Learn to Fly: How to Become a Pilot

Ryanair pilots in cockpit

Are you passionate about the aviation industry and love all things aircraft-related? Do you dream of becoming a pilot? Want to learn to fly as a hobby or pursue a career above the clouds?

Then you’ve come to the right place.

We’ve put together this comprehensive step-by-step guide to help aviation enthusiasts like yourself learn how to become a pilot and give you some insight into what a typical day looks like and how much you could potentially earn.

1. Research the Profession

The first step you need to take as soon as you’ve decided you want to pursue this exciting career path is to gain a thorough understanding of what exactly the profession entails. This will, ultimately, help you determine whether a career as an airline pilot is indeed right for you.

Job Description

Airline pilots fly passengers or cargo on short or long-haul flights to destinations around the world for leisure, business or commercial purposes.

Your typical day-to-day duties will include:

  • Ensuring all the information on the route, passengers, weather and aircraft is received
  • Using the right information to create a flight plan
  • Carrying out pre-flight checks of instruments, engines, fuel and safety systems
  • Communicating with and following instructions from air traffic control before take-off, during the flight and after landing
  • Checking data during the flight and adjusting the route where necessary
  • Reacting quickly and appropriately to environmental changes and emergencies
  • Communicating with passengers and cabin crew about flight progress
  • Updating the log book and writing reports about any in-flight issues

Essential Skills and Qualities

To succeed in this role, you’ll need to:

  • Have an understanding of maths and physics
  • Be able to understand technical information
  • Have excellent spatial awareness and hand-to-eye coordination
  • Be able to think quickly and make decisions in difficult situations
  • Be able to remain calm and focused under pressure
  • Be self-disciplined, confident and committed
  • Have excellent communication, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving skills

Don’t forget to check out our list of the top 10 skills needed for a job in aviation.

Working Hours and Conditions

Working as a pilot isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. You can expect to work unusual hours and fly at all times of the day. The length of the working day varies depending on the company and the route, though can range between 3 and 12 hours.

On UK and European flights, you’ll generally be able to return home each day but longer, international flights could mean spending a day or two away from home. The good news is that your employer will foot the bill for your accommodation (though you won’t generally get a say on where you stay, so don’t expect five-star hotels).

Working hours are strictly regulated for safety reasons. You’ll usually work in a two-person team (a pilot and a co-pilot) and will take turns flying the aircraft to avoid fatigue. On long-haul flights, there may be three or four pilots on board to ensure everyone takes the necessary breaks.

The job involves a great level of responsibility and personal commitment. Jet lag can also be an issue. Moreover, due to the nature of the job, many pilots report depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts according to an anonymous survey carried out by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Salary Prospects

Starting salaries for newly qualified pilots range between £20,000 and £30,000, depending on the size of the company they work for. As an experienced captain or co-pilot, your salary can be anything from £38,000 to £90,000 per year. Pilots employed by major operators and with extensive experience generally earn about £140,000 on an annual basis.

Salaries are often incremental, rising with each year of service with the company.

You can also get benefits like bonuses, health insurance, a pension scheme, various allowances and discounted travel.



2. Get the Qualifications

The next step to becoming a pilot is to gain the appropriate training and qualifications.

Before you even start thinking about your professional pilot training, though, you’ll first need to obtain a Class 1 Medical Certificate from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). A medical examination at an Aeromedical Centre can take up to 4 hours and will include the following:

  • Medical history
  • Eyesight
  • Physical examination
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Lung function test
  • Haemoglobin blood test
  • Urine test

To begin training, you’ll also need a minimum of five GCSEs at grade 4 (C) or above and two A-levels in subjects like maths, English, science and a second language. Moreover, you’ll have to pass a Disclosure and Barring Service check.

To work as a commercial pilot, you’ll need to hold an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL). This qualification is known as a ‘frozen ATPL’ which becomes ‘unfrozen’ after you’ve completed at least 1,500 flying hours.

