Pilot Licences Explained

Airline Pilot Licences Explained

What licences you need to be a pilot and how to get them…

What licences you need to become a pilot

Gaining a clear understanding of what licences you need to become a First Officer with an airline requires a bit of reading. In short, to operate as a commercial airline pilot you need to hold either a licence called a frozen Air Transport Licence (ATPL) or an Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL). We expanded on the details of each licence below to help give you a clear idea of the licences required to become a commercial airline pilot

An MPL allows you to operate as a First Officer / Co-pilot on a commercial passenger aircraft. The licence is a relatively new concept which has been introduced alongside the traditional frozen ATPL licence.

The biggest difference between an MPL and fATPL licence is that you can only complete MPL training with an approved training organisation having already been selected to join an airline specific training course (such as the easyJet or British Airways MPL Cadet programs). You can’t complete an MPL course unless you have been specifically selected to complete the course by an airline.

The practical difference between an MPL and a fATPL is the training syllabus. MPL training puts greater emphasis on airline specific, multi-crew training, with less time spent training the more traditional single pilot flying skills in light aircraft. As a result, do you do less real flying and spend more time in the simulator. You still learn the core flying skills, but more quickly progress towards the concept of multi-crew operations and instrument flying.

As a result, you don’t ever obtain a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) or a Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL) which is needed to operate commercially in a single pilot role.

You hold an MPL licence until you achieve 1500 hours of flight time, at which point you upgrade your licence to a full ATPL.

Holding an MPL can make changing jobs difficult, until you have upgraded to a full ATPL. An MPL holder must continue working for their sponsored airline and it is not easily transferable. It will typically take you about 2-3 years to gain the amount of flight time. This isn’t a problem during normal times as you will have been bonded to the airline who’s training program you were accepted onto. However, it could be an issue if the worst happens such as redundancy occurring due to an event like the Covid-19 pandemic.

The more traditional route to becoming a Co-pilot / First Officer is to obtain a frozen Air Transport Pilots Licence (fATPL).

The fATPL isn’t a standalone licence, rather it’s a widely accepted summary that you have all the individual licences you need to operate as a First Officer on a commercial transport jet with an airline.

The fATPL consists of a number of individual licences and endorsements, all of which must be obtained in order to have a fATPL. This consists of

  • 14 ground school examinations (ATPL Theoretical Exams)
  • Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL)
  • Multi Engine Instrument Rating (MEIR)
  • Multi Crew Co-operation Course (MCC)

An ATPL is not as restrictive as an MPL in that you can free move between airlines (although you may require a new type rating as described later) and you can operate smaller passenger aircraft (8 seats or less) as a single pilot should you wish.

The frozen ATPL becomes “unfrozen” i.e., a full ATPL, when you have completed a total of 1500 hours total flying time, of which 500 hours must be multi crew environment i.e. flown in an aircraft which requires both a captain and first officer. You must be aged 21 or over for the licence to be unfrozen. You must hold a full ATPL to operate as a Captain of a commercial aircraft.

You can obtain all the licences and exams required to hold a fATPL at a flight school through either integrated or modular training.

Some airlines will also require you to have a type rating as a minimum requirement. This is a stand-alone endorsement to add to your fATPL which allows you to operate a specific type of jet transport category aircraft. This is described in more detail later.

The entry level licence is called a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). This licence entitles the holder to exercise privileges as pilot in command of a light single piston aircraft (this basically means you can fly a small aircraft by yourself). The minimum age to hold a PPL is 17 years old. To obtain this, you need to complete a minimum of 45 flying hours, 10 of which must be solo hours, and 5 of which can be in a certified flight simulator. There are also 6 ground school exams which must be sat, of which the pass mark is 75%. Once your instructor deems you are ready and have met the minimum requirements, you will sit a flying test with a CAA examiner (it’s a bit like a driving test but in an aircraft). Although 45 hours is the minimum requirement, most people will generally need about 60-70 hours to reach the sufficient standard, some people needing more and some less. Again, depending on the person, the aim is to fly your first solo flight after just 15 hours of tuition.

