What it Takes

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone has the ability to become a professional pilot. In fact, some people shouldn’t fly at all! Not because they can’t fly well – but because they can’t think well! Cocky, over-confident, egocentric pilots are not desirable and tend to be short lived in this job. The saying “there are old pilots and bold pilots – but no old bold pilots” is true. With the responsibilities and consequences involved, you naturally need to be supremely confident in your ability to do the job – but not to the point where ego exceeds ability. Mental attitude is everything. Throughout your career, confidence must be tempered with humility. One never stops learning in this game and you must have the ability to learn from others’ mistakes. You wont live long enough to make them all yourself. 

Under-confidence is just as dangerous as overconfidence – so good self-esteem is essential. These are the reasons most companies require a psychometric evaluation before they’ll consider employing you. (Flight Training College offers an optional psychometric evaluation at the beginning of the course to help students determine their strong and weak points as well as a personality analysis for career guidance purposes.)

Medically, many impediments that were an immediate disqualification years ago are now acceptable, as long as they can be corrected. Eyesight for example.

The air force still has more stringent medical standards for their recruits but that’s because their financial investment and risk is greater. Should you lose your medical while employed as a professional pilot most company’s have a Loss of Licence Insurance to cover you until you’re fit to fly again, or even a lump sum payout if you’re permanently boarded. Several insurance companies are happy to insure individuals under a similar policy and it’s obviously advisable to have this cover if you’re self-employed.

Academically, it obviously helps to have Maths and Science to Matric (Senior) level but even if you haven’t, there’s nothing to stop you taking extra lessons to get up to scratch in these areas. Good English is obviously vital as it is the international aviation language. (Geography is another very useful subject although not mandatory.)  In South African Airways the minimum requirement is a Matric with Maths and Science – that’s obviously in addition to your flying qualifications. Although only a Commercial Pilot Licence is required to be eligible for the interview, if you arrive without your ATP (Airline Pilot Licence) you are unlikely to be selected; given that most other candidates will already have theirs. Remember; you will be competing against the “cream of the crop” candidates for the top job, and the more attractive your qualifications and experience are, the better your chances of being selected. Airline selections are conducted on a point system and you will score points for experience and qualifications. Having an ATP, Instructors Rating, Multi crew, Multi engine, Turbine endorsement, all count for big points. Another factor is the age/experience ratio. Obviously the older you are, the more experience the airline expects to see you with. 

One small tip – guard your reputation well! Airlines do their homework meticulously. Internationally this is a close knit community and if you are prone to slovenly behaviour or have a reputation as a heavy drinking Casanova or a flamboyant show-off, you can be assured the selection board will know about it before you arrive for the interview. Better have some answers ready! 

So where do you go from here?

To sum up: Once you are certain flying is what you want to do, make the effort in finding a good school. (And even if you’re NOT certain this is what you want to do – don’t worry – you’ll find out soon enough after you start!) The “flying bug” will either bite you or not.  (And don’t be concerned if you’re a little frightened of flying in the beginning – that’s quite normal and has happened to most of us at some point during our training.)

After you’ve enrolled at a flying school and complied with the administration procedures, the induction course,  the medical and a few exams you will be on your way to getting your Student Pilot License. You will need this license in order to complete your First Solo flight. (A milestone which will take place when your instructor accesses you as ready – normally between 15 and 25 flying hours.)

Thereafter you will have to complete the rest of the academic subjects and flying curricula before you will be ready to undertake your Private Pilot Flight Test (at a minimum of 45 flying hours.)  With your PPL you are now legal to carry passengers in your aircraft (but not for hire and reward.)

To be legal to fly as a professional pilot  you will need to qualify for the Commercial Pilot License. This is an arduous continuation of the course and will require much more study and flight training before you will be ready to undertake your CPL flight test (minimum 200 hours total flying time) and the Instrument Rating flight test (absolutely essential to fly in cloud.) After that you will most likely do a conversion on a twin engine aircraft or some other complex aircraft in order to develop and hone your skills as a pilot. Congratulations! – you are now legally employable. But as I mentioned before – not likely to be – until you have accumulated a considerable ammount of experience. (Hence the reason for continuing with an instructors rating as I mentioned earlier.)

Once employed you will naturally be paid as you accumulate more experience. After you have passed the Airline Pilot License exams and logged a minimum of 1500 flying hours, (encompassing certain minimum requirements in terms of hours of night flying, pilot-in-command time and instrument flying and navigation experience) you will be eligible for the ATP flight test. This is the “Masters Degree” of flying qualifications and will take you several years of study and hard work to achieve. With this qualification the “doors start opening” and you will become eligible for airline interviews and other sought after flying jobs.

This is typically the progression you can expect in your civilian flying career. And the progress never stops. Because within the airline or company you fly for, you will find a whole new career path. Depending on the airline, you will join the company as a “Second Officer,” meaning that you will be the third pilot on the flight deck, helping the primary crew with “in flight relief” on the long range routes. Later you will advance to co-pilot (First Officer) then Senior First Officer and eventually to Captain and Senior Captain. This takes many years. The detail varies, and some pilots achieve their goals quicker and more fortuitously than others, but it’s a good summary of the way it works in the aviation business everywhere. It’s a tried and tested system and ensures that the people on the flightdeck of the world’s airliners are the best qualified and most experienced pilots available for the job. And that of course is good for FLIGHT SAFETY! And ultimately, that is the most important part of this job!

And now lastly, the million dollar question: How do you pay for all this?

Well, if you’re lucky perhaps your parents will consider paying for flight school instead of university. Depending on what you would have studied at university, the costs will be comparable to a five year degree course. Alternatively you can try the banks. Although most South African banks won,t give you a student loan for flight training – they will consider a loan if they hold some type of collateral or guarantee in return. As far as bursaries go: In South Africa it is the Sector Education Training Authorities (SETA) intention to sponsor flight training through the Transport Education devision of the Training Authority. (TETA) The finance will effectively be a training bursary to selected South African students, to be used through approved flying schools. Not all South African flying schools are SETA approved so you will need to check with them first before applying for a bursary. Contact the Government Transport Education Training Authority (website: www.teta.org.za) for more information on this scheme. 

Well – in the words of Forest Gump, “that’s all I’ve got to say about that.” I hope this chapter goes some way in helping you make an informed decision about your future. If there’s any further advice you require, or even if you just want to have a chat about your prospects, please feel free to contact myself at the contact addresses on this website or on my personal email address walter1@pixie.co.za.

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