How to become a Pilot

Two pilots sitting in the cockpit before takeoff

At some point, many young people dream about being a pilot when they grow up, and why not? Flying planes is an exciting and lucrative career that anyone would be proud of. Although it can cost a substantial amount of money to train to be a pilot, it is always worth it in the end because you’ll make good money, never want for a job, and be able to see the world.

Although you don’t need a degree to become a pilot, a degree an aircraft related field can be beneficial. A-Levels (or equivalent) are required. Moreover, any time you plan to fly a plane that has more than nine passenger seats, a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority, or CAA, is required. This licence is known as the Airline Transport Pilot Licence, or ATPL. And that is just the beginning.

Getting Started

Before you get that ATPL, you need to undergo the right training, which includes obtaining a Class 1 medical certificate. This certificate is good for 12 months until you reach the age of 40, and it is an important step in the process of becoming a professional pilot. While you’re in school, you’ll be expected to excel in areas such as mathematics, science, and English. It also helps if you are fluent in a second language, but this isn’t an actual requirement.

Of course, if you’d like to know if you have the “right stuff” to become a pilot, there are aptitude tests you can take to find out for sure. The Honourable Company of Air Pilots is an organisation that offers these tests, and they usually only cost around £150. These tests are useful because they offer realistic views of the career and test the specific areas that you need to be good in before you decide for sure that this is what you want to do.

Prospective pilots also have to be at least 17 years old. Most people choose to get a Private Pilots’ Licence (PPL) before getting a commercial licence. To do this, you’ll need a Class 2 medical licence, which is usually administered by the EASA, or the European Aviation Safety Agency.

A class 2 medical license lasts 5 years however you are always eligible to get a a class 1 license at any point. In general the license lasts 5 years but the duration of the medicals mainly depend on your age.

Private Versus Commercial Licences

Before you get too far along in the process, you might want to become familiar with the differences between a private pilots’ licence and a commercial licence. Here are the basic differences:

  • A private pilots’ licence (PPL) requires 9 exams to complete. The conditions for this license is a Class 2 medical certificate and satisfactory training in both theoretical and practical areas; you also have to complete 45 hours of flying training, which includes 10 hours of solo flying, five hours of solo cross-country flying, and at least one flight of more than 150 nautical miles that includes two or more full-stop landings at two or more different aerodromes.

  • A Commercial Pilots’ Licence (CPL) can only be obtained by someone at least 18 years of age and who has a Class 1 medical certificate; they also have to have a minimum of 200 hours of flying time, which includes 100 hours as the pilot in command, 20 hours of cross-country flying that includes at least one solo flight of 300 nautical miles or more and full-stop landings at two or more aerodromes, and 10 hours of instruction on instrumentation, which must include at least five hours of night-time instruction and experience.
The view behind the planes' wing in the sky

As you can see, the PPL is a prerequisite for obtaining the CPL, so if you get the private licence, most people will expect you to continue your training and eventually obtain your commercial pilots’ licence.

Are There Other Types of Licences?

Although the commercial licence is what most pilots aim for, there are actually other types of pilots’ licences in the UK. The National Private Pilots’ Licence, or NPPL, was developed in 2002 and is meant just for recreational pilots or those who don’t intend to fly large commercial jets. With an NPPL, you are somewhat limited when it comes to the types of planes you are allowed to fly.

A plane license from the United States of America

The Airline Transport Pilots’ Licence, or ATPL, is what you’ll need if you want to be more than a co-pilot. In other words, with this licence you can be the commander of a jet airplane. For this type of licence, you’ll need to complete 14 exams, in addition to a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, of which 200 hours must be in cross-country flying, as well as 75 hours of instrument time and 100 hours of night-time flight.

Many of the advanced licences, such as the ATPL, require subjects such as mass and balance, meteorology, VFR communications, IFR communications, radio navigation, air law, and much more. The more hours that are required, the better trained you will be and, therefore, you’ll be more prepared for anything that might happen when you’re piloting your airplane.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Pilot?

Pilot training can take anywhere from six months to two years to complete, and the time is affected by things such as how much time you can devote to each training session and how much you can afford to pay at any given time. The latter is important because it is expected to be no less than £50,000 to complete the necessary training, and many prospective pilots can only afford this amount in small increments, which means they have to complete their training bit by bit over a period of time. In addition, whenever you take a written exam, you’ll have to pass it with a score of at least 75%.

Of course, £50,000 is subject to the the driving flying schools.

Have a look at our timeline below. These figures are the minimum times / hours, please keep in mind that overwhelming majority of pilots will spend much more hours training, for example the CPL can take more than 1000 – 1500 hours of flying.

A map on how to become a fully qualified pilot

Type Rating

Once you have a Frozen ATPL License, you can now secure employment with an airline. During this time, you will spend around 2-3 months training on the specific aircraft you will be flying for that airline (e.g. Boeing 737). This is called the type rating and is considered the most intensive part of the flight training journey.

It consists of both simulator training and technical classroom training which must be completed before you start flying passengers.

