Careers as a commercial pilot
Angus is a senior first officer with a major airline. He tells TARGETcareers about his job, how to become a commercial pilot, and the skills and personal qualities you need if you’re interested in careers as a pilot. The views expressed in this article are his own.
What does your job as a pilot involve?
I fly an Airbus A380. Most of the true flying element of the job involves takeoff and landing. At other times the autopilot is used as it is more accurate at keeping the aircraft on course and at the right altitude for long periods. This enables us to project ahead and plan for scenarios that may occur, for instance, where we would go if we had a technical malfunction or a medical emergency.
The most interesting aspect of the job is how we communicate and workload manage with each other in the aircraft and with other agencies on the ground like air traffic, engineering and operations. This is a constantly evolving skill for which we undergo regular training in the simulator twice a year.
Do you spend any time in an office?
Probably less than 1%. We meet as a crew in an open office to review the flight’s technical status and the weather to make a fuel decision for the trip (that is, how much fuel will be required, including having a minimum of 30 minutes’ fuel in reserve). We then meet the cabin crew and conduct a briefing focused on customer and any relevant safety information that may affect the service, for instance if it is going to be turbulent.
How did you become a commercial pilot?
I entered the airline at the end of a military career through a process called ‘managed path’. I used my military experience along with some training that I paid for at a local commercial flight school to gain a licence. Only about a quarter of us are ex-military.
The most common route to becoming a commercial pilot is through a cadetship scheme either after A levels or post-degree. Currently, like most major airlines, my company occasionally recruits through a ‘future pilot programme’. The scheme provides a tax-efficient loan for training and some assurance of a contract on attainment of a licence. Commercial licences cost over £100,000 so before engaging in such a scheme a candidate needs to weigh up the benefits against the risk of not gaining a contract or not completing the training.
What are the best and worst aspects of careers as a pilot?
- The view from the office window is always changing and is spectacular.
- Perversely the most difficult, challenging days are the most rewarding. When something goes wrong (technically or otherwise) it is very satisfying to work as a team to solve the issues, which can be very complex.
- We are always learning.
- The airline has a staff travel perk that has allowed me to take my family travelling to far-flung parts of the planet.
- It can be challenging to balance home life with the time away. There is no such thing as weekend or bank holiday so planning for family events, Christmas or other calendar events is difficult as it is just another working day.
- The nights out of bed on long-haul flights are tiring.
What skills or personal qualities do you need to be able to do your job well?
You need to be a reliable time keeper and contentious in keeping abreast of changes to procedures. You don’t need to be a technical wizard to be a pilot though a basic grasp of physics and reasonable mental arithmetic coupled with some hand-eye coordination helps.
The most sought-after skills are concise communication and being confident enough to express or advocate your point of view but also to listen to others. You also need the ability to problem solve and manage high workloads under pressure and be able to analyse and process large amounts of information quickly. Some of these skills will be taught, or enhanced through training.