Your Path to an Airline Cockpit

Your Path to an Airline Cockpit

10 steps to gaining your airline pilot’s licence.

If a career as an airline pilot is your ambition, Waypoints Aviation Ltd offers an opinion on 10 steps to achieving your goal in New Zealand.  Climbing these steps to the driver’s seat of a commercial airliner takes effort, commitment and a significant financial investment in yourself, not to mention just a little bit of intelligence and skill.  That said, I have found that most who make the journey feel it was more than worthwhile.

Now, despite the world’s current economic issues, there are still strong predictions of increasing demand for well trained pilots, especially in the wider Asia-Pacific region.  While overseas, some airlines have funded or part funded the basic training cost of their new pilots, in New Zealand airlines have had the luxury of sufficient applicants who have funded their own training, at least up to completion of the frozen ATPL (see below) and sometimes the type rating.  With the current economic pressures on airlines, don’t expect things to change any time soon.  So one of the first things you will need to establish is how you are going to fund your training.

Although an academic qualification may make you a slightly better prospect when an airline considers which applicants to interview, it is only one of their many considerations, and by no means a requirement.  Licences, ratings, flying hours logged and thorough professional aviation knowledge and skill are much more important than academic qualifications.

In New Zealand the minimum requirement to be a co-pilot on a multi-crew airliner is a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) and Instrument Rating (IR), however most airlines expect you to also have a Basic Turbine Knowledge (BTK) exam credit and some airlines expect you to have a type rating for their aircraft on your licence. 

So whether you are a young person with no previous flying experience, but a determination to be an airline pilot, or an student pilot part way through your training, there are steps to be achieved and important decisions to be made.

Step 1 - Are You Fit to Fly

There is little point in beginning on the path to an airline cockpit unless you are medically fit to hold a Class 1 Medical Certificate.  So visit the NZ Civil Aviation Authority website ( to find the information you need to know about gaining your medical.  On the dropdown menu under Aviation Info, select ‘Medical’ to find out what you need to do and where you can go to get it.

The cost of a medical will begin with a CAA Fee of $313 and then about $400 for the medical examiation, and may be significantly more, depending on where you go and what your medical condition is.

You must also be proficient at speaking and understanding the english language.  You may think, hey I’m a Kiwi, of course I can speak the reo, but the system has only got your word for it.  Consequently, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have prescribed that applicants for a pilot licence are required to produce evidence that they have demonstrated English Language Proficiency (ELP) to at least the Level 4 standard.  Details relating to the ELP proficiency demonstration are also on the CAA website.

Step 2 - Are You the Right Fit

If you are already a flyer you might think you can skip this step, but you may do so at your peril.  Again there is little point in embarking on costly training for an airline job you may ultimately find you are not suited to.

The Honourable Company of Airpilots (Previously GAPAN), which is a charity organisation with no commercial affiliations, offer an independent pilot suitability assessment similar to that undertaken by the airforce.  See

Some NZ Flight Training Organisations (FTOs) will also administer similar assessments.  However, the value of the assessments offered by FTOs varies between organisations, as they have a financial vested interest in securing your business.

Talk to current and retired airline pilots.  Let them get to know you a bit, honestly.  Invite them to give you their frank opinion of your suitability for a career as an airline pilot.  It may save you tens of thousands of dollars.  Caveat emptor and all that.

Another aspect you will need to consider is the CAA’s assessment of whether you are a “Fit and Proper Person” to hold an aviation document (pilot licence).  Among other things, you will be required to provide a Criminal Record History from the Ministry of Justice and an Offence History Record from LTNZ.  So, while you may choose to give in the the urge to prove your ability behind the wheel of a car, in whatever circumstances, if you deviate from the law and get caught, it may cost you your dream career!  Think about it.

Step 3 - Where to train? Aeroclub, Flight Training Organisation (FTO) or the RNZAF?

No one path to the airline cockpit suits everyone.  Aeroclubs vary widely, some focusing only on training for private and recreational pilots, while others offer a quite credible training environment for those aiming for the airlines.

By Flight Training Organisations (FTOs) I essentially mean flying schools, most of which are privately owned business enterprises, separate from aeroclubs, however there are exceptions.  For example, the Canterbury Aeroclub has a commercial arm known as The International Aviation Academy, and Massey University has a School of Aviation.

Most FTOs are commercial businesses which exist to make a profit for their owners.  Like aeroclubs, they vary widely in terms of perceived customer service, quality of training provided and prestige.  They also tend to be very good at marketing their positive aspects.

Overseas some FTOs have formed relationships with airlines and are contracted to train airline selected ‘cadets’.  This model is not yet established in New Zealand, although the British company CTC have set up in Hamilton and have contracts to train students for overseas airlines in New Zealand.  They also offer similar student loans funded and self funded programmes to New Zealanders.

