once you have the basic CPL and an Instructor rating, you could be earning. An ATPL by the Modular route costs around UK£40,000.

How to become an airline pilot
Photos courtesy of FTE Jerez

Make no mistake, earning an ATPL is tough. As well as learning to handle an aircraft, you will have to learn:

  • Procedures
  • How to use the radio
  • Technology and systems of modern aircraft, ie how they work
  • Physics of flight
  • Navigation in all conditions
  • Meteorology
  • Air law
  • Human performance and limitations.

In addition, you will have to go through what’s known as a Multi-Crew Cooperation (MCC) course to learn how the air crew work together, in both normal situations and emergencies.

If you’re heading for the airlines, a Jet Orientation Course (JOC) will be next, where you’re prepared for the higher speeds of jets and the different technology. A recent addition by EASA is the APS MCC – that’s the Airline Pilot Standard Multi Crew Cooperation course. It’s an enhanced MCC course combining the MCC with JOC and a bit more. The idea is to get new pilots up to scratch before undertaking the type rating.

And there’s one final step: a Type Rating. This is a course specific to the aircraft you’ll be flying in your first job, such as an Airbus A320 (flown by easyjet) or a Boeing 737 (flown by Ryanair).

Once you’ve passed all the ground exams and flight tests, you’ll be the very proud owner of an ATPL (Frozen). The ‘Frozen’ bit means “you’ve got the paperwork but now you have to put in the hours”. Flight hours, that is, and you’ll need 1,500 flight hours to ‘unfreeze’ the ATPL and be eligible to captain the aircraft. That’s where those hours spent as a Flight Instructor (see Modular above) come in useful. Even better if you have some unusual flying logged, such as ferry flights.