Becoming A Commercial Pilot

So, you want to be a pilot...The average member of the public has an inaccurate perception of what it is to be a commercial pilot. Many folks believe pilots enjoy professional respect and a well-rewarded jet-set lifestyle. The purpose of this article is to provide an accurate perspective of what the career offers. Although professional pilots are still relatively well compensated, within their company they are often less respected than they are on the outside. Airline accountants often view pilots as too well compensated prima donnas, and often attack our lifestyles, the time on duty limitations that are in place to prevent accidents due to fatigue and our pay and benefits.
Most flight training organizations have glossy brochures which perpetuate the public perception and make enticing promises. However, these promises are not always delivered in a way that lives up to the would-be pilots’ expectations.
Read the brochures carefully. Network, speak to as many people as you can and take time to make the right decision for you personally. Failure to do this could be costly in terms of finances and your time. Your initial training will take between one and two years. Aviation is an extremely volatile job market can that change drastically between the commencing and completing of your training and the time you are offered your first job. It is vital to research what the flying opportunities are likely to be when you graduate, and whether you are prepared to go anywhere in the world to secure employment. Talk to one of our members or a pilot you know.

What does it take?

What qualifications and skills do you need to become a pilot? If you dream of becoming a professional pilot, spend some time reflecting on what it takes, academically and personally, to achieve your goal before committing significant amounts of time and money. A surprisingly broad range of skills are needed, and it’s vitally important not to concentrate solely on the academic and technical side. Equally important are the personal attributes that are required to be successful in the flight deck environment. Many people have failed to achieve their dreams because they have overlooked this.
Likely, the hardest part of the process will not be attaining your Commercial License; it will be securing your first commercial pilot position. Many believe that getting a commercial license earns them the right to permanent employment, but this is far from the truth. Pilots can take several years to land their first position, while some never reach the flight deck at all, even after spending significant sums of money and devoting years of their life to training. Only the most determined and committed will succeed.

From initial flight training to retirement, a flying career will be punctuated by significant highs and lows. These include the stress that will inevitably accompany initial and ongoing flight checks, securing your first job and promotion, potential redundancies, low earnings during the initial years, employer bankruptcies, fleet changes, and relocation. Most pilots will experience many of these during their careers. An individual must be prepared and able to deal with such challenges and be willing to change. Securing your first professional position will probably be the most challenging part of your career and will require considerable tenacity and determination. Your license is not a guarantee of a job – far from it. You will have to impress a significant cadre of people, including experienced airline pilots who will have seen many like you, before you land your first airline job. Rejection is all too common in this very competitive environment, so, be prepared.

Generally, you will not be considered without at least a high school education. In addition, you will be required to prove your command of the English language, which is the language of aviation. It helps to have an idea of how things work mechanically and to have a good understanding of engineering and physics. Yet, top academics alone will not suffice and you can succeed as a pilot without achieving top grades in these fields or without a college degree. Generally, a good understanding of mathematics, English and science will suffice. With or without a college degree, you will be tested for every license or rating you will need and achieving a passing grade each time is the most important credential. For example, a pilot with a high school diploma and an ATP is likely to be more favorably viewed than one with a college degree and a Commercial License. You will be tested frequently, generally at least twice per year, so if you are fearful of tests, this may not be the right environment to choose.
Good A-Level qualifications and college are a plus as these show potential employers that the candidate is rounded, driven and possessing of people skills. Qualifications that are not related to your license can be an insurance policy in the event of redundancy or if you lose your license due to a failure to pass a medical exam in the future.
Pilot training is not as demanding academically as is generally perceived. What poses a huge challenge is the volume and breadth of information that must be learned and put into practice in a very short time. It is this that causes many people to fail, especially if they have been away from the academic scene for a prolonged period. This is even more true during type rating training, where the intensity and pace of the course can present difficulties to those who are well prepared and sometimes prove insurmountable to those less well prepared. Inherent in an airline career are periods of intense pressure and the training often is reflective of this.
Certain personality types are better suited to the role of pilot. Sound judgement, your ability to make good decisions under pressure after quickly and carefully considering the challenge and the options will be your most important personality attribute. You must be able to make the correct decision quickly and accurately, to communicate effectively and to follow a plan logically. Monitoring your own actions and those of the other pilot and the aircraft and its systems is perhaps as important your stick and rudder skills. People skills are a key requirement and a lot rests on how you interact with others socially or deal with people in a working environment. On the flight deck, you will be working closely with one person for long periods of time, and if you find it hard to interact, it will make for an uncomfortable experience. You should therefore feel at ease working with a range of people from diverse backgrounds in a rule-based environment where adherence to procedures and routines is vital.
Personal appearance and grooming must be maintained to a high standard. Respect is demanded of such a position of responsibility and the public and airlines expect a high standard of presentation. You need to look the part. You will also need to pass a security vetting process in order to obtain an identification card which will enable you to enter the security restricted or critical areas of an airport. You will need to pass a background check and provide a clean police record. You will have to provide details of your previous employment history.
A flexible approach is imperative in the modern airline industry. Throughout your career, you will face the unpredictable, whether it be multiple roster changes, air traffic delays or changes in financial circumstances. Your ability to deal with constant changes to your routine and lifestyle will be tested. If you are not prepared to relocate, with the possibility of spending years in a foreign country, the prospects of attaining your first professional position or career advancement will be severely reduced. In the current climate, it is vital to keep this in mind.

