Being a pilot is a fantastic job for people who enjoy responsibility, technology, meeting people and the excitement of flying a commercial aircraft.

Pilots are paid salaries that can be well above average, and they can benefit from perks such as cheap airline tickets and overnight stays in holiday destinations, depending on the airline they work for. 

However, with private training offering the main route into the profession, trainee pilots will need to take out a large loan for this, work alongside their training, or find other ways to fund it.

The aviation industry is very cyclical and heavily influenced by economic conditions and any restrictions on the movement of people (such as a pandemic). Globally, the aviation industry is expanding so there is always room for newly qualified pilots (often referred to as cadets). However, finding your first job is not always easy. It is a generally accepted rule to expect 18 months between finishing training and finding your first airline job – this brings its own financial implications as a pilot is required to renew their medical and licence ratings annually.

As the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) puts it:

'With an initial investment required of almost £100,000 before you are in a position to even apply for a job, it is important that you make sure it is the correct career for you.'

Skip ahead to learn more about becoming a pilot:

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What does a pilot do?

Firstly, let's distinguish the different types of pilot. The two main categories of aircraft are fixed-wing (airplane) and rotary wing (helicopter). There are then three types of flying category: private, commercial, and military.

  • Private pilots can fly light aircraft around for leisure, for example the small two-four seater propeller planes you've probably seen flying low in the sky near your house, such as Cessnas and Pipers. They can fly solo or take friends and family up. You cannot earn money from this type of flying.
  • Commercial pilots undergo further training to private pilots, which will allow them to hold a Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL). This allows them to fly revenue flights for companies and airlines. Ranging from sightseeing flights, to transporting cargo and passengers around the world, this advice area will focus on this category.
  • Military pilots go down a completely different route, undertaking specialist training towards operating military aircraft to serve in the armed forces. In the UK, the main routes are via the RAF, Royal Navy or British Army. You can also start your flying career with the air cadets air squadron.

Pilot duties involve ensuring that the aircraft and daily operations are conducted with the highest standards of safety, efficiency and competency. It is a common misconception that cadet pilots are 'co-pilots' who never touch the controls. This couldn't be further from the truth.

As a Cadet First Officer you will be performing take-offs, approaches, landings, and general cruise tasks, employing a combination of manual operation and monitoring computer-controlled flying systems. You will be required to keep fuel logs, communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC) and of course enjoy looking out at the vast world below you!

Communication is a vital aspect of being a pilot as you will communicate with your fellow pilots, cabin crew, air traffic control, and passengers throughout, to ensure a safe, efficient and smooth flight.

Depending on which airline and aircraft you operate on, you may return to your home base at the end of each day or find yourself downroute in a foreign city for a night or two.

Find out more in our Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers job profile.

How to become a commercial airline pilot

There is a huge amount of jargon in a pilot's world: ATPL, Frozen ATPL (fATPL), PPL, ground instruction, flying hours – and so on. 

To join an airline as a Cadet First Officer requires you to have:

When you finish your training you will be issued with a fATPL, which allows you to get a job with an airline as a first officer working alongside a captain.

When you have gained 1,500 hours of flying experience – meeting certain conditions along the way – your ATPL will become unfrozen and you will be able to apply for jobs as a captain. This will bring a considerable amount of responsibility and, therefore, a considerable pay increase. Time to command (how long it takes to become a captain from joining a company) depends on the airline, but as a rule of thumb you can aim for around five years with most low cost carriers.

As part of your flight training you will be required to pass multiple written exams with a 75% pass mark. These will include the below subjects:

  • air law
  • aircraft general knowledge: airframe/systems/powerplant
  • aircraft general knowledge: instrumentation
  • mass and balance
  • performance
  • flight planning and monitoring
  • human performance
  • meteorology
  • general navigation
  • radio navigation
  • operational procedures
  • principles of flight
  • communications: visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR) 
  • KSA – Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes 

Pilot education and qualifications 

What qualifications are required to become a pilot?

To get your ATPL, you’ll need to train with an aviation academy or flight school.

The qualifications required to begin your pilot training may depend on the academy or school you train with. Go directly to the flight school or the employer to see what they say.

