So You Want to Become a Commercial Pilot – Really?

If I said to you that I was going to quit my secure job, invest all my savings, or remortgage my house to start a new career, you’d probably raise an eyebrow. If I then told you that my chosen industry was difficult to get into, volatile, unpredictable, offered very little in terms of job security, and would have an adverse affect on my family and social life, you’d call me insane!

But that crazy gamble is exactly what I and thousands of others have done; all for the love of aviation. Ask most airline pilots what the best thing about flying is, and they will tell you that being at the controls of a large commercial airliner looking down on the world is just the most amazing feeling and privilege, because getting to that position can be such a challenge and is truly a massive personal achievement. Ask those same airline pilots what the worst thing about flying is and you’d better pull up a chair for a long conversation.

If you’re reading this you clearly have an interest in aviation, either because you want to embark on a flying career or because you’re purely an enthusiast. Sometimes I wish I was just the enthusiast because my flying career really has been an emotional roller coaster of a ride so far, and unfortunately that isn’t uncommon . Many of my flying colleagues would say the same. Flying can be extremely rewarding and satisfying, but it can also be frustrating, stressful and cause niggling feelings of uncertainty. But if (like I was) you are bitten by the aviation bug and want that flying career, you are most likely going to take that gamble and start the journey no matter how much dissuasive material you read or words you hear. Having been there already (quite some time ago), I really have “got the t-shirt” to coin a phrase and, would I urge people out there planning such a big investment and life changing move to consider the following.

Even when the industry is bouyant, is quitting work and doing an integrated course really the right thing to do or would a modular course be the better option?
Yes it’s true that in the past airlines seemed to favour those who had taken an integrated course from a trusted training provider, but it is a full time and intensive 14 to 18 months course, which means it is impossible to do in conjunction with your normal wage earning job. We live in uncertain times and the industry is currently on its knees, and will potentially be in this position for some time to come, so unless you can accept investing a significant sum of money upfront to train for a frozen ATPL with little likelihood of a job at the end of it, then the integrated route just doesn’t work.
The integrated route doesn’t work for those in well established careers either, unless you have the kind of employer who will hold your job open for 18 months even though it is clearly your intention to move on – it isn’t going to happen!

The modular route takes longer and can cost more in the long run, but that cost will be spread throughout your period of flight training, so the overall financial impact may be less, especially if part way through you decide it just isn’t for you; I have seen colleagues who have dropped out for numerous reasons. I and most of my close flying colleagues took the modular route and even through the last financial downturn, in the end, every one of us obtained airline positions.
Although the modular approach does come with some time limited milestones, it is relatively easy to do alongside your normal work commitments.

As I come back to this post to write some more text, it is on the back of a long conversation with a close friend of mine who is also an airline pilot. He has been in the aviation industry much longer than me but we have both been flying professionally about the same length of time. In the mid 2000’s he was made redundant following an acquisition from a larger operator and consolidation of roles.
He found another job in the industry and subsequently progressed to a pilot role. Last year he was made redundant when a number of prominent airlines went under. Towards the end of the year he found a flight crew role with another airline. This year he hadn’t even completed his final line check before yet again he was made redundant – a classic case of the last in first out way of getting rid of excess staff.

Some say that the time to start training is when the industry is on its knees as there are deals to be had with the training organisations. I went through my training during the last recession and was able to benefit from some great deals, but things are different now. The Coronavirus pandemic has put thousands of experienced pilots out of work. This is a completely different scenario to how things were in the last recession. Pilots weren’t out of work en masse, it was more a case of recruitment had paused and there weren’t opportunities for newly qualified, inexperienced pilots.

Am I trying to put people off? Well yes, I guess I am, I really do think that it would be crazy to embark on a professional pilot training programme when the situation is so dire and the future is completely unknown.

My colleague will renew his medical this year and his LPC next year at his own expense, as will I and many others as we continue to tread water and wait to see how this worldwide situation develops. Even a few months out of the flight deck makes a sim renewal a tough and unpleasant experience, even for those with thousands of hours under their belts, so imagine how it would be for a pilot with an expensive type rating a year down the line who has literary flown nothing in the previous year other than the initial Base Training. I guarantee that will be the situation many new pilots will experience for at least the next couple of years.

Some will read this post and call me bitter – I can assure you I am not, and I’ve had some great times in the industry, but I’m also pragmatic and it is clear that the industry is not, and will never be what was again. Terms and conditions have been eroded and will continue to be eroded to the point where this profession just doesn’t pay enough to warrant the effort.

Quit your job, spend £70,000+ doing an ATPL, finally get a job, get made redundant, and then post a picture of yourself on LinkedIn in your new Job doing customer deliveries for Tesco with comments saying you’re still upbeat – Money well spent? I don’t think so.

(Image (c) Judi Ballard Photography)

1 thought on “So You Want to Become a Commercial Pilot – Really?

  1. Jodi

    A very interesting and well written Article.
    Life itself is never secure.
    The only guaranteed thing we have is death.
    If I had the money then of course I would get a pilot’s license …but as a career? ……
    Hmmm. Never been one for doing the same thing more than a few times…
    So maybe I wont need a licence anyway..
    Roll on Auto planes.
    Il sit at the front and pretend I’m flying the plane like we did as kids on top of a double decker…
    Jodi C King 01/09/2020

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