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Training for the airlines

With predictions of a worldwide shortage of professional pilots, Ian Waller looks at the training options for potential airline pilots

When Boeing speaks, the airline world generally listens. So when this manufacturing giant recently said airlines will need an average of 23,330 new pilots per year from 2010 and 2029, it was time for an awful lot of ears to prick up.

Traditionally, such a shortfall means that the major airlines cherry pick the pilots they want from regional airlines and from the very best graduate pilots. This in turn means excellent job opportunities with smaller airlines for suitably qualified graduates. It will also mean that Flight Training Organisations (FTOs) across the globe will be looking forward to a glut of applicants.

So, how to make the most of this opportunity? Well, the first thing is to get a Class 1 medical. With that in the bag, there are two training routes: the integrated route and the less financially-draining but equally professional and rewarding modular route.

The integrated route
The integrated route involves a full-time course of study, generally lasting around 14 months. This takes a student from complete beginner to a position where they are ready to take up a role as a commercial pilot. The main advantage is that a student enters an intense course of study within a dedicated and well-equipped training facility, surrounded by like-minded students and often with links to leading airlines. What’s more, if your goal is to take your first flying role with British Airways, it will only employ low-hour graduates straight from selected FTOs who have come through the integrated route. (Having said that, BA will consider all suitably qualified pilots, from either the modular or integrated routes, once they have gained suitable experience with another airline.)

Being a full-time student means your progress can be monitored at each stage of training, giving you every opportunity to make the most of your investment. Should you fail your ground exams and flight tests during your training (and this is exactly the same whether you’ve chosen the integrated or modular routes) while the chance does exist to retake them, airlines do look more favourably on graduates who have passed first time and with top marks. So it really is worth getting your head down, working hard and accepting all and whatever help and advice is available.

While many of these aspects of your training are completed as part of a curriculum that has been set by the CAA, it’s the specific character, location, cost and presentation of each FTO that will help you decide which is the best suited for you.

The training itself can be split into specific modules, which typically run like this:

The ATPL ground exams – for many, the most demanding part of the training. You’ll need to pass 14 exams covering subjects such as navigation, flight planning and aviation law.

Flight training – the fun bit. A majority of this may well take place overseas, often in the USA, which offers cheaper flying and better weather.

Night Qualification – your first additional qualification.

Commercial Pilots Licence – the CPL is a basic requirement to be allowed to fly for financial reward. This is a major stepping stone towards a career in the airlines. You need a minimum of 150 hours of flight time to get this far, with flying more complex aircraft with retractable undercarriage and variable-pitch propellers.

Multi-engine rating.

Instrument Rating – the most demanding of the flying skills, flying solely with reference to the aeroplane’s instruments.

Multi-Crew Co-operation – learning to work as a team, a requisite for the majority of professional pilots.

With all of this successfully completed, you’ll have what is known as a frozen ATPL. The ‘frozen’ part refers to the fact that you’ve passed the required theory part of the Airline Transport Pilots Licence; to ‘unfreeze’ it you’ll need to have a total of 1,500 hours flying time logged. You’ll also need a type rating, basically the result of a course of training undertaken that is individual to each type of aircraft, e.g. a Boeing 737-400. At present, with more pilots than jobs, you might well have to pay for your own type rating, particularly in your first job, at a cost of between £20,000 and £30,000. However, as your experience increases, you can generally expect future type ratings to be paid for by your employers.

The modular route
With banks no longer keen to lend unsecured loans, and pilot training grants very difficult to come by, the modular training route is increasingly popular. As Jonathan Candelon, Director of Sales and Operations for Flying Time Aviation, states, “There’s a great demand for affordable flight training options coupled with high quality. This can only truly be achieved with the structured modular route, which is something that we are able to deliver for less than half of the cost of an integrated course and within the same timeframe.”

The modular route refers to training at an equally high standard to that offered on an integrated course. What’s more, just like FTOs offering the integrated routes, a number of modular training establishments have strong links with leading airlines. The big difference is that the study doesn’t necessarily take place as a full-time study option or over a set period of time. Instead it can be done at the student’s own pace, module by module, as time and money allow.

