If you have an ambition, it’s important to follow it – overcoming any obstacles that come your way.
A lifetime goal of mine was to be a pilot and, after a lot of hard work, I qualified for a private pilot’s licence back in 2000.
I had always wanted to fly since I had been a young boy but was deterred as I wear glasses and believed that you had to have perfect eyesight in order to be a pilot.
Qualifying as a private pilot involved several challenges, over a number of years.
There were seven written exams to complete, covering the subjects of: Air Law and Operational Procedures, Aircraft General and Principles of Flight, Flight Performance and Planning, Human Performance and Limitations, Meteorology, Navigation and Radio Navigation, and Radio Telephony Communications. Just reading this list is enough to put anyone off even trying!
As well as the written examinations, I also had to complete the flying experience too, which is a minimum of forty hours followed by two flight tests with an examiner – the navigational flight test and the general handling flight test.
Flight training in the UK can be a frustrating experience sometimes due to our somewhat unique and changeable weather. There is also the cost element to consider as flying lessons cost more than just hiring a plane once you have the licence, as you are paying for the instructor too.
Generally many people in the UK complete their training over a year, but overall it took me five years to complete the requirements. I had three tries with different flight schools before I settled into the final one that I qualified with. Working full time also meant that, as for many pilots, my flying was almost always restricted to weekends only.
Initially I heard about a private flying club that had a small office at Biggin Hill airfield, so I did a few hours training with them. It was a fairly long drive for me to get there though and with the airfield being based on a hill sometimes the weather was no good there, despite being ok where I lived. I had several trips there only to find that there was no flying and I had to drive straight back home. After a few of these I lost my enthusiasm for the club and took a break.
After a while my thoughts returned to flying again and this time I went to the closest airfield to me, which was Fairoaks near Woking in Surrey. I completed my first solo flight there in a Piper PA28 warrior, however being based near to London the costs were fairly expensive and I had to take a break after getting as far as this.
A couple of years later, whilst I was performing short term assignments for various firms, it meant that I had the time between these to train midweek as well as at weekends and I found a school at Redhill that was offering flying training at a low cost.
It was again a fair amount of travel but the location was better, being just a few miles up the road from London Gatwick international airport. I felt comfortable there and was able to complete my training fairly quickly and finally qualified as a private pilot in August 2000.
Flying has been an interest of mine for a long time and I’m sure growing up with the images of pilots in movies and on TV was a big influence. Even seeing Charlton Heston in the ‘Airport’ movies, inspired me to dream about what to do after being made redundant. I had the idea at the time of working nine months of the year doing tax returns and accounts and spending three months of the year flying business jets as a commercial pilot. This would give me a secure financial backing against possible downturns in the aviation industry, as well as allowing me to fly varied routes in the three months when the personal tax side of the business is traditionally quieter.
Back in early September 2001 I had travelled to the USA to attend a two day course in Denver, Colorado to find out just what it was like to be an airline pilot.
The Airline Transport Orientation Program (ATOP) was a course that ran over a weekend at a major airlines flight training facility in the USA and involved a condensed course on the Boeing 737-200. This involved all the training on the operation of its different systems and the normal flight procedures that an airline pilot goes through on a typical flight.
The first day was taken up with the basic systems training and also practicing drills in a cockpit simulator. On day two we actually flew the multimillion pound full motion airline simulator – with a couple of approaches using the instrument landing system and also the occasional emergency thrown in by our simulator instructor.
It was satisfying that at the end of the course we were able to start a ‘cold & dark’ Boeing airliner and be able to take off, fly it and then land it too.
Whilst there I also took an additional course option that was available and which qualified me to fly pressurised aircraft, the FAA ‘high altitude endorsement.’ This involved extra ground training as well as a check flight in the simulator, where we simulated a depressurisation and a rapid descent down to level that didn’t require oxygen.
There were several of us on the course and it gave us a real introduction into the world of airline flying and what was involved. We all came from different backgrounds and there was a mixture of ages too. People there ranged from a college student to an already qualified commercial pilot on propeller aircraft and to someone nearing early retirement and considering a career change.
After returning to the UK though the following week was when the 9/11 attacks happened.
It was a real blow and I remember being hit by it quite hard. Only a few days before I had been training alongside crew in Denver that may have actually been flying that day.
Suddenly being able to fly an airliner (even though it was in a limited capacity) wasn’t something that you openly shared.
