Flight training 101: how to get your pilot's wings

Ask any pilot what the most memorable part of learning to fly is, and the answer will invariably be the same: your first solo flight.

Anticipation gives way to exhilaration as your aircraft approaches 100 kilometres an hour and the air around you becomes thick, plucking upwards on the airplane's wings. You pull back on the control stick and in an instant are free of the ground, defying gravity and soaring into the sky.

To reach ... $300,000 to $400,000 per year, it's a journey of about 10 to 12 years.

Neel Khokhani

Considering this moment comes after roughly 20 hours of flight training, you'll agree it's no mean feat. Many also describe it as the closest they'll come to doing 88 miles per hour in a DeLorean, Back To The Future-style.

An office in the sky

For every pilot, this is the start of a long journey to earning their wings, which in a literal sense means attaining a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) – a flying endorsement that allows you to fly any type of aircraft, anywhere in the world.

Once you've pinned that shiny badge to your chest, it's all private jets, wads of cash and Hollywood starlets, right? Er, not quite. The reality of becoming a commercial pilot is more akin to becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

"If you want to be a career pilot, you have to do the hard yards," says Neel Khokhani, founder and CEO of Australian flight training school Soar Aviation.

"A lot of people who get into aviation believe once they have their CPL, they can drive their dream BMW and wear Gucci sunglasses – that's not the reality.

"Your typical first job would be in a small commercial company, where you'd have to do anything and everything, like wash the planes or clean the hangar.

"You tend to earn about $30,000 to $40,000 and are required to do 50 to 60-hour weeks. That's not even enough money to live on Mee Goreng [packet noodles]."

Earning your wings

This glamorous apprenticeship phase comes after you've passed seven in-depth exams, requiring about 12 weeks of tuition and study.

Of course, long before this you must first obtain a Recreational Pilot License (RPL), which involves about 25 hours of training – a combination of flight theory lessons, flight training in the air, and solo flying hours.

If you like the idea of going to work in the sky, you can then shoot for a Private Pilot License (PPL): a further 20 to 25 hours of theory and in-flight training.

Once qualified, the long road to earning your CPL becomes available, which will see you clock up 200 hours or more in the cockpit, along with a dozen weeks in a classroom.

Sky-high cost

To give you an idea of the cost of training, the first stage alone, for an RPL, will lighten your wallet around $12,000 to $15,000. Do the maths out to 200 hours for a CPL and you have a financial commitment of roughly $100,000 minimum on your hands, plus a commitment of many years climbing the ranks.

"To reach a stage where you can make $300,000 to $400,000 per year, it's a journey of about 10 to 12 years," Khokhani says.

Following flight training and the earlier mentioned apprenticeship, most pilots who gain employment with a commercial airline begin as a trainee officer, before promotion to second officer, then first officer or captain – depending on seniority.

For many, this is when some truths about the airline industry kick in.

The silent observer

"As a second officer you simply sit in the cockpit, behind the pilot and co-pilot, and observe," Khokani says. "They pay you really well; you may get over $100,000 to just sit there, but you observe for up to five years."

If you were actually hoping to fly once you've done your five years' observance, no dice.

"Some airlines operate on the 200-feet/200-feet rule," Khokhani says. "The pilot takes off then pushes a button when they reach 200 feet to turn on the autopilot and the computer flies the rest of the way. They're then only allowed to touch the controls when the plane is on the way down, after it descends to 200 feet.

"The operations manual for an airline actually restricts humans from flying a plane – you're only there for situations when the computer doesn't work."

Due to insurance requirements and strict operating regulations, it appears the easiest way to eliminate human error is to minimise human interaction with the aircraft entirely.

A life less ordinary

However, there is good news for holders of a CPL. Once you're endorsed to fly a commercial plane, you can charge for your services. Your work, to begin with, may be mainly recreational. Small charter companies hire CPL pilots to fly joy flights, scenic flights for tourists or even skydive runs.

After reaching 1000 hours of flying you can aim for employment with a larger company, flying multi-engine, larger-capacity planes.

Alternatively, you can take the Travolta route and purchase your own aircraft and rent hangar space locally. Nothing feels better than phoning an aerodrome and asking them to 'have my plane ready in one hour'.

Once in the air, a CPL holder can fly long-distance routes; like flying to Birdsville for the races or to play golf at Barnbougle in Tasmania.

Whether you choose the airline career path or prefer to spend your time flying friends to some far-off destination, the life of a pilot has many rewards.

The only choice left is, will you go for a pair of classic aviators, or stick to the Guccis?

For more information on training and endorsements, check out the Australian Government Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

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