Airline Pilots & their Extremely Rigorous Training


A few of you may have had the privilege of visiting the flight deck of a commercial airliner, and found yourself fascinated by the myriad levers, buttons, and other mechanisms surrounding the captain and co-pilot. After seeing that instrument panel, have you ever wondered what kind of training a pilot has? Of course, they must have a flight license, but how do you study for it? How long does it take? Are there other requirements along with flight training itself? Here’s a quick explanation of all that, plus a little more:

Getting the Licence

To earn the Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) , you must have at least 1,500 flight hours, which include at least 500 in multi-pilot operations, 150 as PIC (pilot in command), 200 cross-country hours, 75 instrument hours and 100 night-flight hours.

The Commercial Pilot License (CPL) and Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) Frozen allow you to act as a pilot in command of a single-pilot aircraft or as a co-pilot of a multi-pilot aircraft. For the CPL, at least 650 theoretical hours and 150-200 flight hours – depending on whether the training is integrated or modular – are required. The theoretical requirements are the same as for the ATPL, but with fewer practical hours. At this point you could fly for an airline with the ATPL Frozen: the theoretical part completed and flight hours pending, with a number of restrictions.

Although the ATPL is the license to carry out air transport, it is the CPL with ATPL Frozen that allows you to receive compensation for it. Therefore both licenses are part of the integral training to be able to work as a commercial aircraft pilot.

There are currently three ways to get the ATPL:

  1. Through the university degree Commercial Aviation Pilot and Air Operations, offered by a number of institutions throughout the world. This  degree takes four years and includes more than 50 subjects, including physics, meteorology, flight instruction, air legislation, commercial law, and geography. It’s therefore, a well-rounded degree, since someone who puts himself or herself at the controls of an aircraft must be very prepared in various fields.
  1. Modular training, which enables those who complete the various courses to fly different types of aircraft until they reach the ATPL, passing through lower licenses (PPL, CPL, etc.). This is ideal for those who prefer to go step by step, especially if they need to combine it with other studies or jobs.
  1. An integrated degree, which usually takes two or three years (faster than the modular one). Some schools offer an Aviation Management degree along with it – which is not strictly necessary itself, experts recommend adding a university degree to the ATPL, since it is highly valued when it comes to finding work.

In Europe, the minimum training required by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to become a pilot is 650 theoretical hours (and, of course, passing all subjects).

Upon Receiving the Licence

But even once future pilots do finally receive their licences, their training isn’t yet over! Normally they leave school with a limited ATPL or “Frozen”, which enables them to be first officers (i.e., co-pilots). Once the 1,500 flight hours have been completed, and having fulfilled the requirements above, they’ve officially passed and obtained the Airline Transport Pilot Licence.

To work at an airline, in addition to the ATPL pilots need a rating for each type of aircraft. For example, if the airline flies Airbus A320s, you can only work if you have the specific clearance for that aircraft model. The type rating course takes about a month and combines theoretical sessions with a flight simulator. Landings and take-offs are also carried out without passengers.

Each airline also provides additional training and tests its pilots in different subjects, such as operator conversion, dangerous cargo, CRM, communications, safety, and many more.

Additional Schooling

To obtain the ATPL, would-be pilots must have a secondary school diploma, and it’s recommended to concentrate if possible in science, maths, and technology. For non-native-English speakers, proof of a minimum level of English equivalent to B1 or B2 is also required, since this is the international language of aviation. Both the EASA and the UN-affiliated ICAO require English accreditation with so-called “language competence”, with a minimum level of 4 (Operational).

Other Requirements

You’ve now gotten an idea of the enormous amount of training needed by a commercial pilot. But there are yet other considerations even beyond all that. Pilots must be in good health and obtain a special medical certificate before finally achieving their dream. COPAC (Spain’s official commercial pilot school located in Madird) explains that this battery of exams includes vision and hearing testing, an electrocardiogram, blood and urine tests, etc. All this can take a whole day to complete. There are several conditions that may preclude someone from receiving the certificate, including cardiovascular diseases; epilepsy; certain types of diabetes; and colour blindness.

You pass all this, and congratulations – you’re now an airline pilot! But even so. Throughout their careers, pilots must stay current with refresher courses and exams to maintain and update knowledge and skills.

It’s clear that pilot training is very extensive and demanding. By the way, according to one study, somewhere around 635,000 new commercial pilots will be needed around the world by 2037 – in case any of you wants to become one!