So You Want to Be a Pilot?

This article was written for the Bray Air Display programme in 2007 but it has been updated each year to reflect changes to flight training. After lots of requests, I’ve decided to publish it for all to view on this website. I’ll continue to update it on an annual basis to ensure it reflects the current flight training options available. If you’d like to contact me, please use the Contact Form HERE. Mark Dwyer.


There is no doubt that the road to becoming a commercial airline pilot is a long and difficult (and expensive!) process but not beyond the reach of the majority of people if they apply themselves.

This could be you in just a few years

The first step I would recommend to any aspiring airline pilot is to take a trial lesson. These are available all over the country from the big commercial training schools like the National Flight Centre and Atlantic Flight Training Academy to the smaller flying clubs. A trial lesson will give you a good idea of your suitability towards a flying career. It is also a good opportunity to ask your flying instructor questions about the different routes to obtaining your ultimate goal. I will cover the different routes to obtaining your commercial licence shortly but there is another crucial step you need to take before commencing your training.

The Medical

There are three types of medical valid in Europe, Class 1, Class 2 and LAPL (Light Aircraft Pilot Licence). I’ll focus on the Class 1 as the Class 2 and LAPL are only valid for private flying. The initial examination is quite intense and involves a blood test, hearing test, chest x-ray, spyrometery test, ECG, general check-up and eye exam. All of this can take up six hours and is conducted at the Aeromedical Centres at the Mater Private Hospital or Charter Medical Group in Dublin.  Initial examinations only take place on certain days so book early! When you pass your medical you’ll need to keep it valid by renewing it each year. The renewal is simpler and quicker than the initial. ECG’s, Hearing tests and Eye tests are conducted every few years depending on your age. Despite popular belief, pilots can wear glasses and the exact requirements can be found in a document called EASA Part-Med which you should be able to find on the internet. I would strongly advise potential pilots to go get a medical first, there’s no point spending all that money training only to find out you don’t meet the medical requirements. (www.materprivate.ie / www.chartermedical.ie/aeromedical )

So you’ve taken your trial lesson and you love it, you have your Class 1 medical in your hand, so what do you do now? There are two routes open to you, integrated or modular. I could write an endless list of the pros and cons of each route but ultimately it will come down to your own personal circumstances. Integrated works for some and not for others. Before I discuss the two routes I will outline the constituent parts, no matter which way you choose you will be issued with the same licence at the end of your training.

Private Pilot Licence (PPL)

The PPL is completed on a single engine aircraft, usually Cessna’s or Piper’s. While I didn’t do my PPL on this Piper Cub, I did much of my hour building including my CPL Qualifying Cross Country on it.

Whether you go integrated or modular, the first step is your PPL which takes a minimum of 45 hours. I must stress this is a minimum requirement and there are a number of other requirements that must be fulfilled within this minimum. Some of these requirements are 5 hours solo cross country, a qualifying solo cross country flight of at least 150 nautical miles, simulated instrument time etc. In reality the total figure will be dictated by the frequency of lessons and the great Irish weather! The latter will particularly affect the total length of time it takes you to get your PPL. The route you take will dictate whether you can do this full time or part time. The PPL can be argued as being the most important part of your training, this is where you learn how to fly and pick up all the basic handling skills. After this a heavier reliance will be placed on operational and emergency procedures and your flying should become second nature so it’s important to get a good understanding at this stage. A certain amount of theory is also required which takes the form of 9 multiple choice exams in the subjects Air Law, Operational Procedures, Performance, Navigation, Aircraft Technical Knowledge, Principles of Flight, Communications, Meteorology and Human Performance & Limitations. All exams carry a pass mark of 75%. A General Flight Test with an Irish Aviation Authority Examiner then needs to be passed to obtain your PPL. (www.iaa.ie)

Night Qualification

A night qualification takes 5 hours and must be completed at a controlled airport (Dublin, Cork, Shannon or any of the regional airports) with runway lighting. One of these hours must be solo and must include 5 take offs and landings. The remaining hours must include cross country navigation and dual circuits.

ATPL Theoretical Knowledge

This will probably be the hardest and definitely the longest part of becoming a pilot, you will need real determination here. In order for you to start the commercial part of your training you are expected to have an extensive knowledge of flying. These 14 exams will really test you and cover areas such as instrumentation, airframes, engines, air law, navigation, aerodynamics and weight & balance to name but a few. You’ll find most of the content is not difficult to learn, it’s just the sheer quantity of it, and the pass mark is 75%. A typical distance learning course will take 9-12 months while a full time residential course will probably take about 4 months.

Instrument Rating

I completed a combined Multi-Engine and Instrument Rating (MEIR) on the Beechcraft BE-76 Duchess.