This also put a hold on any ideas of following through on my commercial ambitions at the time, due to the industry then going through a major period of change.
The course did mean that later, while considering my options in redundancy, I had the background knowledge to know what the realities were like. However I hit another stumbling block here with the UK professional pilots qualifications as I discovered that there is a limit to the strength of your glasses prescription for the initial grant of an airline pilots medical.
This is a rather unusual rule as I discovered that there is no such restriction for glasses strength with an American airline pilots medical.
In a rather roundabout way I would still be able to qualify for a UK professional licence if I did the American one first and then converted my American licence to a UK one! I found out that the higher eyesight limit in the UK does not apply if you already have a professional licence from another country and are just converting it.
Many aircraft operated in Europe are actually registered in America for many reasons. So as long as the aircraft I was flying had an American registration number on the side, I could fly it professionally on my American licence and medical.
This whole debacle is typical of aviation red tape; however at least I had a way round it.
My retraining budget covered training towards a commercial pilot’s licence and in less than a month I had passed the highest American medical, which covers airline pilots.
I also committed myself to the flying training and over a period of less than one month I flew on most days, and sometimes several times in a day.
The result at the end of an intense month was that I had now passed the UK IMC rating; this is a rating for private pilots that qualifies you to fly an aeroplane inside clouds and in bad weather when the visibility is much lower than with a standard pilots licence. You also learn how to use the same navigation and instrument landing systems that commercial airliners do, so that apart from takeoff and landing you can fly the whole flight without being able to see anything outside the windows.
Whilst the IMC rating is valid for UK private pilots only, the instrument hours I accumulated for this also counted towards the experience requirements for the grant of my American full instrument rating. The American instrument rating would train me to a greater standard and also allow me to fly alongside commercial planes in restricted airspace, such as at London Heathrow or Gatwick.
As well as qualifying for the IMC rating, I also completed training and was checked out on what are termed ‘complex’ planes. Generally most private planes have wheels that are fixed in position and a simple fixed pitch propeller. As you venture onto more advanced aircraft, you find that these usually have retractable undercarriage and propellers that can be adjusted in the air to bring better cruising performance (similar to changing gears in a car.)
On top of this, at the same time I also completed my night rating. A standard UK private pilot’s licence allows you to fly during the day and up to half an hour before or after sunset before it is officially classed as being night time.
I completed additional training so that I could fly during the night hours, navigating and landing – both with and without the landing light, in case it failed when you were flying. Landing without a landing light is actually fairly straightforward as you can judge your height from the position of the runway edge lighting in your peripheral vision.
Flying at night is a great experience, the winds are generally calmer and it gives you another perspective on towns and cities when you can see them at night. Whenever I am on a commercial flight at night I always take a window seat and am surprised how many people pull down the blind and never look outside – missing such a great view.
With everything I had now done, this took my total experience up to the level that is required to apply to complete the final training for an American commercial pilot’s licence, which I could do within two to three weeks – most easily by travelling to the USA as examiners are more freely available and the costs are much lower.
It was intense time but I relished the challenges and as well as flying almost every day there was the ground training to complete and also the written instrument exam, followed by the instrument flight test which involved navigating and flying the landing approach at airports without being able to see out the window.
During training and on the examination flight you can’t guarantee bad weather so to account for this pilots wear a hood on their head. Basically a big baseball cap that lets you look in front of you at the instruments but it blocks your view out of the windows. Of course whilst you are simulating instrument flight the instructor is maintaining a good look out for other planes and you also have radar coverage helping you as well.
The training is something that I really enjoyed. With over three hundred and fifty hours now I have far exceeded the two hundred and fifty hour requirement for the basic American commercial pilot’s licence.
After that, things do get fairly expensive though – there is then a multi-engine rating and the full American instrument rating to add on. Also, flying larger planes is more expensive than the typical single engine trainers you use in the early stages of qualification; and again there are also more exams and studying too.
The top qualification is an Airline Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL), which also involves many more hours of flying experience and exams. That’s not the end, as the licence on its own won’t let you fly a jet. For that you need a type rating, which is training so that you are cleared to operate that specific model of aircraft. The total cost for a type rating can run to around twenty thousand pounds depending on the complexity of the aircraft you intend to fly.
In explaining what it’s like to be a pilot, John Magee said it best in his poem ‘High Flight’ written in 1941:
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace where never lark nor even eagle flew
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”