Pilots are returning from furlough, but they haven’t been idle. Frequent retesting and training has ensured they are ready to fly…

Because of the pandemic, many pilots will not have flown a real aircraft for a considerable time. When they do, they will rely both on their initial training, and subsequent flight simulator hours. The sophistication and realism of these simulators is such that the authorities allow them to be used both for training and for keeping our skills up to date, but if you are wondering about those skills in general, it might be of interest to take you through the process of becoming a pilot and then, once qualified, what you do to stay current.

There are three routes into flying a commercial aircraft: self-sponsored, airline sponsored or from the military. The licence we aspire to gain is an Air Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL), and if self-funding it will set you back far in excess of £100,000. Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to be accepted by the British Airways cadet pilot scheme, and this fully funded my training with the obligation at the end to accept a job with BA if it had a vacancy. Such a scheme does not exist today and when such places are offered now, which is rare, it is usually part-sponsorship and a sacrifice in salary to pay the remaining costs over several years. As you can imagine competition for these places is fierce!


The training itself is carried out at an approved flying college; in my case it was BAe Flying College at Prestwick in Scotland. The course was residential and took 18 months, consisting of flying single-engine and twin-engined light aircraft as well as an intensive ground school course. After passing flying and written exam tests I left with my commercial licence. Even though I had a commercial licence, I now had to learn to fly the aircraft that BA assigned me for my first job as a pilot, which involved learning all the technical details of the aircraft you are to fly. This was followed by training in the simulator and then learning to fly that particular type of aircraft and how to deal with system failures and handling emergencies. This next stage takes two to four months.

Another subject you have to learn is something called ‘standard operating procedures’ which detail how we operate so that we know what each other is doing and when. Finally, the time comes when you fly as a fully qualified first officer. The captain sits in the left seat and the first officer in the right. The stripes on their jacket or shoulder indicate rank, so four stripes for captain, three for senior first officer and two for first officer.

In many jobs once the initial training is complete, that’s it; you are let loose with little or no further training or testing required. This is not true as a pilot. Every six months we have to go into the simulator and pass a test to re-validate our licence, which involves an assessment of flying skills and how you handle aircraft system failures and emergencies.

Additionally, once a year you have to complete a technical questionnaire as well as pass a strict medical examination (every six months if over 60). Finally, every two years an examiner will observe you on a flight to make sure you reach the required standard. Failure to meet the necessary standard in any of these tests results in withdrawal of your licence, and the requirement for further training and retesting.


The time spent as first officer depends on the airline and is a factor of experience in terms of hours flown and how well you have performed in all the various tests so far in your career. If deemed suitable to be captain you are then required to complete an intensive course of one to two months’ duration with, as you may have guessed, various tests along the way.

What I have just described is the process from absolute beginner to commercial airline captain. Additional requirements arise if you are absent from flying for a period of time. In this case, in order to keep your licence current you will need to go in to the simulator and complete a minimum of three take-offs, approaches and landings, usually every 90 days. This is what has been happening to pilots during the pandemic such that when the airlines need them they are ready to go.

I hope after reading this article that you will feel reassured that the two pilots up the cockpit are trained to the highest standards, and frequently retested and checked so they can safely transport you on your much awaited return to travel.