The RNZAF is a path many have chosen to ultimately reach the front seats of an airliner.  Pilot training in the RNZAF follows officer training of about 26 weeks, and takes about a further 18 months.  Training is fully funded by the airforce (government) and students are paid a modest salary during most of their training.  Consequently the airforce demands a return on its investment and requires a 10 year return of service following completion of your wings course.  Also, don’t forget that the airforce is a skill at arms service and you may be called on to serve your country, something that may not suit everyone’s agenda.

The quality of RNZAF training is widely respected, but they unashamedly focus their pilot training on outcomes that suit the service.  I began my career in the RNZAF, and I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the training, experience and camaraderie it gave me.

Whichever option you tend towards, I strongly recommend you look beyond the marketing hype and don’t be taken in by the glitz.  Talk to the management and to the existing students of the organisations on your shortlist.  In addition, talk to any qualified pilots you know, it’s a small industry and reputations spread.

I am also strongly inclined to think that you should at least begin your training, be it by completing your Private Pilot Licence (PPL) exams or even your full PPL, before signing up for a full loan funded course.  You may find that it really isn’t for you.  Again, caveat emptor, in a very big way!

Step 4 - Financing Your Training

While full sponsorship is rare, some overseas airlines have part funding schemes and have formed alliances with FTOs.  In this case the airlines select individuals they believe are suitable for airline pilot training and if these students complete their training with the FTO to a satisfactory standard, they are then at the head of the list for vacancies with the airline when they become available.  New Zealanders are sometimes able to apply for such schemes, but I don’t know of many who have.  That said, it costs nothing to ask.

I am not aware of any New Zealand airlines that offer such schemes, at least not at the moment while there are adequate applicants to meet the current demand levels.  So it will probably be up to you to fund your own training, or at least most of it.

There are a number of options.  These include working and paying for training as you can afford it, or working and saving the required funds of all or components of your training.  You may also borrow the money for your training, either commercially if you can talk a bank into believing in you, or through the government’s student loans scheme.  Finally you may be lucky enough to be supported by family.

I am not prepared to recommend one funding method over another, as each has its own advantages and disadvantages and what suits your situation may not suit someone else’s.  Whichever way you choose to go, you will be facing a total expenditure of anywhere from about $60000, to well over $100000, depending where and how you complete your training, and how fast and well you progress.  And your progress will depend as much on how hard you work as it will on your natural ability.

I have always felt that the easier something comes to us, the less likely we are to appropriately value it.  So there should be a little bit of you in the funding effort.  Nevertheless, keep buying those lotto tickets!

Step 5 - The Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL)

The PPL and CPL are steps on the way to an ATPL.  To be eligibly for a CPL you must be at least 18 years of age; hold a current PPL; a Class 1 Medical Certificate; have logged at least 200 flight hours; hold a valid written exam credit for the seven CPL subjects; and finally, pass a flight test to demonstrated adequate knowledge and skill.

Step 6 - Instrument Rating (IR)

One of the more difficult hurdles in becoming a professional pilot is gaining your Instrument Rating (IR).  But since an IR is a prerequisite to joining an airline it is a hurdle you will have to get over.

To be eligibly for an IR you must hold a licence (usually a CPL); have satisfactorily completed a ground training course in, and gained a valid written exam credit for the five IR subjects; satisfactorily complete a flight training course and logged the required simulator and/or flight time experience; and finally, pass a flight test to demonstrated adequate knowledge and skill.

An IR can be achieved to single pilot or two pilot standard, and can be issued for use in single engined or multi-engined aircraft.

Whichever form of IR you choose to achieve first, a piece of advice... learn all you can on the ground, so that you maximise the value of the flight time experience.  To try to learn to fly and operate an aircraft by solely by reference to instruments only by undertaking training in an aircraft is inefficient, wastefully expensive and morale sapping.

On the ground you can study the related knowledge, practice the routines and be trained in the instrument scans and procedures.

Ground IR training devices can range from PC based flight sim packages, through part task trainers, to full flight simulators.  Big, flash and expensive is not required.  As with all aspects of pilot training, it is the quality of the instructor and the training programme that matters most.

Step 7 - Basic Turbine Knowledge (BTK)

Prior to achieving a type rating on an aircraft powered by a gas turbine engine, which most airlines use, a pilot must have passed an examination in Basic Turbine Knowledge (BTK).  Consequently most airlines require pilot applicants to hold a BTK exam credit as a prerequisite to accepting an application.

As with the ATPL exam credits, you should take a professional approach to the development of your knowledge.  So attend an approved ground course if you can.