Health & Fitness

To operate as a commercial pilot, you must be 18 or over and will require a Class 1 medical certificate, have general medical fitness, good eyesight and hearing, which are all prerequisites for any type of flying. There are a number of medical conditions that could prohibit you from making a career in flying, so, obtain your Class 1 medical before you take any other step. You will need to get a Cayman Islands Class 1 and a US Class 1 medical. There are doctors in Cayman that can issue these medical certificates. This will ensure that either you are fit to complete the training and pursue the career, or identify that you have underlying medical issues that could prevent you from achieving your goals. If you suffer from a problem which would prevent you becoming a commercial pilot, it is better to discover this at the start rather than after you have spent thousands of dollars. There is no point in doing anything else before you have your Class 1 medical. That said, if you do identify a medical issue that immediately prohibits you from getting a Class 1 medical – the most common reason for failure being eyesight, all is not lost with regard to becoming a commercial pilot. Another common malady is diabetes which, in some circumstances, can be addressed adequately. In these and other circumstances, a Class 1 medical can be issued if certain criteria have been met. Any such deficiency in meeting the requirements of a Class 1 medical are specific to the individual, and you should consult an aviation medical examiner for advice on specific medical conditions, if any are found.
The initial medical is quite extensive and starts with your completion of an application form and a medical consisting of an ophthalmology examination, ECG, audiogram, hemoglobin and other tests. Again, there are a quite number of medical conditions that could prohibit you from making a career in flying, so, it is prudent and highly recommended that you obtain your Class 1 medical before your training commences. Just remember, this medical will have to be renewed every six to twelve months in the future and a medical condition at any time may result in you not obtaining your Class 1 medical and will prevent you from flying.

