Can you train to be an Airline pilot debt free?

Can you train debt free to become an Airline pilot?

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Some people find themselves in the fortunate position of having the total funds needed to pay for everything in one go, this is of course a much simpler route, but if you don’t have the funds then it is still worth reading on to see if some of the ideas below could save you some money or make the training better fit with your lifestyle. 

Firstly, I’d like to point out that setting out to do anything that costs around £70,000 should involve a huge amount of research and soul searching to make sure you are both capable of achieving the standard required and that you know what the job/career entails on a daily basis and not just the vision portrayed in the tv commercials. 

Please also take the time to look at our info pages on how to become a pilot so you are clear on the steps and the individual licence and ratings pages, so you better understand what is presented below.

Okay, with the disclaimer out of the way, let’s also mention that even with the money, burning a hole in your pocket, by far the easiest and probably best way to train is to invest in yourself and do everything nicely linked together.

Below are the 3 main routes to becoming an airline pilot:

Modular training – this is where you choose how to put the elements of training together, like building blocks, making choices about where, when and with whom you want to do your training. The advantage of this method is the flexibility and normally lower overall cost.

Integrated training – this method of training is where you start and finish with the same school and all your training is in one continuous course. The advantage of this type of course is that everything is planned for you and there aren’t normally any hidden costs. The main disadvantage is the higher overall cost than modular and much less flexibility.

Multi Pilot’s Licence – this is a relatively new type of training and has to be sponsored by an airline. It is similar to Integrated training except that it revolves around the simulator, learning how to fly a passenger aircraft with much less time spent in the real aircraft. The main advantage is the fact that you can go straight to your airline sponsor once you are finished, already being familiar with their aircraft. The disadvantage is the very high costs involved and that you are tied to the sponsoring airline until you have a fair amount of experience and if this airline gets into difficulty or no longer needs you it can be very difficult to get into one of the other training pathways.

So how can I complete any of the training listed above without debt? The simple answer is that most people can’t. When the industry is very buoyant some airlines open sponsored schemes, which either pay for the training in full or pay towards it, with a job promised at the end of the training if you meet the often very stringent standards.

Okay so we have established that it is difficult but what can you do to reduce the amount of debt or to eliminate it completely?

Plan for it to take a number of years, this might sound like a disappointing route but for a good number of pilots this has been the only possible route. 

By living at home or very cheaply whilst working one or more jobs, it is possible to save the money for the first stage of the modular course – the Private Pilot’s Licence or PPL. This costs between £8,000 – £14,000. you can also look for one of the scholarships that are offered each year to pay for some or all of this course (a list is provided at the end of the article).

Once you have achieved the PPL you will need to try and achieve the next two steps either in parallel or consecutively. 

These are your hours building (where you fly to build experience before you can achieve the next licence or rating) and your “Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence” theory (ATPL theory). 

Whilst building hours is a lot of fun, it needs to be used wisely to gain the skills needed to achieve the next licences and ratings in the minimum hours, so as not to increase the costs and therefore defeating the point of the whole minimal debt exercise. I am not aware of any scholarships for hours building so I’m afraid you are going to have to get back to work to earn the money to pay for the hours building and ATPL theory (although there are a number of scholarships for this) and hopefully to start saving towards the upcoming commercial pilot’s licence. 

It is worth noting that the very flight schools where you are likely to be hours building often require people to help man the front desk etc. and with your PPL you have some good basic aviation knowledge to be able to help customers. Some schools will let you swap these hours worked for hours of flying. 

The ATPL theory can be studied via something called distance learning, whilst this normally makes passing the exams harder it allows you to take 18 months to complete the course. Please note this is not for the faint hearted or those who find self-study difficult, it takes a huge amount of effort, sacrifice and late nights of study to pass the exams whilst working full time.

Now this is where the routes can start to differ. You have 36 months once the ATPL exams are passed to be able to use them to complete your Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) and Instrument Rating (IR), so although you have a bit of breathing space the clock is ticking and a huge number of people fall fowl of this rule! 

The next step is normally the CPL (read our pages on this and the Multi-Engine / Instrument Rating to understand the rules), so to avoid debt you need to get back to earning and saving. The CPL costs between £7,000 and £12,000. Now assuming this has taken you 12 months to save up for and complete the CPL you now have 24 months left to use your ATPL theory pass so what should you do next? The obvious answer is the instrument rating, so you don’t run out of time, but there are two options:

Start working and saving again to pay the £12,000 – £17,000 for the Multi-Engine Instrument Rating. Once this has been completed the clock stops ticking and you are now free to save for your multi crew cooperation certificate (MCC).

A second route is to seek sponsorship from a flight school to become a flight instructor. This has a couple of advantages and a couple of disadvantages.

First the disadvantages: It isn’t highly paid. You will likely need to relocate. You will be busiest at weekends including Sundays and you must keep an eye on the clock that is ticking for you to secure your ATPL theory credit.

Now the advantages: You will gain valuable experience and flying hours. In the right school you will have access to the simulator and instructors that teach the IR allowing you to be very well prepared once you start your IR. You should get a decent discount when you are ready to start your IR. You will be being paid to fly whilst saving for your IR. Some schools have close relationships with airlines or corporate jet companies who, depending on their type of operation, may only recruit from trusted sources where they can be sure of the quality of pilot. You might decide this is what you want to do as a career and move up the ranks to be teaching the CPL and IR etc.

Now you have completed your IR the clock on the ATPL theory has stopped ticking. You now have a small amount of breathing space to save for and complete your MCC – this should be done as quickly as possible because now you will want to secure your first job before your IR lapses (1 year) and you need to renew it (year 1 is a sim check).

As I hope you can see from the above there are many ways to complete your pilot training on the journey to become an airline pilot.

By far the easiest is to have the money up front and feel comfortable in the knowledge that you can run straight through the training in one go and start applying for jobs, but we have tried to show another couple of ways in the hope that this will get you thinking about how, even if you don’t have the money, this doesn’t need to be the end of your dream to become a pilot.

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