“The modular method of pilot training has many advantages over integrated courses,” explains Nick Dunn, Operations Director at Aeros. “Most importantly, the cost is substantially less than a fully integrated course, the difference often being more than enough to fund a type rating, which many airlines are now expecting prospective employees to pay for themselves. Furthermore, because you can train in ‘blocks’, the cost can be spread over a longer period, or you can return to work between modules. However, many students choose to complete the modules consecutively, completing all their training in the same time span, if not less, than an integrated course. As well as this, the pace of training can be tailored to meet your own personal circumstances.”

What’s more, an increasing number of airlines are recognising the benefits that employing graduates from the modular delivers. For example, Flybe’s Chief Pilot, Ian Baston explained, “Modular courses tend to produce pilots who have come from a wide background and experience and this can be very advantageous when we come to look at suitability for command in the future. We do require that the professional flying aspect of a modular course is undertaken at a maximum of two different FTOs in order to ensure a degree of continuity and enable the FTO to give us reasonable feedback on an individual’s performance, progress and character. This does mean that any PPL training, ground school examinations or MCC can be carried out at other FTOs. In order to reinforce our support of modular courses, we maintain close relationships with a number of FTOs offering such courses including Professional Air Training (PAT), Cabair at Bournemouth, Atlantic Flight Training and Aeros.”

When choosing a modular route, a student might typically complete a module and then take some time out to go back to work and earn enough money to start the next module. Alternatively, they might combine a job with their pilot studies at weekends and in the evenings.

This does create its own challenges. It can obviously take much longer to complete the training and the extra workload of holding down a job while also studying is extremely demanding. Without the support of a strict timetable, and being among tutors and other students, motivation can also be difficult to maintain. However, as Colin Dobney, Head of Training at Stapleford Flight Centre explains, most modular FTOs have the experience to identify the challenges encountered by this type of training and can act accordingly. “We work with the students to schedule their training so that they can make the most of the time available. Also, when they’re nearing the completion of each module, we recommend that they come in for a full week and we help them to be as fully prepared as possible for the flight tests and exams.”

Safeguarding your investment
Paying for your professional flight training is one of the most expensive investments you’ll ever make. At a time when few banks are lending, this means many students have to turn to the bank of mum and dad to pay for a chance at following their dreams. For the rest, it’s either a matter of working your way through the training or taking a loan secured on your house.
Whichever route you choose, you’re going to want to make sure that your investment is secure. So what steps should you take?
First, find out as much as you can about your selected FTO. As Captain Lee Woodward, Head of CTC Wings and Executive Director of CTC, explains, “We actively encourage all applicants to do their research thoroughly to ensure that they understand the career and have realistic expectations. Having made the decision to enter training we recommend that you continue to research; go to FTO open days, ask probing questions and uncover the truth regarding success rates in training, failure protection and what it genuinely covers – read the small print and ppore over the exceptions. Most importantly look into the airline placement record for each FTO. By that I mean ask how much assistance the FTO gives to assist and how many pilots from the particular FTO make it into airline operations .”

If it’s a new set-up offering training at very low prices with no links to airlines, be very careful indeed. History is littered with the carcasses of failed FTOs, and while all of the established names in the UK and most overseas are as secure as you can get, a little research beforehand will ease your mind.

If you can, pay module by module rather than all upfront. Even some integrated courses offer a pre-designated schedule to draw down payments in instalments over the period of your training rather than taking it all in one go.
Pay for the training by credit card, which can provide some sort of insurance in the event of an FTO going under.

Find out if your chosen FTO offers a payment protection programme, such as the Bond Protection package offered by CTC Wings or the Skills Security Protection Plan from Oxford Aviation Academy. These plans guarantee to refund a percentage of your fees should you fail to reach the required standard to complete the course.

Throughout your training, keep your eyes on the bigger picture, in terms of the financial position of your chosen FTO and the industry in general.

Finally, remember the old adage: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. We’re reminded of the recent story of a student who approached an FTO in America which was offering ATPL training for $45,000, a sum the student quickly talked it into discounting to $25,000 – for a full ATPL course of training. Perhaps not surprisingly, soon after the FTO went under and the student lost his money.