How To Get Trained

Which school? There are many factors to be considered, and ultimately your choice of school will be influenced by personal preference and the path you take. In the US, you may choose to get a license via an approved school, a college or an unapproved school. An approved school is often the best choice and will usually be the quickest. Generally, if you also choose to also obtain a college degree, which is recommended, this degree should be in a discipline other than flying so that you have a fallback if your aviation career does not pan out. Your aim should be to obtain a US Commercial Pilot License with Instrument Rating and a Multi Engine rating. Generally, your choice of schools will be influenced by cost and convenience of the location. There are a number of good schools in Florida and elsewhere in the US. Once you have attained your US license, you can apply for a Cayman Commercial License and you will have to take a few exams in order for the license to be issued. You can also obtain a license by doing your flight training in the UK or Europe but this will likely prove to be more expensive. There are a number of options available in the UK and these are covered in the BALPA website.
You should take into account the reputation of the school, the type of course, aircraft types used, location of school, the cost and the impression you get when you visit. Look beyond the glossy brochures and sparkling facilities or the promise of flying modern aircraft. These are good, but are of little value if the instructors are poor or their aircraft are unreliable, which will cause delays or lesson cancellations and result in a longer training period for you. Ask other students about their experience. The fleet of aircraft used by the school is very important; one thing to consider is the number of different types you will have to fly during training. If there are many, coping with the differences can put more pressure on you when you least need it. At some point, you will have to learn to fly in a twin-engine aircraft. Some schools utilize aircraft types that have similar cockpits to their single aircraft you will have been flying. The near-identical cockpit layouts will make the transition easier. If this is available, it is a plus.
Note the age and state of the aircraft. Are they in good repair? Sit in one, and look around the cockpit. Is everything working? Are they offering glass cockpit or standard instrument-based layouts? While not absolutely necessary, having a glass cockpit is recommended as this will ease the training process and allow for smoother conversion between types, but it should be only one of many factors bearing on your choice of school. Most importantly, meet the instructors. They will ensure your success or failure. Do they seem to be nice people? Do you feel they connect with you; do they understand different learning styles and invest in the students and their training? Flight training is hard and you will make mistakes. The way in which the instructors deal with your mistakes is important; some instructors are impatient and loud and others reassuring and comforting. Generally, the latter type is preferred by most students. Ask if you can fly with an instructor for an hour when visiting the school. Ask the students how the instructors behave in the air and decide whether that’s the way you wish to be treated. Overall, when visiting the flight school, trust your gut feeling; if it doesn’t feel right for whatever reason, do not sign up.
Find out the school’s pass rate for flight and ground examinations. Also, find out the percentage of graduates that find commercial pilot employment and in what time-frame. This isn’t necessarily a direct reflection on the school because it will be considerably influenced by market conditions at the time and the nationality of the students, but it may be an indicator of whether the school is viewed favorably by airlines. Some schools in the US guarantee (US citizens) an entry level position with an airline. Such a school is often a good choice.

Once You Have Your License

Once you have obtained your Commercial License, the next step is to apply for a job with an airline willing to employ low-time pilots. Cayman Airways Express is often a good place to apply. When you have secured a position, you will be trained at the airline to gain the type rating for the aircraft you will be flying, and you will be taught the company’s polices and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). This will generally consist of Ground School, Simulator Training, Base Training and Line Training. Full motion simulators recreate an aircraft’s performance and handling, allowing the trainee to experience its flight dynamics with remarkable similarity to the aircraft represented. You will likely be trained in one of these. The pace and the pressure will be much greater than you have ever experienced in your flight training. Once you have successfully completed this training, you are on your way. Your next goal is to get to 1500 hours.
The type rating on your licensee will allow you to fly a particular aircraft type. For example, to fly the Boeing 737, you need to have the B737 rating on your license. The type rating is completed in a Full Flight Simulator (FFS). These full motion simulators allow the trainee to experience an aircraft’s flight characteristics and flight deck while never leaving the ground. This is a safe and cost-effective way to complete this stage of the training. The course is normally completed over several weeks, encompassing the Ground School Phase, Simulator Phase and Flying Phase. If the training was accomplished in a Full Flight Simulator, the flying phase will almost certainly take less than a few hours, and maybe less than one hour, before you begin supervised flights on the line.
Ground school will cover the particular aircraft’s systems and the airline’s SOPs for both normal and non-normal/emergency flight operations. It usually comprises some computer-based self-training and classroom sessions and will last between ten days and three weeks. Once the ground school is complete and further exams have been passed, you will move on to the flight simulator phase of training, where you will be paired with another student or a fully competent Captain, depending on the airline’s program. This will normally take from between one and two weeks. The pace will be very demanding and this is the stage where most trainees who will fail, do so. From there, you will progress to your one or two hours of flight training and then begin your supervised line training. Before you begin your line flying, your Commercial License will be endorsed with the appropriate type rating.
Some airlines will have you sign a bond so that if you leave before a prescribed period, you will have to repay a significant sum. Often, this sum will be far in excess of the amount they actually spent on you. This is a legal issue and while it may be necessary or practical to sign such a bond in order to progress your career, you are strongly advised to seek legal advice before signing such a document.

