Commercial pilot career advice from professionals.

A professional pilot career is the dream of many but it is difficult to know where to start and how to go about it. I interviewed two recently qualified pilots who know the score as they have just won their first job. Their advice can save you over £50,000 if you choose to follow it, while guiding you through the maze of training options available.

I managed to sneak a few minutes with two professional commercial pilots who had been asked along by Simtech to give student testimonials to potential pilots about the multi crew conversion courses they run. The ladies were happy to share their wider experiences so let’s hear from Sarah Dunglinson on the left and Sarah Johnson on the right. From here on in referred to as "SD" and "SJ" for ease of reading.

Thanks ladies, over to you...

First Officer Sarah Dunglinson of Ryanair

Can you tell us a wee bit about your background and why you chose to be a pilot?

SD. My dad was an airline pilot so I have been brought up around the culture of aviation  my whole life. He got me into flying when I was 14 and he took me to our local gliding club at Lasham, since then I’ve been hooked. He has never pressured me into it but when I have had questions or needed support he has been there. I’ve had a very nice support network that got me into aviation.

I went solo in a glider on my 16th birthday, which back then, was the earliest you could go solo. (You can now fly solo in a glider at 14. Ed.)

Then I ended up moving up to Bristol and took up powered flying at Bristol airport.

How did you go from there into commercial flying?

So, I did my PPL at Bristol and at the same time as doing the 14 ground school ATPL exams. Once I had qualified from there I did my commercial licence, multi engine rating and instrument rating in the south at Bournemouth. After all that was completed I did the multi crew conversion course at Simtech and then got a job with Ryanair.

You have a pilot job at Ryanair?

Yes we both got jobs.

So that is straight out of flying school and right into a job as a pilot yes?

Pretty much yes.

Did they come and headhunt you from the course or did you send a few CVs out?

I sent out a few CVs then it was fingers crossed and hoping for the best really.

First Officer Sarah Johnson of Ryanair

SJ. I have no pilots in my immediate family but we travelled quite a lot when I was young. I realised when I flew as a passenger that I just LOVED the feeling of flying and loved being on a plane. It amazed me and I realised quickly that it was something that I wanted to do.

I would sometimes book flights for myself, without needing to go anywhere, just to be on a plane.

Sarah giggles nervously, I think a little embarrassed at the thought of being judged as a bit weird, but the delight and passion for flying is written all over her. There is no need to be self conscious, many more of us would do exactly that given the chance.

I didn’t go through the pilot training from a young age. I went to university and I have a degree in language translation, then I moved to Dubai to be cabin crew. I have been cabin crew for the last seven years. I took that opportunity to use that exposure to pilots and flying to get my pilot licence.

I took the decision last year to leave Emirates and leave Dubai to focus on becoming a pilot commercially.

I finished all of my training, like Sarah in October last year in the south of England first, then in Dublin. I applied to Ryanair a few weeks after finishing and got the call in December.

Did you sign up for a course Ab-initio right through to ATPL?

No, I’ve done modular training because I wanted to finance it myself so I kept my job as cabin crew.

I did my private licence in California and my ATPL exams long distance while working in Dubai, that was very tough. I tried to keep my cabin crew job up until the last minute which is what I managed to do, then moved back to the UK in May last year to do my to do my CPL and instrument rating in the UK at Bournemouth.

How did you find the whole experience, flying and course work?

Both in stereo; “Intense but great fun.”

SD. Out of the training anything to do with the flying side has been the most enjoyable.

SJ. Definitely. I had experience of flying in America, which is very different. It was a big transition for me, there are a lot of rules over here, while in America it is more relaxed. To be honest I had a lot more fun flying in California with my instructor as we would just go fly somewhere and grab a burger. It was more about the destination there, whereas here it is more strictly run and rule based. It was still great fun and flew by, literally! It was tough though.

SD. We ended up supporting one another quite a lot. Coming up to tests it was like, oh come over to my house and run through this flight with me, then quiz me on these questions. Then it was your turn and I’d come to you.

SJ. The people that you are training with are a massive help as you feel that you are not alone. Going through the training experience with Sarah was really great, that helped me a lot.

So how did you both end up here today?

SJ. That is the great thing about Simtech, it is only a ten day course but the communication from the beginning to the end is just so great. I didn’t find that about my flight school in England, there was no communication. I’m from Aberdeenshire so I drove down here to help.

SD. Yeah, Simtech asked us to do a promo video and tell people how we are doing. They asked me when I’m doing my type rating if I could do another quick write up to let everyone know how I’m getting on and to get a picture of me in uniform.

SJ. Simtech are really genuinely interested to know how you are getting on, where you are going, how far you have got. They are really happy when you have a great story to tell or good news. So Simtech, yeah, I highly recommend them for the MCC course.

They are over in Dublin, yes?

