One of the most common questions that I get on my Instagram is ‘How can I become an airline pilot’ I wish that I could answer each and every one of you personally, but that would be impossible, I shared my story a few years back and felt that it was about time for an update, now that I’ve been flying for almost five years, 2.0 version.
You’ll meet pilots that have dreamt about coming a pilot since as long as they can remember, that always knew what they wanted to do, not me, I was 24 when I decided that I wanted to become a pilot and 25 when I started my pilot training, in 2010 I sat in a small single-engine airplane for the first time and that same summer took my first solo flight.
Growing up I wanted to be a pop star or an actress, or actually before that I wanted to be a veterinary until my mom told me that sometimes I would have to make the decision ‘that I couldn’t save every animal’ and I knew that I would never be able to make such decision so pop star instead (I am completely tone deaf).
I was 20 when I moved abroad for the first time. I moved to Cyprus and met people that had traveled the world, I loved listening to their stories and made a decision that I wanted to do the exact same! I went on my first backpacking trip shortly after that and knew straight away that I wanted to explore our world, all of it! I traveled around for a couple of years, not constantly traveling (Instagram and making money from traveling wasn´t a thing yet) I would go home or go somewhere to work and save up for my next trip. You would most likely find me working as a waitress somewhere, I had a few years experience in this job so it was an easy one for me to get when I moved around. I would live off my tip and save all my salary until I had enough to pack my bags again. I kept doing that for about four years. Even if I loved what I did it was stressful to leave, come back, leave again and come back and it got the better of me and I knew that I had to find a profession that would allow me to travel for work. Pilot came to mind and it was like lifting a heavy rock from my chest, yes, this is exactly what I want to do, being a bit of a tech geek and a career in mind where I could keep traveling it was the perfect fit, so that’s enough about my backstory, it’s now the winter of 2009 and I needed to figure out ‘How to become an airline pilot’
No one in my family flew commercially, my dad had a ppl when he was younger but that had long expired and much had changed since then, so I turned to my most knowledgeable best friend, that kind of friend who knows pretty much everything; Google, I typed: ‘How to become a pilot’ I learned that there are different routes you can take, via the military, university or pay for it yourself. In 2010 the Swedish Airforce still had an age restriction of maximum 23 years old to join, so I knew that I couldn’t do that, but who am I kidding, I would never have passed their tests anyway, so the age restriction was a good excuse for me. I called the only one university in Sweden that actually had an ‘airline pilot program’ at the time they had a complete stop on new applicants and they didn’t know when, or if they would open for new applicants again, so I couldn’t do that one either. The only one left was to pay for it myself, you can imagine that someone that has been backpacking for the past four years didn’t have 60.000 Euros saved that i,t at least, would cost to get your pilot license, excluding exam fees.
Out of curiosity, I still went on a recruitment day to one of the flight schools I found in the city where I’m from in Sweden, and I passed. Now what, now I really need to find a 60k treasure somewhere, they wanted me to start already a few months later, summer 2010. A few months to get 60k Euro….rob a bank? Joke aside, I saved as much as I could from my waitress salary, lived and paid rent from my tip, I was already used to live for less and save more from my backpacking background so I kept doing that and managed to save about 10k, remaining 50k I borrowed from my parents who took a bank loan for me, at the time I couldn’t take one myself after traveling around as I had and no stable income to show. I know how fortunate I am that I had this opportunity, and am forever thankful to my supporting family for it.
I didn’t know much about pilot training, the difference between modular or integrated and signed up for the first most convenient one which happened to be a modular (and slightly overpriced) school in my hometown. I did my PPL and ATPL theory and biggest waste of money of them all Night Qualification, a qualification I never used. If your aim is to get your ppl and fly around for fun then yes NQ is great to have, especially when you live up north where most of the 24 hours a day consists of darkness during the winter months, but as soon as you get the rest of your ratings, ME, IR, CPL, you’ll be allowed to fly at night without a Night Qualification.
After finishing my Atpl theory I was about to start my twin engine rating but with only one twin-engine aircraft and as many students as we were on four single-engine airplanes I did my maths and realized that I would, if lucky, get to fly two lessons a week, two lessons that a 50/50 would be canceled due to challenging weather in north Europe during fall/winter. This time, about one and a half years into my training I was more comfortable and knew a bit more about a pilots training so I did my research and found a school in south Sweden called South Sweden School of Aeronautics (today South Sweden Flight Academy: link) Bo who started South Sweden Flight Academy started it because he wanted to have something to do after retiring from the airline that he flew for, it wasn’t a ´multi money corporate that wanted to earn the big bucks. He seriously had a passion for aviation and only took that many students that he had the capacity to train. Instead of taking forever I had my Multi-Engine ME, Instrument Rating IR and Commercial Pilot License CPL done in less than two months and saving me about 10k. Now, one might argue that it matters where you did your training and some schools can fast track you to getting your first airline job, that might be true, but to be honest, I have no idea. It took me two years after finishing all my training until I got my first job, some got their jobs a week after, if that depends on where you did your training I have no idea, if anyone knows, feel free to comment below, I´m curious about this myself.