It is possible to complete type rating training without having secured a job, but this isn’t something we would recommend due to the substantial cost it will be – in excess of £20,000.

Base Training & Line Training

After completing your type rating, you’re ready to fly the aircaft for the first time. This is called base training. You take an empty aircraft up, and complete around 6 take-offs and landings with a training captain. If you manage to do this, the next time you fly will be with passengers on board.

Line training is the final phase of training carried out to bring you up to “line standard”.

Prior to this you will have only flown the aircraft once without passengers (during your base training). Line training is when you operate the aircraft, with passengers, under the supervision of a line training Captain who is providing you with tuition.

This typically takes between 30 – 80 sectors (flights) and you will eventually be signed off when you are deemed proficient with the airline SOPs, non-technical skills and aircaft handling. At this point, you will be released “to the line” where you will fly with normal Captains. This is where the learning really starts, and you never stop throughout your entire career!

First Officer vs Captain

A First Officer is second to the Captain. This means that the captain will be responsible for the flight and is in command of it. The first officer is the second in command. They are both licensed and work as a team to fly the airplane.

To Captain a commercial aircraft, you must have logged a minimum of 1500 flight hours, and have an ATPL. However in reality, most short haul airlines require at least 3000 hours logged to even consider promoting a pilot to Captain. Smaller regional turboprop carriers might however have lower requirements.

It is possible to be promoted to the position of Captain within 4 years at some airlines. These would typically be at short haul low cost airlines which are expanding or have a high pilot turnover.

To become a long haul Captain, you would need a minimum of around 5,000 flight hours which would take at a minimum 6 years to achieve. At many long haul airlines, it can take 15 years before being promoted to the position of Captain. This isn’t necessarily because of flight skills or capabilities, but most likely because there are only a limited number of Captain positions at the airline and staff are promoted in seniority order.

Can You Train in Other Ways?

Much like many other countries, the UK offers a few ways to obtain different types of pilot licences. For instance, you can enrol in any number of gliding schools through the Air Training Corps. With this training, you can get your “A” gliding licence and be qualified to fly both powered and winch-launched gliders. At one time, you didn’t have to have a CAA-granted licence to fly glider planes; however, as of April of 2018, that is no longer the case because now, you do need a licence through the CAA.

There are also flying scholarships which are often available. These training courses are usually funded through a specific airline company or a commercial company and require full-time training that enables you to reach your goal a lot faster.

As you can see, your options are numerous when you choose to become an airplane pilot in the UK. In addition, when you receive your licence, you are usually certified to fly only certain types of airplanes. UK licences are issued for two main categories of airplanes: aeroplanes, which include motor-gliders and sailplanes, and helicopters. They can also be issued for the following specific types of planes:

  • Light aircraft
  • Microlights
  • Gyroplanes
  • Balloons
  • Airships

Each type of plane has its own abbreviation, and your licence will list the abbreviations that indicate the types of planes you are certified to fly.

Different Ratings Apply

The type of licence you aim for can centre around many different characteristics, but there are also various ratings that come with each category.

The most common are Class ratings, which include Single Engine Piston Landplane, Multi Engine Piston Landplane, and Single Engine Turbine, to name a few; and Type ratings, which include jet aircraft, multi-engine turboprop, and a few other types that are more complex.

You can also get special ratings for night-time flying and a few others, so as you can see, your licence can be as basic or as personalised as you want it to be. A lot of these special ratings depend on what you wish to do with your licence once you receive it, and in the UK, you have a lot of options when it comes to that licence.

How Much Do Airline Pilots Make?

An Etihad airways aeroplane soaring through the clouds

Naturally, pilot salaries will vary depending on their experience level and who they work for, but a few of those salaries include the following estimates:

  • Royal Air Force: £56,000
  • UK Ministry of Defence: £71,000
  • British Airways: £79,000
  • easyJet: £67,000

An First Officer can expect to earn between £35,000 and £80,000 a year depending on experience and the airline.

An airline Captain can expect to earn between £80,000 and £150,000 a year depending on experience and the airline.

In the UK, when all salaries are combined and averaged, the typical pilot earns around £65,000 a year, but naturally that number can be much higher or much lower in certain instances.


Whether you want to fly a commercial jet plane, a postal delivery plane, a military plane, or a private jet, you’ll need training and a licence to get a job you’ll love. The best part is, you have a lot of freedom when it comes to the type of job you get and the amount of money you’ll end up making. Training always consists of both classroom time and practical training, that is, actual flying time, so you’ll be fully prepared for becoming a professional pilot at some point.

Pilots are usually revered by the public, and for good reason. Not just anyone can be an airline pilot, but if you feel like you have what it takes to make a great one, there’s no time like the present to get started.

If you want to start flying as soon as possible, purchase the world’s most comprehensive and powerful flight simulator: X-Plane 11

X-Plane 11 Global Flight Simulator

And to read more about becoming a pilot, we really recommend checking out

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One Comment

  1. Really informative. Looks like a must-read for anyone considering becoming a pilot.
    I heard that there is less pressures doing a degree if you want to become a pilot now

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