There are several different types of training courses available for professional pilot licenses, as listed below:

  • ATP integrated courses – single courses to fly commercially. They include Multi Crew Cooperation (MCC) instruction.
  • MPL integrated courses – single courses to be a co-pilot in commercial air transport.
  • CPL integrated courses – single courses to fly commercially. They do not include any instrument rating training.
  • CPL modular courses – to fly commercially. They do not include any instrument rating training.
  • CPL/IR integrated courses – single courses to fly commercially.
  • IR modular courses – instrument training for either aeroplanes or helicopters.

It’s also important to note that the cost of ATPL training is tremendous and ranges between £60,000 and £90,000. A full-time course will typically take 18 months to complete, while a part-time or modular course can take significantly longer.

Meanwhile, there are other options to gain the appropriate education to become a pilot:

  • Through a degree in aviation that includes pilot training.
  • Through an apprenticeship (currently under development).
  • Through a passenger airline which offers pilot training programmes.
  • Through airline sponsorships, bursaries and scholarships.

If you’re not completely sure you want to pursue a career as a pilot, check out the Honourable Company of Air Pilots’ website to find out more about their aptitude assessment which has been specifically designed for those with little or no flying experience.

3. Land Your First Job

If you’ve completed all the necessary training and have obtained your license to fly, congratulations are in order.

The next thing on your agenda should be finding a job with a top employer. And with literally hundreds of airlines in the UK, you’ll be spoiled for choice. One of the biggest employers in the country is British Airways.

Other employers include:

  • Other scheduled airlines like easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair
  • Chartered airlines like TUI Group
  • Freight airlines like DHL and TNT

You should also be prepared to look for work outside the UK or for a smaller budget airline, especially if you’re newly qualified. Big airlines like Emirates, for example, will only hire pilots with extensive experience and working for a company like Ryanair could be a good stepping stone in your career.

In addition to directly checking employers’ websites for vacancies, you can also find opportunities on major job boards like Monster, Reed and our very own job search platform.

Other, more specialist, sites to check include:

Meanwhile, don’t underestimate the power of networking. Often, the connections you make in your industry can prove helpful when looking for a job.

4. Develop Your Career

Upon obtaining your professional pilot’s license, there are other ratings which you may be required to get before or after gaining employment. These are excellent ways to develop your career. Some options are outlined below.

Further Training

  • A Jet Orientation Course (JOC) will introduce you to the handling characteristics of jet-powered aircraft. It follows on from your MCC and features 30 hours in a simulator.
  • An Upset Training Course lasts about 5 hours and helps you develop your handling around the stall through unusual aircraft attitudes and basic aerobatics.
  • You’ll need to hold a Type Rating for the specific aircraft you’ll be operating if you work for an airline. The airline will typically ask you to foot the bill (about £25,000), though they will most likely have a finance scheme in place.

Other Options

If you’re not completely sold on the idea of becoming an airline pilot, but still want a career in flying, there are many other options you can consider, including:

  • Agricultural pilot
  • Airship pilot
  • Bush pilot
  • Cargo pilot
  • Commercial helicopter pilot
  • Flying instructor
  • Oil industry pilot
  • Police and air ambulance pilot
  • RAF pilot
  • Test pilot

Meanwhile, if you only want to learn to fly as a hobby, you might want to consider getting a Private Pilot License (PPL). Note that private pilots are forbidden from profiting from any flight – this, however, does not apply to pilots in the US.


What do you think? Are you ready to spread your wings and fly your way into a career as an airline pilot? Perhaps you’ve already completed the journey and would like to impart your wisdom on future pilots? Join the conversation down below and share your thoughts with us!

Meanwhile, if you’re still a little confused about what you want to do or you’re looking to change direction completely, check out our list of career paths for some inspiration!


The salary information contained in this article is based on official government data compiled and published by the National Careers Service.


This article was originally published in January 2014.