Integrated case study
Scott Bourke, 22, had always dreamed of being an airline pilot, so back in 2007 he started to look for the training route that would best suit his needs.

“I looked at the different schools with an eye on which one and which route would make me most employable. This included attending open days at the FTOs and the Flight Training Exhibition (http://exhibtions.flyer.co.uk) at Heathrow, and building up as much background information as I could. For me, all of the main FTOs could help me achieve the required training and licence, but Oxford Aviation Academy also offered career guidance throughout, as well as having a very good track record for getting placements with airlines.

“The main challenge was obviously paying for the training. Back then, I managed to get a £50,000 loan through HSBC, with my parents providing security, and the rest came from some money I raised myself and a further loan from my parents. If I hadn’t managed to raise it, I would have been just as happy to follow the modular route. The main focus was to become an airline pilot.

“The course started with ground school training, which took place in two three-month blocks, each ending with exams. The ground school study is intense, but it’s a well-crafted course which means you get all the help that you need. That was followed by five-and-a-half months of flight training in Arizona which was fantastic, and in my case included work towards a degree in Airline Transport Management which I was doing alongside the pilot training. Then it was back to the UK for the IR at Oxford, followed by the MCC and Jet Orientation Course.

“Looking back on it, the most challenging thing was raising the money. But this also worked for me because it was a real incentive to knuckle down and work hard because it was my parents’ house at risk. Right at the beginning I wanted to be sure that this investment was safe, particularly as one school some friends were planning to study at went under. I felt secure with Oxford as they were an established brand, which at the time was backed by a huge multi-national.

“As for the training, moving on to multi-engined aircraft was intense but it was the IR that was the toughest. Suddenly we were sharing airspace over Oxford with airliners and it was tough flying, but really rewarding.

“It’s worked out and I’m living the dream, working as a first officer on 737-800s with Ryanair. That did mean that I had to pay out another £20-30,000 for a type rating, but the pay here is good and I’m doing the job I’ve always dreamed I’d do.”

Regional airlines
Most professional pilots start their flying careers with regional carriers like Loganair or Air Southwest. The rewards might not be as good as with the likes of BA and Virgin, but the flying experience is invaluable.

Loganair’s recruitment policy is pretty typical of regionals in the UK, and here Captain David Armour-Rubery, Fleet Manager Saab 340 of Loganair, explains what this leading regional airline requires from new pilots.

“Loganair doesn’t hold a preference for the training route that an individual has taken to attain their frozen ATPL. It is the end quality of the individual once they’ve finished their training that matters. Good IFR skills are essential and just as important as good, solid, basic aircraft-handling skills. These skills will often be tested to the limit during a standard year of flying in the Loganair operation.
“Loganair has recently employed a mix of new pilots: those with previous commercial flying experience; General Aviation instructors, and low-hour graduate cadets. Having some previous flying experience is always a benefit, especially if the individual hasn’t found a flying job for a long duration after attaining their ATPL. We generally won’t look at anybody who hasn’t flown at all in the last 12 months. Ideally, a minimum of 30 hours in the last year is desirable. In addition to flying skills, we ensure that prospective new employees demonstrate the type of personal qualities that will mean they fit into our business from day one and have the potential for command.

“As important as any of these factors, is a genuine desire to live and work in Scotland.”

“Loganair does have a training bond arrangement for new pilots. We have an arrangement whereby the new pilot provides Loganair with a fixed amount of money on their first day. Loganair then pays this bond money back, monthly over three years with a fixed rate of interest, essentially meaning if they stay for the full three-year term, their bond will be repaid.

The future in terms of pilot recruitment is uncertain, as the effects of the forthcoming winter, government cuts and increased taxation have yet to be fully felt. However, we do expect there to be a slow increase in pilot demand over the next 12 to 24 months as jet operators expand their recruitment.” www.loganair.co.uk

Modular case study
Jack Newman, 21, has recently completed his training with Stapleford Flight Centre, having chosen to follow a modular course of study.

