Airline Pilot Licences Explained

Airline Pilot Licences

What licences you need and how to get them

What licences and medical qualifications do you require to operate as a commercial airline pilot?

Gaining a clear understanding of what is required in order to be eligible to apply for a commercial pilot job can be quite a challenge. There seem to be so many steps involved and a meaningless jungle of abbreviations to work out. Hopefully this section will make things a bit clearer.​

Air Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL) Overview

In order to operate as First or Second officer on an a commercial airliner the minimum qualification (licence) you must hold is a frozen Air Transport Pilots Licence (fATPL) with a Type Rating specific to the aircraft you are employed to operate and a class one medical. The fATPL consists of a number of individual licences and endorsements, all of which must be obtained in order to apply for a commercial flying job. This consists of 14 ground school examinations, a Multi Engine (ME) Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL), Multi Engine Instrument Rating (IR) and a Multi Crew Co-operation Course (MCC). The type rating is required to operate any aircraft with either: Jet Propulsion, capacity of more than 9 passengers or has a take off weight greater than 5,900 kgs. These individual licences are explained in greater detail below. In order for this licence to be issued, the applicant must be in possession of a valid class one medical.

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.

A licence issued by a national aviation authority (such as the UK Civil Aviation Authority) on behalf of the European Joint Aviation Requirements (JAR) allows the holder to operate for any European airline. Such a license is also accepted in other regions such as the Middle East, but in order to operate in some places such as the USA, a licence conversion is required.

The Medical

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.


Flying Licences Overview

Private Pilots Licence (PPL)

The entry level licence is called a Private Pilots 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 (its 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.

Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL)

The CPL is basically a more advanced PPL, requiring greater accuracy in flying and a higher standard of airmanship. The holder of a CPL is able to act as pilot in command of a small piston engined 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 engined 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 must have also of passed the following fourteen ATPL theoretical examinations with a pass mark of 75% or greater:

  • 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 reguarly stipulate their preference for candidates who acheived over an 85% average pass mark, so in reality, this is the minimum you should be aiming for.

Instrument Rating (IR)

In order to operate in cloud or instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), this means flying the aircraft using only it’s instruments without reference to the ground or horizon, the pilot must hold an instrument rating, again specific to a single or multi engine aircraft.

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 students pilot in command capabilities, with a lot of training being conducted as Pilot in Command Under Supervision (PICUS). This basicaly 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 one further examination:

- IFR Communications

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 offical 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.

Multi Crew Cooperation Course (MCC)

The MCC phase of your training is designed to help the student 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 course is completed in a simulator, usually of a popular commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320. The course places a large emphasis on non-technical (Crew Resource Management) skills such as decision making, team work 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.

Type Rating (TR)

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 5,900kgs
  • 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).

Base Training

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 do this, the next time you fly will be with passengers on board.

Line Training

Line training is the final phase of 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. During line training you operate the aircraft, with passengers, under the supervision of a line training Captain who is providing you with tuition. This typically takes between 30 – 80 sectors (flights) and you are signed off when you are deemed proficent with the airline SOPs, non-technical skills and aircaft handling. You are then released “to the line” where you will fly with normal Captains. This is where the learning really starts, and you never stop throughout your entire career!