Career Path

The career path of the commercial pilot will generally follow the following pattern: - Flight Instructor (in the current market you may be able to skip this step) -Turboprop First Officer- Turboprop Captain or First Officer 737/A320 - Captain Jet - Long Haul A330/747 First Officer, then final promotion to Captain/ Long Haul. Depending of the airline and the conditions at the time, this path may vary, but the aforementioned would be quite typical.
The period when you obtain your first airline job is the time in your career where you need to be most flexible. Securing your first commercial position will be the most challenging aspect of your career, and to ensure the greatest chance of success, when you will need to be flexible.
Once initial experience of fifteen hundred to three thousand hours has been gained, you will have more control over your future and you will be a much more attractive proposition to prospective employers. From this point in your career, you will have a greater ability to choose who you want to work for and map out a more definitive career path. You can elect to progress to a command on the turboprop or move on to a jet such as a B737 or A320. However, after considering all your options, you may find it necessary to move to a different base, or change airlines and move to another country. Bonding considerations will need to be taken into account when considering the timing of such moves. Once you have gained sufficient experience to take command of a jet and over a few years following that point, you will want to evaluate your choices, especially when there is a relative shortage of pilots. This is another point when it may be wise to make a career move. Some individuals choose to stay on turboprops for their whole careers as it suits their lifestyles and meets their aspirations. The choice of career path becomes quite personal once the initial experience has been gained. If a transition to the short haul jet is undertaken, there are good career prospects with a number of carriers and many choose to stay, attaining a command and often progressing into training. Again, lifestyle and family commitments as well as the economics of the aviation market will play a large part in the choice of career path. Alternatively a move can be made to the long haul environment, flying wide bodied aircraft such as the B747, B777 or A330.