“I’d always wanted to be a pilot, with the idea of one day going into display flying and aerobatics. So early on I contacted a number of flight schools. Pilot Training College in Ireland was really friendly and helpful, and I decided that that was the option I wanted to take.

“But then the market collapsed and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get the loans required for the funding. So really it was the cost involved that forced me to look at the modular route.

“I found out about Stapleford from a friend who was piloting a jump aeroplane. It is only 40 miles from where I live so I went along and really liked what I saw. The staff were really open and honest from the start, talking about the challenges and all the extra financial costs that can easily be overlooked, such as the price of the CAA exams.

“I also contacted a number of airlines to hear their views on the modular route, and the general reply was that as long as the training isn’t conducted with a number of different FTOs, they were fully supportive of the training route.

“I started at Stapleford on the 5 January 2009 and finished my IR on 20 September
this year, completing my ATPL ground exams in the process through a distance-learning package with Bristol Ground School. Now I’m working at a local flying school before starting my MCC training with a friend. It’s then a matter of waiting for the market to improve. From what I can tell there is nothing around apart from Ryanair, and I don’t really want to spend out on having to do a type rating. I’ve heard that things are due to pick up, so I’d rather sit tight and wait for the upturn. “The cost of the training so far has been around £45,000 plus food and living costs, which works out a lot less than if I’d have gone down the integrated route.

“The challenging side of the modular training route really came home during the distance learning when I’d be working during the day and then working on that in the evening. It was shattering and I missed the support of having other people around to talk to. Having said that though, the staff and other students at SFC were really supportive. One of my instructors even cancelled his holiday to help me with one section of the training.

“My advice to anybody following the modular route would be to be positive and really put the effort it and make sure that you stay exposed to what is happening in aviation. It really is a case of the more effort you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.” www.flysfc.com

The University option
Over the past four or five years, a new training route has opened up for pilot students who would like the safety net of a ‘proper’ degree.

A number of universities – Brunel, City, London Metro, Kingston and Leeds among them – are offering degree courses combining either pilot training or aviation engineering training with a degree that covers more general aspects of the airline industry. In this scenario, the university will cover the theoretical side of the flight training and contract the more practical aspects out to established FTOs.

Donald Stirling, Programme Director of City University London, explained that in 1999 it started to offer a BSc (Hons) degree in Air Transport Operations with ATPL, the first degree course offered by a UK university to include pilot training.

“The course was developed after City was approached by an FTO which was finding that more and more parents of their prospective students were becoming concerned that, after spending tens of thousands of pounds on a frozen ATPL, the only result at the end was the licence. These parents were asking if something more could be obtained, which would provide a fallback qualification if their son or daughter was unable to find employment in an industry downturn, or failed their medical a few years in the future. Their question was, “What use is the licence then?”

“City, in discussion with various FTOs, the CAA, GAPAN and British Airways, then developed the degree course to serve a number of purposes. As well as the fallback option, the content of the course was carefully chosen to provide new pilots with both a deeper understanding of the technical subjects of the ATPL and an insight into the air transport industry as a business. The intention was that this would not just enhance new pilots’ initial employment prospects but also improve their career progression within a major airline.

“Graduates of the course have already experienced these advantages with students reporting back that, at some airline selection interviews, much of the questioning has concentrated not on the technical aspects of flying but on the degree and what they had learned from it. As an example of improved career progression, a City graduate flying with a major UK airline, after telling his chief pilot about the course in a casual conversation, was asked to join the airline’s training department. He is now tasked with organising short courses to deal with any developing safety or operational problems arising in the airline – in addition to his normal line flying duties.

“It’s noticeable that more and more young people are realising that a good relevant qualification, in addition to just the ATPL, is an advantage in an increasingly difficult pilot recruitment market. Also going to university, instead of straight into pilot training direct from school, helps to produce a more mature and rounded character.”

Flight Training Exhibitions
For the very best guidance and advice on which FTOs to choose and to hear from the airlines themselves about their recruitment policies, pay a visit to one the Flight Training Exhibitions, held each year at Heathrow, Dublin and Eindhoven.

For full details of the events and when the next one will take place, visit http://exhibtions.flyer.co.uk

This article first appeared in Flyer, November 2009