The instrument rating allows a pilot to fly a suitably equipped aircraft with sole reference to instruments i.e. in clouds. This is the most difficult part of the training process and is generally done in conjunction with the multi engine rating. The course requires 55 hours of training but up to 40 of these can be done in an approved navigation procedural trainer or simulator. The balance of these hours are done in the aircraft as well as the flight test. The course will teach you to fly the usual manoeuvres with sole reference to instruments and will then move on to more complex procedures such as instrument approaches and asymmetric flying. As well as being the toughest part of the training it is also the most expensive.

Multi Engine Rating

The multi engine rating allows a pilot to fly aircraft with more than one engine. It can be completed individually or as part of the CPL or instrument rating. It consists of 8 hours flying mainly involving general handling and asymmetric flying followed by a flight test. 70 hours Pilot in Command (PIC) is required before commencing multi engine training.

Commercial Pilot Licence – (CPL)

The CPL can be completed on a multi-engine or a single-engine aircraft although it must be complex i.e. retractable undercarriage and variable pitch propellers.

The CPL will enable a pilot to fly for hire or reward, which is not allowed on a PPL. 100 hours PIC is a prerequisite before you can start the CPL and the course takes 25 hours. 5 hours of which may include the night rating. The course is broadly similar to the PPL and just involves flying more accurately. A greater emphasis is placed on navigation and emergency procedures. After all, people will be paying you to fly so they expect to get to their destination quickly and safely.

Upset Prevention and Recovery Training – (UPRT)

AFTA in Cork use the Bellanca Decathalon for their UPRT course.

From December 2019, Upset Prevention and Recovery Training becomes a mandatory part of the training to become an airline pilot. The course, which takes 3 hours requires a student to experience upsets in an aircraft such as nose high, nose low and inverted manoeuvres. The concept is to expose students to the physiological effects of aircraft upsets including positive and negative g. It’s slightly different to aerobatics which involves flying intentional manoeuvres – UPRT involves recovering from unintentional aircraft upsets which can be surprising and startling.

Multi Crew Cooperation – (MCC)

I completed my MCC on this 737-200 many years ago. MCC’s have come along way since then and it’s worth investing in a quality course. You can get them cheap at some schools but be wary…

The MCC Course is the last qualification you will need before you can apply to an airline. The course is simulator and classroom based and includes no flying. It usually lasts five to seven days. The classroom work focuses on crew cooperation, cross cockpit communication, crew resource management etc. A big emphasis is also placed on operational procedures. The simulator segment is used to demonstrate the skills picked up in the classroom. Most simulators used for the MCC Course are based on the popular twin jet models such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 but this will vary depending on the training organisation you choose. Simtech Aviation and AFTA are approved MCC providers in Ireland.

APS MCC

The APS MCC is slowly becoming industry standard. It is a much higher quality MCC, with minimum simulator standards. It also prepares the student much better for airline operations, and importantly, will prepare you much better for an airline simulator assessment.

You may see some organisations offering an APS MCC – this is an Airline Pilot Standards MCC. It’s not a requirement for airlines at the moment but is certainly viewed favourable and is fast becoming industry standard. The additional hours on this course focus on operating swept wing jet aircraft including handling and high altitude upsets. The APS MCC usually uses airline orientated Standard Operating Procedures. There is also some additional groundschool which focuses on airline specific operations.

Type Rating – (TR)

The last piece of the puzzle! Modern commercial aircraft are large and have complex systems and no amount of general pilot training will focus on the complexity of a single aircraft type. Consequently a type rating is required for each type of jet you wish to fly. Type ratings generally cost between €20,000 to €35,000. Sometimes this cost is borne by the applicant, sometimes by an airline. Type rating courses will vary from type to type but the Boeing 737NG Type Rating consists of four weeks ground school followed by six weeks simulator training and finally aircraft training. Most TR’s will follow this format. Aircraft training is the only chance you will get to fly the aircraft prior to carrying passengers. You need to be able to demonstrate your proficiency by completing 6 take offs, 6 landings and a go-around. The Type Rating is usually undertaken after you ‘provisionally’ get a job with an airline. I say provisionally because if you don’t pass the course you don’t get the job but I’ll explain more later on.

Modular Route

The modular route allows you to do all of your training at your own pace and allows you some flexibility within your training. It basically means that each of the elements of your training are treated as separate items and don’t necessarily need to be completed in that order or immediately after each other. You don’t even need to complete each step at the same school however there are benefits to staying with the one school, especially in the later stages of training. The first step is to obtain your PPL. This can be done in Ireland, UK, Spain, US, pretty much anywhere although it will make the process easier if you are issued with an EASA PPL (European). As you know this takes 45 hours, so for arguments sake let’s say you come out with 55 hours, of which 10 hours are solo. You need a further 90 hours solo if you want to start the CPL or 60 hours to start multi engine flying. Where you build these hours is your choice, remember most countries issue an ICAO PPL which is recognised world wide (you may need to do some paperwork though!). If you’re in no rush you can stay in Ireland and just bring friends and family flying at the weekend.