SJ. Yes, just near to Dublin airport and they offer accommodation with the MCC course so it couldn’t have been easier.

SD. And transport! So when you are getting up really early in the morning for training it’s not like you have to worry about getting a taxi. We just went to the hotel reception and told them who we were with and they sorted it. Really straightforward.

Did you do your type rating there as well?

SD. No just the MCC course we don’t start type rating until next month, mine starts on the 2nd and Sarah is a week later on the 9th, which sucks as we wanted to do it together.

SJ. I would not recommend doing a type rating until you have a secure job. It is not cheap and now airlines are realising that type ratings are expensive and they should fund them. There are airlines now that will do that and pay for your type rating. It will be a bonded scheme but that is out there now.

SD. Like for example Ryanair have just recently changed and are now sponsoring cadets through their type rating.

SJ. That’s massive because straight out of flight training you are so out of pocket and the worst you can do at this stage is have to go for a waitressing job or something.

SD. Yes you don’t need to start wondering where you are going to get another £30, 000 from. You already have this debt, you don’t want to be thinking, can I go to the family, can I get a loan? Am I going to have to work for a year somewhere else? If you don’t fly for a year then all of your ratings lapse and you are going to have to wonder how to pay to renew your multi engine and instrument ratings as well.

Did you fund it all yourselves or was there any form of sponsorship?

SD. I had support from my parents, but there is nothing else available from airlines.

SJ. "It would be great if national carriers would start sponsoring cadets. I lived in the Emirates and they offer that for their nationals, so do a few other airlines in Asia. I think that’s great, just to fly your country’s flag and not have to go to the other side of the world to fly like some people do. It would be really great to see that in the future."

SD. If you are looking at doing the integrated route you are looking at £120k. The modular route is like £60k so you slash the costs in half. People don’t realise, they think that airlines like integrated training and that’s the way to go.

Now the airlines are starting to turn the tables and take modular cadets. They are realising that they have more experience, including flying experience.

Integrated students come out with about 170 hours, whereas we come out with more like 220 hours. We have got a lot more hands on experience.

SJ. I’ve heard great stories from modular students as well doing two or three jobs at once to pay for it, or people in their thirties, forties or even one guy at 50, that shows real passion. (That’s obviously still young! Ed.) Yeah, but some airlines don’t see it that way. If I was taking someone on and I could see that they had given up a highly paid job and security to do what they want to do, I’d hand them the job definitely.

SD. I also think modular cadets are more grateful when they get offered a job. Integrated students seem to expect to be given a job at the end of it. Modular students have generally worked harder for it. We worked our asses off to support ourselves and endured people asking; “maybe this is not the job for you?” We stuck with it and it has paid off.

SJ. There is still an urban myth that modular training won’t get you a job but integrated will.

SD. That’s just not the case any more.

SJ. Sarah and I were both offered jobs within weeks.

SD. And over integrated candidates too. I have known many integrated candidates who have applied to Ryanair and been given a “No thanks.” It is interesting to see how they are picking candidates, they are not necessarily looking at how you have trained, but are looking at you as an individual. How well you perform in your simulator assessments more than anything.

Thanks, I'd better let you get back to your ambassador duties. Good luck with your new first officer roles.

Pilot Careers are more accessible than ever.

I’m really grateful to the girls for sharing their knowledge and experiences.  They are completely independent, not tied to a particular school and they were not at the event to tout a particular path or programme, other than the final MCC aspect, so I think they have more credibility for that. I wish them the very best of luck in their new careers.

This is a snapshot in time and it will be interesting to read this back in a few years and see how things have changed. I think they will have changed, probably for the better for potential students. I considered a professional pilot career nearly 30 years ago when things were moving towards the way they are now. Airlines then were moving away from training their own pilots as there was a new wave of people prepared to pay for their own career training. The glut of ex wartime or national service, military trained pilots from the 1940s and 50s were retiring steadily so they needed a lot of people. I came of age as airlines realised that they could not afford to train as many people as they needed, so they had to work smarter and encourage people to go their own way. If you had the funds to train yourself to CPL or frozen ATPL they would happily let you, but then pick up your type rating costs, no one paid for them except airlines. There were exceptions, one guy I knew was an apprentice engineer and his employer offered him a fully funded, bonded course as a pilot.

I could have spent £120k then quite easily, although the more sensible route would have been to go to the USA or Australia and do it for £70k. That was way too much for me. I got as far as my PPL in 1993 which cost me about £3k. As a comparison, doing it now would be the best part of £9k. So in real terms and certainly by comparison it is cheaper now to pursue a professional pilot career than it was three decades ago, but airlines seem to be gradually moving back towards sponsorship.

I predict that Sarah J’s wish will come to pass and the big airlines will bring training for pilots back in house or at least have a subsidiary company as a feeder school. Let’s see how that develops.

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