It is not a requirement that you hold a PPL before obtaining a Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL), although many would argue that it is a good idea to do so in order to assesses whether you have the aptitude for it and more importantly whether you actually enjoy flying as much as you thought you would.

The CPL is basically a more advanced PPL, requiring flying accuracy and a higher standard of airmanship. The holder of a CPL is able to act as pilot in command of a small piston engine aircraft that holds less than 9 passengers for commercial purposes such as revenue flights in visual conditions (VMC). The minimum age to hold a CPL is 18 years old.

The CPL is valid for multi engine aircraft only if the CPL skills test is passed in a multi engine aircraft, otherwise privileges are restricted to single engine aircraft. A CPL holder may only operate the aircraft in what are referred to as visual meteorological conditions (VMC – this basically means clear of cloud with the ground always in sight in good visibility). In order to be eligible to sit the CPL skills test with an examiner, the student must have completed 70 hours as pilot in command (or pilot in command under supervision) and flown the cross-country qualifier which involves a solo flight over 300 nautical miles, landing at two other airfields than the one you departed from. You obtain a CPL by passing a CPL skills test with an authorised examiner.

You must have also of passed the following 14 ATPL theoretical examinations with a pass mark of 75% or greater. The ATPL theory subjects consist of the following:

  • Air Law
  • Aircraft General Knowledge – Airframe/Systems/Powerplant
  • Aircraft General Knowledge – Instrumentation
  • Mass and Balance
  • Performance,
  • Flight Planning and Monitoring,
  • Human Performance,
  • Meteorology,
  • General Navigation,
  • Radio Navigation,
  • Operational Procedures,
  • Principles of Flight,
  • Visual Flight Rules (VFR) Communications.
  • Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) Communications. (Only required to hold an IR)

A number of airlines regularly stipulate their preference for candidates who achieved over an 85% average pass mark, so in reality, this is the minimum you should be aiming for.

Fly an aircraft in conditions where you can’t see the ground, such as in or above cloud is referred to instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). In these conditions, you can’t fly the plane by looking out the window you have to fly through reference to the aircraft’s instruments without. This is called Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). In order to be qualified to operate IFR, you must first hold an Instrument Rating (IR). You can complete the instrument rating on either a single or multi engine aircraft, but to operate for an airline, you specifically need to hold a Multi Engine Instrument Rating (MEIR).

When training for the instrument rating, the instructor will place special screens up in the windshield of the aircraft, or the student will wear special goggles to ensure the student can’t see outside. The screens go up at about 400 feet above ground level and are removed when coming into land at about the same height. After take-off, the student must navigate only using the aircraft instruments and radio beacons on a predetermined routing. A typical route involves navigating to another airfield, making an instrument approach followed by carrying out a missed approach before navigating back to the departure aerodrome to land.

During this phase of training, much emphasis is placed on the student’s pilot in command capabilities, with a lot of training being conducted as Pilot in Command Under Supervision (PICUS). This basically means that whilst the instructor has the overall legal responsibility of the flight, the student is encouraged to act as the Pilot in Command (Captain).

In addition to the theoretical examinations required to pass hold a CPL, you must also pass the IFR Communications theoretical examination before obtaining your MEIR.

To obtain an IR you must have completed a minimum of 50 hours cross country flying under instrument flight rules (IFR) as pilot in command. When the candidate is deemed ready, he/she must complete a mock skills test (called a 170A) followed by an official skills test with an approved instrument rating examiner. The test requires you to fly a number of exercises with reference only to the aircraft instrumentation, including the routing as described as above.

The MCC phase of your training is designed to help make the transition from single pilot operation to multi pilot operation. Just about all commercial aircraft are operated with a minimum of two flight crew, a Captain and a First Officer, and have to work together effectively to ensure the safety of the operation.