While there has been considerable pressure on pilots’ benefits and compensation over the past few decades, due to the current and projected shortage of pilots, there is still opportunity to forge a good career in commercial aviation. However, it will likely be less than predictable and career decisions will often be forced on you. Most, if not all, of our members still love the job and share a passion for aviation and the profession. There is also a camaraderie that pilots enjoy, only with other pilots, and for obvious reason. Even in light of our passion for our profession, we acknowledge our responsibility to share the challenges, obstacles, pitfalls and reality that choosing this career will bestow on those who choose this path, so that they can make the right choice for them.
It is generally assumed that pilots are well paid and in the case of pilots with long seniority with a major airline, that is generally the case. By way of comparison, in Cayman, a pilot though relatively well paid, will earn less than an accountant or attorney with a major or even a mid-sized firm. That notwithstanding, employment prospects are improving due to the currently improved demand for pilots and salaries may improve or better salaries may be earned by relocating. In any case, starting out, do not expect to earn a lot of money.
Once you become an airline pilot, your life will be full of checks. Sadly, this does not refer to the monetary kind. You will need an annual or semi-annual medical check conducted by a local Aeromedical Examiner (AME). You will have an annual line check – carried out on a normal passenger flight where a Training Captain will assess the crew for procedure compliance, knowledge and general conduct of a flight. Every six months, you will have a simulator check, where, over a period of two days, you will have to demonstrate your ability to deal with non-normal and emergency procedures, aircraft performance and demonstrate your instrument flying skills. These checks are not a formality; pilots fail these and while an occasional failure over a career may be allowed, failing two of these checks is not viewed lightly and will put your career at risk. Safety and ground based training will take about five to six days annually and will cover security, safety management systems and company philosophy, use of emergency equipment, basic medical response skills, crew resource management, security and dangerous goods training. Some of these will be covered through online computer based training and can be done from your home.
The aviation industry offers more than just flying jobs. Non-flying positions are also available and can be a useful in building your career, but may be undertaken on a part-time basis alongside flying duties. These positions will present themselves as you progress through the industry, but there is no obligation to apply. However, they provide excellent opportunities to gain additional qualifications and experience. Examples include: Crew Resource Management (CRM) instructor, Safety Pilot – responsible for monitoring safety systems, Instructor Pilot and Designated Flight Examiner.
Management positions within the company are also available to pilots. These include Chief Pilot, Fleet Manager or Safety Manager. Pilot managers will normally still fly on the line from time to time, but primarily have other office/ management duties. Most management posts attract pay supplements as well as extra qualifications which can be a useful addition to your CV. If you lose your medical or are unable to fly, they can ensure that you remain employed in the aviation industry.
Promotions and transfer requests are all generally based on seniority. Since seniority rewards length of service, it is much less beneficial to those who have been most recently hired. Seniority lists will usually have a considerable impact on your career if you move employer, as you will most likely end up at the bottom of the list regardless of previous experience. Generally, airlines promote from within. Thus, most Captains were first a FO with their current employer. In large carriers, with multiple types of equipment and operations, a promotion can mean moving between operations and aircraft types – long haul FO to short haul Captain, for instance.
Once sufficient experience is gained as a Captain, you may be eligible to apply for the position as Training Captain. This path will qualify you as a simulator instructor and eventually an examiner. This involves training and examining pilots for type ratings, biannual checks, upgrades and recruitment assessments.
A bit about lifestyle and family. On short haul/regional operations, four or more consecutive sectors may be flown in one duty period (day). This will result in a busy working day with more take off and landings than on long haul flights were there is often only one sector, with many pilots making only a few landings in a month. Most long haul flights result in nights away from home. The upside to short haul is that you will mostly be at home by the end of the working day, home at night and it is good for building experience with short sectors to a range of airports. On short haul operations, a pilot will tend to complete blocks of flights. Generally, you will be rostered on several early flights back to back that will start at around 0600 in the morning and finish around 12-1600 in the afternoon. Or on afternoon flights that will start at around 1100-1400 and usually finish by 2200 as long as there are no delays.
Charter flying and freight flying often involve many night sectors operating in and out of challenging airfields, and mid-range flights.
Long haul operations can provide an attractive lifestyle if you do not mind being away from home and can cope with the numerous time zone changes that accompany this type of flying. This type of flying generally requires that you be on duty for an extended period of time, a number of nights away from home but generally only a few times per month. In some instances, these trips may have two or three day layovers away from home and thus, may result in as few as 10 days per month at home base.
A historical misconception is that the lifestyle of a pilot is glamorous and exciting. Unfortunately, this can be far from the truth. As a pilot, you will work irregular hours, often at very short notice and even when you are with a company that provides a roster well in advance, personal/social plans are often disrupted due to schedule changes. If you choose to be a pilot, chances are that you will be away from your family quite a lot and you are going to be absent from some important events.
The airline industry is a one of the most competitive of all industries. Our product is one that garners little brand loyalty. An airline seat is a means to an end and price is generally the most important consideration. As a result, airlines are constantly trying to reduce costs in order to successfully compete and this in turn creates downward pressure on pilots’ compensation and benefits. The good news is that there has never in recent history been as favorable a ratio of jobs to pilots worldwide as there is now and the forecast is that this ratio will improve. So, those who are entering the career now may very well be, as a group, the most fortunate generation of Airline Pilots so far.
Once you have obtained your first airline job and gained some good airline experience, you will need to consider how your career will progress. Do you stay with your current employer or will you have to change employers and relocate in order to further your career? How will either option affect your family socially and financially? In the current environment, especially for a young pilot, options exist and you will have to decide whether the best decision is to change your current employer for the prospect of a better future or remain with your current employer and accept lower pay and a promotion when it comes, perhaps in many years. These considerations will likely be some that any young pilot who joins Cayman Airways today will have to carefully weigh, a few years after joining. There will be considerations of finance, family and lifestyle that will all have to be weighed.
The job of a professional pilot is still hugely rewarding and challenging. It is a career that often provides much job satisfaction. While it is often said that an Airline Pilot’s job is hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, even when flying the same routes repeatedly, things are different each day due to weather, delays or air traffic and it truly is a stimulating career. According to a survey by Askmen, pilots are named after Astronauts, Doctors and Firefighters among the most respected of all professions. Finally, only twelve from this world have ever walked on the moon. And every man who has walked on the moon was a pilot.