Becoming a pilot is the dream of many of us, but very few take action and learn how to fly. Gaining your wings is one of the most rewarding experiences out there, and gives you a whole new perspective, and attitude on life. This article outlines the basic steps required to become a pilot, and what you need to know before starting your journey.
Becoming a pilot
Becoming a pilot is no simple task. There are strict medicals, extremely challenging ground school examinations and in flight assessments that will push you right out of your comfort zone and well beyond your personal limits. The job can be hazardous, and realistically it can take years to become licensed and qualified. Even then, entry level jobs can just plain suck – long hours, uncomfortable working conditions and with terrible pay. It can take upwards of 5 years and 5,000 flying hours before you can secure decent full time professional employment, but the juice is definitely worth the squeeze.
Becoming a pilot is often joked as ‘a hard way to earn an easy living’, but aviation also has a lifelong commitment to professional development, skills improvement and training.
There are also many different avenues of becoming a pilot – you could become a Self funded commercial pilot student, Become a military pilot, Become employed by an airline and receive sponsored training, Win an aviation scholarship, or even undertake a university or college degree to get your pilot licence
Is Becoming a pilot worth the cost?
Before you even start on your journey to become a pilot, you need to ask yourself whether being a pilot is worth the cost for you. This is a very tricky question and requires some deep introspection. Try asking yourself the following questions
- Why do I want to become a pilot
- What kind of career do I want as a pilot
- How will being a pilot affect my family and work/life balance
- Where do I see myself in 5 and 10 years
Motivation to become a pilot
Understanding why you want to be a pilot will pay dividends on your journey, as becoming a pilot is a herculean task that requires an insane amount of self motivation. Great ways to boost your motivation include;
- Talking about aviation to everybody you know
- Making friends with similar aviation interests
- Joining the local aero club
- Going for a Trial Introductory Flight or Joyflight
- Attending airshows
- Reading aviation books
- Watching Aviation movies and TV shows like ‘Ice Pilots‘
The four initial steps to becoming a pilot
There are four initial or universal steps to becoming a pilot
First step to becoming a pilot
The first step to becoming a pilot is to experience your first flight. This is essential to make sure you actually enjoy the airborne experience and understand exactly what a pilot does.
Don’t worry if you get airsick or feel nervous – this is completely normal. Actually, 90% of people get airsick – pilots just get desensitized to it eventually and the feelings go away. Airsickness is unfortunately pretty horrible to deal with, but usually subsides after the first 10 lessons or so (if it becomes a problem you can consult your doctor for strategies moving forward).
A Trial Introductory Flight is usually a 40 minute session where you will actually fly the plane yourself under the expert guidance of a qualified flying instructor. You will get a detailed pre flight brief and be guided through how to Taxi an aircraft, line up on the runway and take-off, fly to the training area and then be talked through each of the different controls. Depending on how it goes, you might even get a crack at landing the plane on the way home!
A Trial Introductory Flight will usually cost somewhere between $100-$200, and counts towards your minimum hours requirements – make sure to get a logbook and have this filled out by your instructor at the end of the session.
Second step to becoming a pilot
After experiencing your Trial Introductory Flight and making sure flying is for you, do not do anything else until you book a medical. I have had a number of students progress quite far through their training only to heartbreakingly find out they are medically disqualified from ever holding a flight crew licence.
Medical certificates for aviation are very similar worldwide, and most regulatory bodies have a two-tier pilot medical system;
Grade one medical – Airline or Commercial pilot. this must be renewed every year
Grade two medical – Private or recreational pilot. This must be renewed every four years
As part of obtaining a medical, you will usually need to lodge an application with your aviation regulatory body for an aviation reference number or pilot licence number. This will register you on the federal system, and your medical will be allocated to your profile
Third step to becoming a pilot
In addition to your medical needs, pilots must meet strict security clearances. If you have previously been convicted of drunk driving, drug offenses or any other serious criminal offenses, you might struggle to pass a security check. After ensuring you can pass your medical, make sure to apply to your regulatory body for your security check.
In Australia, we are regulated by the Civial Aviation Safety authority, and this security check and card is called an ASIC.
Fourth step to becoming a pilot
The fourth step to becoming a pilot is choosing a school. This is no easy task, as there are many different training providers which all have their various strengths and weaknesses. A school which is highly suitable for one student may not be appropriate for another.
For example, I often worked at a number of smaller schools where I specialised in training student pilots who had ‘lost their mojo’ so to speak and found it very difficult to learn at other, busier schools or in controlled airspace. By slowly and incrementally working with young pilots, I was able to help them rebuild their confidence and become more competent in the air allowing them to flourish.
Ideally you will create a shortlist, check them out online and read reviews, phone them for a quick conversation and to arrange a meeting with their Chief Pilot / Chief Instructor and the instructor you will be assigned to. Meet the team and
For more advice in selecting a school, check out our guide on how to select a flight school near you
Further steps to becoming a pilot
So you have completed your initial steps, and should have worked out whether you are disqualified from becoming a pilot or not. If you have made it through this far, the next steps are conducting your actual training. This will include Ground school, theory Examinations, Flight school and Flight tests.