The ATPLs are hard work but it’s worth it for an office like this

At this stage it might be a good idea to start thinking about the ATPL theoretical knowledge exams. Most people doing a modular course choose to do the course through distance learning. The school you choose will send you the books and study material and a schedule to keep to. It’s up to the student to keep up to the schedule which usually requires around 15 hours study per week. Regular online tests will help you monitor your progress and a tutor is usually allocated to you who can be contacted through email. Prior to the exams a residential course is run, usually for a week or two. You attend the school and practice mock exams. This also gives you an opportunity to ask questions on concepts you don’t understand. A full time residential course is also available from some schools, with lectures every day. Although you’ll progress through your exams quicker it often costs two to three times the price of the distance learning course. This decision will also be affected by your discipline to self study. No matter which type you choose you’ll come out with the same piece of paper. When you pass your last exam the clock starts ticking and you will have 36 months to obtain a CPL and Instrument Rating or face repeating the exams.

The night qualification can be completed anytime between the PPL and commencement of the CPL or IR. Although it’s only 5 hours long, it can be difficult in Ireland to get good weather, a suitable aircraft, an instructor and a suitable airport at the same time! The best idea is to get the ball rolling on this as soon as you finish your PPL and expect to take a few months to get your ducks lined up. If you do your PPL abroad I’d highly recommend doing a night qualification either during it or immediately after, it will just make life a bit simpler.

Some of the views you get to experience on a daily basis as an airline pilot

Ok, so a few weeks (or months) later you have your 70 hours solo or Pilot in Command (PIC), all 14 theoretical exams out of the way and a night qualification. Now you have the minimum requirements to start the Instrument Rating. You also have the choice to do an extra 30 hours PIC and start the CPL first if you want. That is the beauty of the modular course, you have control of the process. In this scenario I’ve picked the IR first as this will get you through the licences in fewer hours and hopefully less money.

As you probably intend flying commercially for the airlines, you can jump straight in and do the multi engine instrument rating (MEIR). The regulations do require that you have undertaken training on a multi engine aircraft before you start the instrument segment so you’ll need to fly 8 hours in a multi aircraft to satisfy this requirement. This is called the class rating training. You can do the flight test for this part with the instrument flight test later on. You can now complete the instrument training as outlined above.

So let’s take a look at where we are. 55 hours for the PPL, 5 hours for the Night Qualification, 60 hours solo, 8 hours multi engine training, 15 hours multi engine instrument training (simulator time doesn’t count as flight time!) and maybe two hours for the MEIR flight test. That makes 145 hours, not bad. But you need 200 hours before you can sit a CPL flight test. I did say above that the CPL requires 25 hours, but as you now have an MEIR, the requirement reduces to 20 hours. This only leaves us with 165 hours, 35 hours short of the minimum, so what can you do? In reality you’ll find that your training will run over the minimums here and there. You will also need to complete the new 5 hours of UPRT.

So now you have a shiny new CPL, with MEIR and a shade over 200 hours. Now you need an MCC Course. There’s nothing much to add to what I’ve mentioned already above. Simtech Aviation (www.simtech.ie) and AFTA (www.afta.ie) provide MCC Courses in Ireland. If you’re training abroad there are a host of options.

Integrated Route

An integrated course is a type of all in one package. A school will take you from ab initio (no previous training) right through the process from PPL to frozen ATPL. Some courses may also offer an MCC course too. The restriction with the integrated option is that you have to complete all the training with one school. However the advantage is that each part of the courses runs in quick succession allowing you to complete your training in the shortest possible time. Here in Ireland, Atlantic Flight Training Academy in Cork and the National Flight Centre in Weston offer an integrated route. Outside of Ireland, there are a handful of training schools in the UK and Flight Training Europe based in Jerez in southern Spain.

