Pilots operate aircrafts ensuring they follow key flight paths and remain safe. Being a pilot is an exciting and varied career, with a great deal of responsibility.
What is a pilot?
Pilots are responsible for operating aircrafts of various sizes on short and long haul flights. These can be commercial aircrafts taking passengers and onboard cargo to set destinations, private aircrafts or even aircrafts within the military. It is a pilot’s responsibility to deliver passengers and cargo to their destination safely and efficiently.
To legally fly in aviation, you need to hold an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL).
Pilots have exciting and challenging roles, involving a great deal of responsibility for the safety of passengers and air crew. Their role can take them all over the world.
Your responsibilities as a pilot will vary. Duties usually depend on the type of aircraft you pilot, as well as whether you fly commercially, privately or in a military capacity.
Common responsibilities include:
- Carrying out pre take off checks to ensure all in flight equipment is safe and ready to use including navigation systems, safety systems and more.
- Taking on key route information beforehand to create a flight path, or following set flight paths given by your airline.
- Collecting and assessing any necessary information that could impact the flight, such as weather warnings, and making any pre flight decisions such as delaying or cancelling a flight due to adverse weather.
- Liaising with the ground crew during take off and landing to ensure these are carried out safely and efficiently.
- Taking part in a pre flight briefing with other aircraft staff.
- Passing on any relevant information to cabin crew during all stages of flight, such as whether there is likely to be any turbulence, or whether there may be delays.
- Regularly assessing the conditions of the outside environment throughout the flight, such as assessing for adverse weather and checking for any unplanned aircraft in the air, then making decisions accordingly.
- Sharing key information with passengers where relevant during the flight, such as any expected delays, or whether there is likely to be turbulence or the chance of an emergency landing.
- Managing emergency air conditions.
- Taking detailed notes following each flight in the flight log book, recording any issues as well as key data required by the airline or flight company.
- Working collaboratively with other pilots on board - there are usually at least two pilots on any given flight, and sometimes more if it is a long haul flight.
A pilot salary varies depending on which airline you work for as well as how much experience you have. In your first position once qualified as a junior first officer, you’ll likely earn between £24,000 and £28,000. First officers have been reported to earn £47,300.
Highly experienced pilots are called ‘captains’. Depending on the size of their airline, they could earn anywhere between £61,000 and £150,000.
To legally fly in aviation, you need to hold an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). There are various routes to achieving this. You will usually need a minimum of 5 GCSEs at grades 9-4 (A*-C) and 2-3 A Levels, depending on your training provider. A good grasp of maths and physics is also usually needed.
The first route is via a degree with integrated pilot training. While you don’t need a degree to become a pilot, it can be helpful. It’s worth looking into the specifications of any degree you do to check that pilot training is included, as some degrees cover aviation engineering or other non pilot areas. You will usually have to pay an additional top-up fee to cover the cost of your pilot training alongside your academic studies. Example degrees include:
Taking an aviation degree with integrated pilot training can train you up while giving you detailed knowledge for future progression.
Alternatively, you could train to become a pilot directly without a degree. There are flight schools in the UK that offer this route, which has two pathways. The first pathway is called an ‘integrated’ course which teaches all elements within an 18 months period. This includes classroom and practical teaching. Alternatively, there is a ‘modular’ pathway where course parts are split into chunks. Some students choose this route to spread out costs over a long period of time. To complete your training and access your licence, you will also need to pass a medical test to ensure you are fit for the role, conducted by the Civil Aviation Authority.
Training and development
Once you achieve your ATPL, you will be eligible to take on your first role.
You will usually take on further training with an airline once you have been offered a job. This will cover details specific to the main airline. You will also need to take a course on how to operate each type of plane you want to fly. This is called a ‘type-rating’ course. This may be at a cost to you, or covered by the airline.
While you won’t need set aviation experience to apply for an ATPL, showing an interest in aviation can be helpful.
As you gain more experience in the role, you will move up the ranks. These involve going from a junior first officer role to a first officer position, senior first officer, and onto captain. Your ATPL will be considered ‘frozen’ until you complete a set number of flying hours - around 1500. Once you have an unfrozen ATPL, you will be eligible to take further training to become a captain, one of the most senior (and well paid) roles within the piloting industry. Becoming a captain requires detailed further training on top of having an unfrozen ATPL.
All pilots have to undertake regular examinations every six months in order to retain their ATPL. You will also need to complete a medical examination every six to twelve months.
The skills required of a pilot combine excellent technical ability, knowledge, and sound decision making.
- Excellent knowledge of aviation and piloting generally, as well as knowledge specific to your aircraft.
- A robust understanding of your airline and any policies you need to adhere to.
- Ability to keep up to date with changes to the profession including adjustments to safety measures and new aviation research.
- Ability to work independently when in the air.
- Ability to work well within a team, on a multi pilot level in the pilot cabin or cockpit, with cabin crew on flight, and with airline staff teams.
- A good grasp of physics and maths in relation to your work.
- Ability to stay calm under pressure, such as dealing with unexpected flight issues, weather conditions or other unexpected aircraft.
- Excellent communication skills for liaising with ground staff during take off and landing, co-pilots during flight and wider aircraft staff for passing on key information.
- A calm demeanour, especially when passing on messages to passengers.
- A willingness to continue training and examinations throughout your career to stay on top of your abilities.
While you won’t need set aviation experience to apply for an ATPL, showing an interest in aviation can be helpful. Examples of good ways to show your interest include being involved in air cadets, or a local flying club. Working at a local airport in any role could also be advantageous.
Your career prospects as a pilot are very good. Your progression will happen as you log flight hours, moving from junior first officer to first officer and senior first officer, then onto captain. Some airlines may have more budget than others to train you up and give you plenty of flying hours, so it’s a good idea to look around and compare airlines.
Pilots are responsible for operating aircrafts of various sizes on short and long haul flights.
Once you achieve captain level, you are at the most senior rank of the industry. You could move towards training up new pilots or examining.
You could move between different forms of flying. You could begin working on commercial crafts then eventually move towards piloting for private companies or individuals. There may also be opportunities to move towards office based work, or specialised roles within the industry for captains or flight experts.