So here I was, I had my PPL, NQ, Frozen ATPL, ME, IR and CPL only course missing was my MCC. I went back and worked for a few months before I could afford it. I flew to Riga and did my MCC in Air Baltics full-motion Boeing 737 flight simulators. After this I was ready to take the aviation industry by storm, ready to take off so say (cliche) I applied to what felt like every airline in the world without a single reply, but one day that magical email popped up in my inbox saying that I was welcome for an interview. Two years after finishing my training I had a lot to repeat, I wanted to be as prepared as I could for any questions that I might get so I re-read my ATPL books and probably the book that helped the most ´Ace Technical Pilot Interview´ I read this book and everytime a question I didn´t know the answer too came I used my books or Google to find out the correct answer, but more importantly, understand the correct answer (it´s not all about C or the longest answer, every pilot will know haha).
I had a phone interview, tech, HR and simulator check before they let me know that I had passed and that I was scheduled to start my type rating on the Boeing 737 a few weeks later. During this time I learned as much as I could about the 737 systems, I also had to figure out how to pay for the type rating, which back then was Euro 28.500! Today, correct me if I am wrong, I think it costs Euro 5000 and with a binding contract, instead of paying everything up front, you pay 5000 Euros and commit yourself to stay with that airline for X amount of years. I think that is great, for someone who has just spent a fortune on flight training almost 30 k is a lot, it´s a lot even if you’ve not paid for a flight training. I had to take a bank loan and it took me about two and a half years to pay it back, the sad costs of following your dreams.
But at least now I would get to fly the big jets for a living like Leonardo DiCaprio in ´Catch me if you can´ right? Not really, maybe some pilot jobs are just as glamorous as the old PanAm days (let me know if you know any). But most airline jobs are not, most of them are a messed up body clock for getting up early some mornings and some days work late, fight with time zone fatigue, radiation and the fact that we spend all day at an average altitude of 8000 feet. I am lucky to not fly at night, have a stable schedule and fly between max three time zones in Europe. I have said this too many times, but it can not be said enough, YOU WILL NOT GET TO BE PICKY. You’ll have to take whatever job you can get in the beginning, fresh, no hours to show for experience you´re lucky when you get called for an interview, when people tell me ´My goal is to fly the Boeing 777 for whatever airline´I say, that´s great that you have a goal, we should all set goals for ourselves, but know reality that the chance of you flying the 777 as the first aircraft is very unlikely, but yes, set it as a goal and one day you´ll get there.
Fast forward…I have been flying now for almost five years, and do I still love it? When my alarm wakes me up at 03.15am and the bags under my eyes look like a dry used tea bag that has been left out for a good couple of days then…no, I dont love it. I love to sleep, that´s what I love to do. But as soon as all paperwork is done, passangers are onboard, we got our departure clearance and shorty after take off when I can have my morning coffee at 38.000 feet to this view, yes, then I still love it.
I want to end this post with a checklist for you, steps to follow before you start your training and my best advice during your trainig.
- Ask around, use Google, I know I keep saying this but Google is amazing it has all the information. Type in ´flight school and the carea where you live´ Google will find you schools near your location, call them, see if you can come and visist and see what they have to offer you. I can´t recommend any other schools than the schools that I have actually been too. I dont know how it works in US or Canada (I get this question a lot) I did´t do my training there, they fly under FAA regualtions, I under EASA, you will have to call them and ask how it works with visa, training, conversion etc.
- Pay for an experience flight, if you´ve never been in a small airplane before, go to a local flight club and pay someone to take you up for 30 minutes or so, if you still love it, then yes gor for it.
- Make a plan how you will finance it! This is super boring but I can not state enough how important it is, you don´t want to begin your training and not be able to finish it due to financial issues.
- Get you medical Class 1, have this checked before you even begin thinking about becoming a pilot, you don´t want to go though all the hassle finding a school etc to find out that you can´t get your medical. To find your nearest Class one medical examiner near you, again, google, type: ´Class 1 medical aviation and where you live´
And to end with, here for my best ever advice HAVE FUN don´t stress about a not so perfect landing or that you had to retake an exam, it happens to everyone! Have fun and enjoy the training, you spend both your time and money on it, the instructors are there to teach you, not punish you. And one more thing, find a student buddy, I did most of my training together with a girl called Annie (she is now a hardcore business jets pilot). We sat with during each others lessons, double the training for the same price! Of course you can´t credit it in flight time, but you can in knowledge.
Hope it helps. Remember this is my story, someone else might have a completely different experiance to share, but feel free to comment below or on my Instagram @pilotmaria if you have any questions.
(apologie any miss spellings, grammar mistakes or typos, English is not my first language).
My flight schools:
SPU Svensk Pilot Utbildning: link
South Sweden Flight Academy: link