My office today

So now for the 64 million dollar question, modular or integrated? I could probably write a book on the pros and cons of each and still not give a definitive answer. Again the choice between the two routes will depend on your personal circumstances. If you want a frozen ATPL as quick as possible, the integrated route will get you there quickly but you’ll pay a premium for it. On the other hand if you have time to spare, a modular route may be a better option based purely on expense. Although the cost of training is a huge factor, you should also look at the quality and reputation of the school. How many pilots have they trained there, what airlines are they flying with, what are current students saying about the school etc. Your aptitude towards learning and flying is another important factor worth taking into consideration. If you have trouble studying on your own and lack self discipline the structure of an integrated route may suit you better. The freedom of a modular course may suit people interested in starting the training part-time initially. This will allow them to fit flying around their personal / professional life. Consequently the road to a flying licence will be longer. There is a wealth of information already available on Modular vs. Integrated. I would recommend taking a look at the student section of the Flying in Ireland forum (www.flyinginireland.com) for more information and www.pprune.org

The Job Market

The last five years have seen some unprecedented growth for airlines which has meant huge opportunities for new pilots. However in the last couple of years there have been some high profile airline collapses such as Monarch, Wow Air and Air Berlin. While it’s always worrying to see these things as a trainee pilot, you must look at the bigger picture, and you’ll see there’s huge demand in the long term. The 2017 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook, a respected industry forecast of personnel demand, projects that 637,000 new commercial airline pilots, 648,000 new maintenance technicians, and 839,000 new cabin crew will be needed to fly and maintain the world fleet over the next 20 years.

Most airlines operate on an average of 5 crew (10 pilots) per aircraft. This will cover holidays and days off and allow the airline to get maximum utilisation out of their aircraft. As a cadet pilot entering an airline, you must be prepared to be based abroad initially. If you go down the pilot route, remember that there is no guarantee of a job at the end of your training. So keep an eye on how the industry changes throughout your training. In most cases the individuals own approach and determination often plays a large part in achieving the job of their dreams.

Other Flying Occupations

After my CPL I did some flying as an aerial photography pilot although there are probably less opportunities these days with the advent of drones.

Most people think of flying passenger jets as the only type of commercial flying but there are others. In the past becoming a flight instructor was a natural progression through your flight training to build hours for that elusive airline job. In the past decade that trend has changed and most skipped the instructors rating and went straight to the jets. As a result there is a widespread shortage of instructors throughout Europe. In Ireland professional instructor jobs are mainly limited to the bigger flying schools at Weston and Cork. Flight instruction is heavily dependant on weather but an instructor can expect to fly from 500-900 hours per year depending on school, aircraft availability etc. Aerial photography pilot, aerial survey pilot, parachute pilot and corporate jet jobs are also options to be considered for building hours or earning some money. You will need at least CPL to do any of these flying activities.

Irish Air Corps

A career in the Air Corps is rewarding but it’s primarily a military job

The Air Corps have advertised for a number of cadet pilots over the last few years. This is certainly an interesting flying job with lots of opportunities but your interest must go beyond flying and into the military as it is primarily a military job. The selection process is gruelling and includes a physical test, technical interviews, aptitude tests and a final panel interview. The 1,200 initial applicants are eventually whittled down to the lucky few. Before you see an aeroplane you will be expected to pass your military training in the Curragh Camp before beginning the 200 hour wings course at Baldonnel. On successful completion of your training you will be commissioned as an officer. www.military.ie/air-corps/ has lots of useful information on the Air Corps.

Cadetships

A question I often get asked is “will the airline not pay for my training?” In short the answer is No. In recent years training costs have shifted from the airlines to the cadet  pilot, presumably to cut costs. Aer Lingus and Flight Training Europe have teamed up over the last few years to provide a course that will offer the candidate a job with the airline on successful completion of their course. Stobart Air and Ryanair both have mentored pilot programmes with AFTA in Cork. Although the cost is still borne by the candidate the prospect of a job at the end of the training makes the initial investment a bit easier to swallow. Some airlines will offer to pay the type rating cost for you if you agree to stay with the airline for a defined period, usually in the region of 5 years.

This article should prepare you with a basic knowledge of the route to becoming a pilot and allow you to do further research into the options open to you. Flying is fantastic fun and the freedom of flying in a light aircraft is something everybody should experience at least once in their life. If you have any further questions about flight training I can be contacted by completing the contact form HERE.

Happy Flying!


Mark is an airline pilot by profession flying the Boeing 737 for a major European airline. In addition he is also a Type Rating Instructor, Type Rating Examiner, Line Training Captain and Base Training Captain on the B737. Outside of commercial flying Mark enjoys flying light aircraft from the smallest 3 Axis microlights up to heavier singles. He also instructs and examines on them including tailwheel differences training and is a UK CAA Examiner. He is a volunteer pilot for the Irish Historic Flight Foundation (IHFF) and has displayed the Chipmunk at many of the major airshows in Ireland. Mark became the Chairman of the National Microlight Association of Ireland (NMAI) in 2013 and has overseen a massive growth in the organisation until he stepped down in 2018. In that role he worked at local and national levels. In 2015, Mark won ‘Upcoming Aviation Professional Award’ at the Aviation Industry Awards sponsored by the IAA. Mark launched this website back in 2002 while always managing the website, he has also been Editor and Deputy Editor of FlyingInIreland Magazine from 2005 to 2015.


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