The MCC course is comprises of both theoretical training and practical simulator training. The simulator used is typically a widely operated commercial aircraft such as a Boeing 737 or Airbus 320.

The course places a large emphasis on non-technical Crew Resource Management (CRM) skills such as decision making, teamwork and communication. It is the first time you are introduced to multi-crew standard operating procedures (SOPs) in an airline environment. The course usually consists of around 20 simulator hours and is very intense.

Some training organisations also include a Jet Orientation Course (JOC) as part of the MCC course. This shorter course is used to help develop the manual flight and automation managed skills needed to operate a large commercial jet aircraft.

A type rating is the endorsement to operate a specific commercial aircraft. The type rating has traditionally been provided by an airline once offered a job with that airline, but it is now becoming more common for the candidate to pay for the type rating him/herself when offered a job, or on completion of the ATPL training to become more employable.

A type rating is required to operate a specific aircraft that meets any of these requirements:

  • Carries more than 9 passengers
  • Has a maximum take-off weight of more than 5,900 kilograms
  • Is a jet aircraft

To commence a type rating the candidate must have a valid instrument rating and have passed all 14 of the theoretical examinations.

One person can hold a maximum of two type ratings at any one time. There are some generic type ratings, for example a type rating on the Airbus A320 allows the holder to operate the A318, A319, A320 and A321. Similarly, completing a type rating on the Boeing 737 NG allows the holder to operate any of the B737 series, both classic and next generation (300-900).

After completing your type rating, you’re ready to fly the aircaft for the first time. You take an empty aircraft up, and complete around 6 takes offs and landings (“touch and go’s) with a training captain. If you manage to complete the take-offs and landings to a good standard, the next time you fly the jet will be with passengers on board on day one of your Line Training.

Line training is where you operate the aircraft as part of normal airline operations (i.e. with passengers onboard) but with a Captain who holds special training qualifications (termed a ‘Training Captain’) who is there to provide training, supervision and mentorship.

Line Training is the final phase of your flight training carried out to bring you up to “line standard”. Prior to this you will have only flown the aircraft once during your base training without passengers.

Line training typically takes between 30 to 80 sectors (flights) and you are signed off when you are deemed proficient with the airline SOPs, non-technical skills and aircraft handling. You are then released “to the line” where you will fly with normal Captains as part of standard crew. This is where the learning really starts, and you never stop throughout your entire career!

The very first recommendation to any aspiring pilot is to obtain a JAA issue Class One Medical. This is a mandatory requirement for all flight crew in order to operate commercially. For a UK issue, the initial assessment takes place at the CAA medical centre located at London Gatwick Airport. You are tested for good general health, and any disqualifying conditions such as diabetes and colour blindness are identified. Unfortunately for some, this occasion may highlight an underlying medical condition which has not before been detected, and the medical certificate will not be issued. Some conditions are not necessarily disqualifying but may require further investigation and testing. After the initial issue, you are required to attend a medical assessment on an annual basis until the age of forty, then every six months until the age of 65 which is the age at which class one medical privileges are revoked. Items such as ECG and audiograms are retested at periodic intervals, increasing in frequency with age.

For those unlucky enough not to be able to obtain a class one medical, you may still be able to hold a class two medical which allows you to operate light aircraft with a private pilots licence (PPL). A class two medical is effectively a less stringent class one medical, with test renewals initially taking place every two years.

A commercial pilot is in complete reliance of maintaining his or her class one medical. The CAA may revoke it at any time, consequently grounding the pilot. This may be untimely, and can often cut a career short. For this reason, maintaining a fit and healthy lifestyle may well go a long way to prolonging a career.

There have been people who have invested significant amounts of money in obtaining a Private Pilots Licence (requiring only a class two medical), with the view to continue training towards a commercial licence, only to find that they were ineligible for a class one medical, and therefore unable to pursue a commercial career.

The Route to the Right Hand Seat

Illustration of the route to becoming an airline pilot