We have focused on what the aviation training services provider CAE says is needed, which is typical for flight schools.

Q&A with pilot Rosanna – what it's like being a female pilot, plus more.

Shortlisting flight schools can be easily completed by using comparison websites and reading flight school reviews and then, just like universities, flight schools often run specific open-days or offer one-to-one tours of their facilities which we highly recommend you attend. Speaking to past students and reading their reviews are essential in understanding exactly what their training experience was like.

William Mallard, Pilot Network

Common skills required to become a pilot

To start on your journey, here are some of the requirements to begin training as a pilot:

  • Personal qualities: a passion for flight, motivation and ambition, self-discipline, technical aptitude, tolerance of pressure, maturity for your age, and spatial awareness.
  • Completed secondary education: budding pilots are required to have completed secondary education (high school), ideally achieving a pass in English, mathematics and physics at GCSE.
  • Medical certification: you’ll need an examination to test your hearing, eyesight, coordination, and overall health. Upon successful completion, you will receive a valid Class 1 Medical Certificate. All pilots are required to have this certificate throughout their flying careers. 
  • Age, nationality eligibility and entry requirements: you may apply from the age of 17 but can only begin training as of 18. Depending on your programme of interest, you must be eligible to live in the country your training programme takes place in.
  • Assessment: assessment involving computer-based aptitude testing, personality questionnaires, teamwork exercises, and competency-based interviews identifies individuals who are most likely to succeed in pilot training and who are suitable for a career an airline pilot.

Vocational vs academic routes to becoming a pilot

Going to university is not an essential part of becoming a pilot. If you're absolutely sure that you want to become a commercial airline pilot, you may want to dive straight into private training, as this will work out cheaper in the end.  

If you're unsure, you may want to consider some of the university routes that lead to part qualification, such as a Private Pilot's Licence. If you are looking at this university-based route, there will usually be additional entry requirements to the above, such as A-levels or equivalent (with specific A-levels required if the pilot studies is with Aerospace Engineering).

The three main ways of getting a fATPL licence are:

  • Integrated training
  • Modular training
  • Multi-Crew Pilot Licence

Aviation schools will often offer both integrated and modular courses.

1. Integrated training

Modular and integrated routes can be done individually and with airlines. The big difference is that integrated training will allow you to start from scratch, whereas modular training requires you to have gained a PPL and 150 hours at least before you begin training.

This is private training and it's expensive. Costs normally range from £80,000 to £90,000 plus other extras. There are finance options where you can take out a loan and pay it back once you are working for an airline. Like any loan, you need to check the small print.

These courses are intensive, normally around 18 months long, and will involve theoretical teaching and flying time.

But it’s worth it, according to Wendy Pursey at BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association):

'It is widely accepted that this is the best route directly into an airline, and when recruitment is on the increase in times of pilot shortage, it probably is.'

While the clear downside is the cost, an advantage of this route is that you will be considered with zero flying time under your belt. However, you do not want to commit to this expense if you are not cut out to be a pilot. One way of checking is to take the assessment run by the Honourable Company of Air Pilots.

You must also check your health. You could do wonderfully in the theoretical exams and get your flying hours, but if you fail the medical, all your money and time will be wasted. Read the guidance on the medical examination in the BALPA booklet 'The Inside Track' and the section 'Before you begin, do one thing'.

2. Modular training

The modular route has advantages and disadvantages:

  • It's more flexible, allowing you to work to pay for costs.
  • As there's no clear end date, your training can take longer.

With modular training you will not start your commercial pilot training until you have gained your PPL and have 150 hours' flight experience.  

Modular course ground exams (theory) can be studied remotely through virtual learning. While this route can be cheaper, it is still expensive.

3. Multi-Crew Pilot Licence

This is a new concept and restricts pilots to working for a particular airline and a particular type of aircraft.

BALPA does not recommend this route unless you have a clear job offer once you finish your training.

The training can take less time but your options are much more restricted.

Who offers training and education?

List of approved Pilot Training Providers: Civil Aviation Authority

The big players are CAE and L3. You should explore the range of options on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website.

