Almost every boy’s childhood dream – to become a pilot. To fly those big machines through the sky, face danger and wear that slick uniform. And be called a captain. Yes, I think many of us had that dream at some point in their lives, and although the realms of being employed as a pilot in modern airlines may be a bit different from our childhood utopia, flying planes still seems like an excellent career choice for many men and women alike.
I thought about devoting this article to some very basic information about what steps need to be taken in order to start a career as a pilot and, eventually, become a captain of a large, commercial aircraft. I will get into more detail of all the steps in later posts, but every journey must have a starting point. Who knows, maybe this blog post will be yours.
1. Private Pilot License – PPL
Quite obviously, the first step you should take, if you attempt to become an airline pilot in a truly organic and self-financed way, is to go to a flying school. Easy, right? Yes, actually, quite easy, but it may be good to know what you will learn, and what you will get at the end, after your complete your first set of training.
Several small and larger flight training organizations or aviation academies, as some like to call themselves, offer a basic PPL course (more precisely a PPL(A) in contrast to PPL(H), which is for helicopter pilots). PPL stands for Private Pilot License – a license, which allows its holder to privately operate an aircraft. Privately in contrast to commercially. To put in clear text – a private pilot is not allowed to make money of his or her flying. Such pilot cannot work for an airline, take money from passengers or even offer aerial pictures for the purpose of earning money. Just leisure flying. But that should be good enough for a start, I suppose.
To obtain a PPL you need to finish some ground training, which will cover several aspects of aircraft operations (you will learn how an aircraft is build, why it flies, basics of meteorology, radio communications, etc. – I will cover this in a separate blog post) and, of course, several hours of practical training. The amount of practical training (flying in an aircraft, behind the controls) can vary from country to country, but the minimum amount will range somewhere between 50 – 70 flight hours. During the flight training you will be taught basic (but sufficient) aircraft maneuvers, like take off, landing, climb, cruise and descent. You will also need to learn recovery from basic abnormal flight situations, such as a deep dive, spiral turn or a spin. Furthermore, you will receive basic training on instrument flying and navigation by land marks.
The training will finish with a state exam, carried out by your local NAA examiner. The NAA stands for National Aviation Authority and it is the FAA in the United States, DGAC in France, LBA in Germany, etc. You will quickly find out what name and location is used for your local NAA.
Once you complete your basic private pilot license you are now officially a pilot! With restrictions, of course, but never the less. Congratulations!
2. Night flying, multi engine, turbine, IFR – extending your piloting skills
As I said before, the PPL allows you to fly an aircraft as an PIC (pilot in command, or captain if you prefer), but with certain limitation. In particular, if you have not completed any other training, you will only be allowed to fly under VFR conditions, during daytime and with a single piston engine aircraft.
A short word on VFR – the acronym stands for Visual Flight Rules and, in very simple words, means you are only allowed to fly in circumstances in which you have clear visibility of the ground. This is excellent for a lot of leisure flying, when you fly in good weather anyway. Flying under VFR means that you are not allowed to fly in clouds or fog. It also means that you will not be able to enter the “jet ways” of commercial aircraft, but that would be hard to do with a small piston airplane anyway.
If you don’t have the money to complete all your training all at once, but still want to expand your skills and gain some additional flight time, gaining new “ratings” is a perfect way to go forward. A PPL allows you to start training and achieve ratings for several aspects of aviation. The ones I would recommend:
Night rating. This does not involve very much effort or flying time. You will learn how to fly and navigate during night time, although still under VFR conditions. Imagine all those breathtaking views over the city at night! Definitely worth it, and you will need it anyway.
Multi engine. It is what it sounds. You will have completed your private pilot license in a single engine aircraft, like a Cessna 172. If you want to fly something bigger and faster, you will need to obtain a rating for multiengine aircraft. That’s another step to your professional, commercial pilot career.
Turbine rating. Similar to the above, although can be obtained both for multi engine and single engine aircraft. The turbine rating will allow you to fly aircraft with turbine engines. Please keep in mind that these are not only jet aircraft, as some people tend to think, but also a wide range of so called turboprops – aircraft which are propeller driven, but in which the propeller is motored by a turbine engine. Turbine powered aircraft behave different from piston aircraft, hence the rating for them.
IFR rating. IFR is the opposite of VFR. It stands for Instrument Flight Rules and allows its holders to fly without having constant visibility of the ground and its landmarks. IFR flying is based on instruments and instruments only, often trained in a hood or some other way of limiting the IFR trainee the ability to look outside the cabin. You will learn about several navigation methods and procedures, which must be followed by IFR aircraft. This is a true step towards professional flying as it allows you to file a proper, complete IFR flight plan and proceed with your journey irrespectively of that sudden rain shower
3. Commercial Pilot License – CPL
So, once you’ve already obtained some additional ratings and made some more extra hours on your aircraft of choice, you can start training for your CPL – the commercial pilot license. The CPL is similar to the PPL in terms of practical knowledge obtained during flight of the aircraft. However, the training will be more intense, and you will log even more flight hours. At the same time, you will need to go back to ground school and learn much more and in much more detail than what you have seen so far during your PPL training.
The CPL will allow you to start working as a pilot, although not for commercial airlines. You can, however, work in several other fields. Some of them include becoming a flight instructor for the PPL (after completing additional training), towing gliders, taking aerial pictures, etc. This may not be your dream job quite yet, but it will get you those flight hours and also some money to pay for what is yet to come!
4. ATPL – your dream comes true! (almost)
Once you are a happy holder of your CPL you can start to prepare for your big airline career! In order to have even a remote chance of being considered for a first officer position at a small airline, is to have your ATPL – Air Transport Pilot License. The ATPL is a ground school license. You will have to finish several courses and pass several exams in order to obtain the ATPL.
In order to obtain a full ATPL license you need, apart from passing all your exams, a specific number of flight hours. This also will depend on your NAA requirements, but in general we’re looking at several hundred hours as a PIC (pilot in command, or captain), IFR flying, cross country flying, etc.
So what if you don’t have those hours? You can still pass those exams and become a holder of a license which is commonly known as ATPL (frozen). All the ATPL (frozen) means is that you have completed all the ATPL course work, but are still working on your flight hours. If you’re lucky enough, this may already be a guide into your dream job as an airline pilot. Some airlines, especially in times of high demand for new crew members, may hire people with an ATPL (frozen) and provide them with the necessary hours already on the job.
5. Type rating – not many airlines fly a Cessna 172
After reading the above you may wonder at what point you actually learn to fly a big aircraft? After all, your local aviation academy or flying school is unlikely to provide you with PPL skills on a Boeing 777. So now you have all your licenses, but you can still only fly a Piper?
Yes, that may be the case. Fortunately, airlines know this. Unfortunately, they also know how desperate young pilots are to get their type rating and experience on an airliner.
The first thing you will do after joining an airline is a type rating course. The type rating course is basically teaching you how to fly a particular aircraft type (for example a Boeing 737-800, although a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 is more likely at entry level). You will have simulator classes and also some time flying in the real aircraft under supervision. The type rating may also be combined with the line training, which teaches you airline flying procedures, but that we will cover in a separate blog post.
Keep in mind that type rating is very expensive, mainly due to the cost of the simulator or, even worse, the actual aircraft. Some airlines will cover this cost for you, whereas other may require you to take a loan, which will then be deducted from your salary for a specified amount of years. That’s a fantastic way to ensure that young pilots don’t leave the airline as soon as they gain some more experience.