What qualifications do I need to be a pilot?
An overview of the qualifications and education needed to become an airline pilot
What qualifications do you need to be a pilot?
To hold the licences required to fly a commercial jet you do not need academic qualifications. You may however need some level of academic qualifications to go to a specific flight school or join a particular airline and use your licence but this varies between countries and airlines.
To fly a commercial passenger aircraft as a First Officer with an airline, you generally need the following as an absolute minimum:
- A frozen Air Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL) which consist of a CPL / MEIR / MCC & ATPL Theory (see what these are and how to get them here)
- A Class One Medical
- Be over 18
- Have a reasonable command of the English language
- Valid, unrestricted passport
- Have the right to live and work in the country the airline is based
Some airlines will also require you to have a minimum level of academic qualifications such as a secondary school or high school education to a good pass level. In counties like the UK this consists of 5 GCSEs grades A-C including Maths, English & Science whilst in other countries this might be a Secondary School Certificate (SSC) to a reasonable standard.
Whilst some airlines like British Airways have previously required applicants to hold at least 2 A-Levels with grades A-C, this has been replaced with a minimum UCAS point requirement to ensure qualifications such as BTECs, apprenticeships and international qualifications are considered.
easyJet requires their applicants to hold 5 GCSEs grades A-C whilst Ryanair does not require any academic qualifications. The Aer Lingus Future Pilot Program required applicants to have passed their Leaving Certificate in 6 or more subjects and have a minimum of 2 higher level subjects with a minimum of H5 grades in the Leaving Certificate.
In the United States and some Asian countries, it is typical that major airlines require you to hold a university degree level qualification (often comprising of 4 or more years of study) as a minimum requirement.
What level of education is flight training equivalent to?
The difficulty of the theoretical ATPL training is probably the equivalent of somewhere between GCSE and A-Level standard. Many people don’t find the ATPL theory syllabus to be particularly difficult but do find the amount of information you are required to process and retain to be overwhelming at times.
Your academic abilities and learning style might help choose the route you take to getting a Commercial Pilots Licence. For example, if you complete a full-time integrated course, you need to absorb a huge amount of information in a short space of time compared to a part-time modular course where you can pace out your study should you wish. The intensity of the integrated courses is one of the reasons why some airlines have historically recruited cadets who have completed an integrated course; they have shown an ability to take on a huge amount of information in a short space of time, something which you will need to demonstrate when you first join the airline and complete their specific training.
Didn’t do well at school?
Whilst you don’t strictly require any educational qualifications to hold a commercial pilot’s licence, if you are unable to achieve a reasonable standard at the core subjects (such as Maths & Science) at secondary education level (GCSEs etc.), you may well struggle with the 14 ATPL theoretical exams which require a 75% pass mark, particularly if you are transitioning straight from full time education to flight training.
That being said, everyone is different and some people are late starters. You may not have done particularly well at school but have gone on to gain the equivalent skills and knowledge through life experience. If this is you, becoming a pilot is still achievable providing you have developed enough skills in Maths and Physics before starting the course. Have a chat to the various flight training schools out there and see what they think. Most flight training organisations have entrance tests that must be passed on order to be accepted onto the course and these are good at filtering out individuals who would likely struggle with the training.
Flight Training Schools
Whilst you might not require any academic qualifications to obtain a Commercial Pilots Licence, if you want to get the qualification at a reputable flight school through a full-time integrated training program, some flight schools require you to have a minimum level of qualifications.
At somewhere like FTEJerez, this includes at least 2 A-Levels at grade C or above or grade 4 or above in the equivalents such as Baccalaureate, Bachillerato, Highers, Leaving Certs., Maturitá etc. CAE Oxford only state you must have completed secondary education.
What should I be aiming for?
Whilst not achieving a high standard of school education won’t necessarily put a stop to your aviation career, getting some good grades at a higher education level (A-Level or equivalent) will ensure that there are plenty of options in terms of flight training schools and then airlines to apply to. Given you can’t start your flight training until you are 18, you might as well seek to obtain some higher education level qualifications if you can.
Deciding on whether to go to university or not is quite a big subject and we’ve given it its own page.