Ground school will cover the theory required to help you practically fly. You will learn about Aircraft General Knowledge, Aerodynamics, Human Factors, Navigation, Air Law, Systems knowledge, Meterology and Flight planning
Each of the ground school subjects will have a decicated written or theory examination at the end. These are staged in difficulty as you progress through the licencing tiers.
This is the meat of becoming a pilot. Your flight school will take you out on practical flying lessons where you will learn to control the aircraft safely through a wide variety of conditions and learn to safely handle emergencies such as engine failures and forced landings.
Once basics are met, flight school and flying lessons become increasingly difficult as you specialise and learn advanced piloting techniques.
You will become very familiar with the ‘Board Brief’ – used both as an aid for the pre-flight brief.
There are different tiers, or ‘classes’ of pilot licence, depending on experience and skill level, and each with their own set of privileges and limitations.
- Recreational licence
- Private licence
- Commercial licence
- Airline licence
A recreational licence is the first licence you will achieve, and allows you to fly for fun (recreationally) within close proximity to a local airfield. You can typically also achieve additional endorsements to enable you to fly cross country and take a passenger, but most student pilots quickly progress to the next tier (private pilot licence) where this is not required. To get a recreational licence takes a legal minimum of 25 hours of flight training, which is achievable for fast learners and full time students, although 30-40 hours is a more reasonable number for pilots learning casually.
A private pilot licence enables you to fly as pilot in command of most small aircraft, anywhere in the world. Whether it is a smart idea for you as a freshly minted private pilot to brave international operations straight away is for your judgement (hint, I would not even think about this as pilot in command until you have logged a few thousand hours!).
A private pilot licence legally takes a legal minimum of 40 hours of flight training, however I have found a more realistic number is that most students will comfortably achieve this in around 60 hours of regular flying lessons (at least two lessons per week) – more casual students can take longer. Essentially, to achieve a private pilots licence you must expand on a recreational pilots licence with cross country navigation training, as well as being expected to fly the aircraft to higher standards of accuracy and safety. Your summative test flight will cover everything you have learned to date including ground handling, pattern flying (circuit work) and emergencies, cross country navigation and controlled airspace proceedures.
Having a private pilots licence is a prerequsite to undertake certain flying endorsements and ratings such as Aerobatic flying, Night flying and Private Instrument flying Ratings
A commercial licence required a minimum of 200 hours flight experience, and this has specific breakdowns in terms of how many hours pilot in command, dual instruction and cross country is required. A commercial licence is required to fly ‘for hire or reward’ and is therefore an essential baseline qualification for a commercial pilot.
Airline transport pilots licence
an airline transport pilots licence takes 1500 hours, to achieve, and is the highest level of flight crew licence you can hold. In addition to a breakdown of hours, an ATPL requires a number of theory examinations to be passed, as well as multi crew assessments.
An ATPL is required to fly as Captain of a multi crew aircraft above 5700kg, or be engaged in Regular Passenger Transport (airline) operations. There are some very specific legalities regarding how this type of aircraft can be operated, and how crews must be trained. This is almost exclusively the domain of airlines that engage in regular passenger transport operations (such as Qantas, Air New Zealand, Emirates and Cathay Pacific)
Pilot jobs and specialising
Pilot jobs range depending on experience and complexity. Newly minted commercial pilots should look where to find their first low hour pilot jobs, wheras more senior or experienced pilots will naturally have a better understanding of employment opportunities.
Depending where you live, you can use online classifieds to help find pilot jobs. For Australian pilots, the Australian Federation of Air pilots is a great place to look, but worldwide there are many aviation career agencies that can help you find flying jobs.
Being a pilot has always been a career where landing a job is difficult, even when there was a pilot shortage.,so don’t expect this to happen overnight.
Pilot jobs include;
- Freight and cargo operations
- Airline regular passenger trasnport operations
- Aeromedical evacuations and air ambulances
- Charter flights
- Joyflights and scenic flights
- Flight training (becoming an instuctor yourself)
- Survey pilots (mining, property mapping or ecological as examples)
- Military pilot
- Helicopter pilot
Ongoing testing requirements
Depending on where you work, you will require a minimum of a biennial flight evaluation, but most professional organisations will have an approved ongoing training and testing program – referred to as a cyclic training program. For larger organisations flying high performance or regular passenger transport (airline) operations, this is usually conducted in a simulator every three months and is referred to as a ‘Sim check’ or a ‘Cyclic check’. These cover everything from standard operating procedures and any new changes to company or operational policy, as well as in flight emergencies and Crew Resource Management discussions.
Becoming a pilot is the dream for many of us, but very few actually take action and learn how to fly. Gaining your wings is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding experiences you can have which gives you a whole new perspective, and attitude on life. This article outlined the basic steps required to become a pilot, and some of the things you needed to know before starting your journey.
So, what do you think? Is flying for you? Leave a comment below and let me know what your next move is!