Sponsored training

While sponsored commercial airline pilot training was offered in the past, this is no longer the case. It now must be self-funded. This self funding often stretches right up to and including the ‘type rating’ the final phase of joining an airline. This can cost as much as £30,000.

If you're looking for a scholarship to fund your training, see the Honourable Company of Air Pilots Flying Scholarship Programme.

Best universities for pilot courses

Our search tool shows courses for budding pilots.

Before applying, it is really important you understand what these courses each offer and where they'll lead you, whether that's helping you:

  • gain a PPL (Private Pilot Licence)
  • gain your PPL and ATPL ground instruction (theory)
  • or achieve a Frozen ATPL and is linked to Private Aviation Training Schools, giving you the full integrated experience 

Integrated training linked to university study

Courses that combine integrated training and university study are designed for people who want to become commercial airline pilots, and who also want to get an aviation degree.

Kingston University is upfront about the costs involved:

“Please be aware that, in addition to university tuition fees, the cost of the second year, which involves the integrated Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) training, is approximately £70,000.”

These courses will be a mixture of university study and intensive training at an aviation training school leading to Frozen ATPL status, which will be self-funded.

For example, Kingston University’s course is delivered in a partnership with Bournemouth Commercial Flight Training.

Modular training linked to university study

Combining modular training with university study will usually allow you to gain a full PPL.

Again, you will have your standard student loans, plus the costs of doing the PPL and possibly the ATPL ground instruction courses and exams.  
You may need to contact the university directly to get a clear idea of the extra fees.

After your degree you would then follow the modular route with an approved pilot training provider to then gain your Frozen ATPL.

Top tip! Some courses will only help you to part-qualify, while some will also allow you to take the ATPL ground instruction theory courses as well. Make sure you check this before applying.

Many courses with pilot study are aerospace engineering courses.


Applying directly after military service

The military accreditation scheme (MAS) allows pilots trained in the armed forces to apply for any pilot licence. This scheme is handled by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Pilot jobs and careers

Average pilot starting salaries

The average current rate of basic starting pay for pilots, without allowances, could be:

  • Flying instructor – £1,100 per month and usually £15-£25 per flying hour
  • Turboprop – £16,000-£35,000 per annum
  • Small Business Jet – £17,000-£35,000 per annum
  • Short-haul (Cadet First Officer) – £16,000-£30,000 per annum
  • Short-haul (First Officer) – £30,000-£60,000 per annum
  • Short-haul (Captain) – £60,000+ per annum 
  • Long-haul (First Officer) – £55,000+ per annum
  • Long-haul (Captain) – £120,000+ per annum

Source: BALPA and Pilot Network 

It's unlikely that most new cadet pilots would secure a long-haul position.
According to LMI for All, which is based on a wide range of data, experienced pilots have been averaging £112,000 per annum.

Pilot career progression

There is a dedicated hierarchy in order to work your way through the airline ranks. In brief, these are as follows:

  • Second officer (SO): The rank a low-hour pilot gains when first joining the airline. This is an old rank and today is employed only by a couple of airlines. Promotion is usually received upon the pilot gaining enough hours' experience.
  • First officer (FO): This is the more common rank of pilots found in the right-hand seat.
  • Senior first officer (SFO): The most senior position in the right-hand seat, normally secured as individuals are approaching eligibility for command.
  • Captain (Capt): When a place becomes available, an SFO or FO with the right experience, skill and seniority will undergo a command course to be promoted to captain, and will command the aircraft from the left-hand seat (right-hand seat in helicopters).
  • Training captain: Once qualified, the training captain provides simulator and line training to new and experienced pilots.

Source: BALPA


Related jobs

  • Helicopter pilot
  • Air traffic controller
  • Airport operations and management
  • Cabin crew
  • Aerospace engineer
  • Maintenance engineer
  • Marketing in aviation industry.

Where to find more information

British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA): professional association and registered trade union for UK pilots

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA): the UK's specialist aviation regulator

Read our Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers job profile'Career goals' Q&A with pilot Rosanna, or our aerospace engineering subject guide.