Step 8 - The ‘Frozen’ ATPL

You may hear the term ‘frozen ATPL’ used to describe pilots who have passed the seven exams and gained a written exam credit for the ATPL, but not the required flying hours, however the term has no formal basis.  The more correct description is a pilot who holds a Commercial Pilot Licence with an Instrument Rating and passes in the seven ATPL written exams.  Quite a mouthful, so you can see why ‘frozen ATPL’ was invented.

In New Zealand the seven ATPL exams must be completed within 3 years, and then you have 10 years from date of the last exam pass to have the ATPL issued.  However, the Air Law exam credit is valid for 5 years only.

There are different ways to gain your ATPL exam credits.  Some aspirants attend formal ground courses and some self study.  While the completion of an approved ground course is currently not a regulatory requirement, it will certainly provide much better preparation than trying to study yourself from textbooks, borrowed notes or old exam questions someone else thinks they remember getting when they sat the exam way back whenever.

Aeroclubs and FTOs focus mainly on Private Pilot Licence (PPL), CPL and IR training, with very little offered in the way of formal training for the ATPL theory subjects.  Professional Pilot Study Centre (PPSC) offer distance learning courses in all of the ATPL subjects except Air Law, and  there are some ground courses offered for those ATPL subjects perceived to be more difficult.  Waypoints currently offers ground courses for ATPL Systems & Performance, ATPL Instruments & Navaids and Basic Turbine Knowledge, and produces a self study guide for ATPL Air Law.

At the ATPL level it is not adequate to study just to pass the exams.  That approach might get you the exam credit, but it certainly won’t prepare you for an airline interview.  Being an airline pilot is a profession and airline recruiters are very good at detecting those who have a professional approach to their chosen career.  So my advice to you is to put in the effort and work hard to develop and maintain a thorough knowledge base.

Step 9 - Airline Preparation Course (APC)

An Airline Preparation Course (APC), while not a regulatory requirement, is widely felt to be a very valuable addition to the traditional CPL, IR and ATPL theory training.  An APC is intended to bridge the gap between the raw licence and the beginning of initial airline training.  Such a course involves training in two pilot crew coordination; generic airline Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs); and the practical application of human factors in a multi-crew airline environment.

Traditionally airlines in New Zealand have had to integrate these aspects into their induction and initial type rating training.  So obviously they will value a pilot applicant who has successfully completed an APC.

Airline Preparation Courses are sometimes known by other names, such as Airline Bridging Courses (ABC) or Multicrew Coordination Courses (MCC).  They all have the same sort of objectives, i.e. to begin the role training inevitably required at the end of the basic CPL and IR.

Step 10 - Type Rating

By the time you complete a type rating, either as something you undertake to make you more attractive to a prospective employer, or with an airline on the aircraft your potential employer expects to offer you a position on, you are nearly there.  But only nearly, so put in the effort, do well and make a good impression.

Type rating training on airline aircraft begins with an extensive ground school on the technical specifics of the aircraft and is either classroom or computer based.  If the type rating training is being provided by a particular airline, the ground training will also include the airline’s SOPs and other related aspects.  This is followed by flight training, either in the actual aircraft or in complex, full motion flight simulators which cost almost as much to run as the real aircraft.  So it is not inexpensive.

Step 11 - Line Training  (Okay, so I can’t count!)

The last hurdle before you can really call yourself an airline pilot is line training.  This involves flying a specified number of sectors and/or hours, under the supervision of an airline instructor, often called a Training Captain.  Which is a good idea, since you will have fare paying passengers or freight behind you, and its good to have someone beside you to keep things nice and relaxed.

At least by this stage you will have been accepted for a job, and will usually be earning a salary, albeit probably a modest one.  Now begins the long process of getting a return on the investment you and your employing airline have made in you.

The Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL)

In New Zealand the CPL (this includes the requirement to hold a Class 1 Medical), IR and ultimately the ATPL are currently the only path to those front seats (see steps 1, 5 and 6).  In some countries the Multicrew Pilot Licence (MPL) (see below) is an alternative option to the ATPL, but at this stage the NZ CAA have not designed and established an MPL.

To be eligible for a New Zealand ATPL, you must be at least 21, hold a current CPL and IR, and have passed the seven exams and gained a written examination credit for the ATPL.  You must also have logged at least 1500 hours in aeroplanes.  The make up of these hours includes a requirement for at least 250 hours as pilot-in-command.  There is actually a lot of detail to the breakdown of hours which is beyond this article.  Suffice to say the ATPL is a major undertaking.  For details of the latest requirements refer to AC61-7 Appendix I, which is available on the NZ CAA website.

As described in step 8, there are a number of ways of gaining your requirements, all of which require a significant financial investment.  Regardless of the path you choose to take, there are some charges that all must pay, that is the ASL fee for each of the seven examinations, at $224; English Language Proficiency , at $299; the ATPL flight test fee, currently over $1300; and the licence document issue fee is a little over $60.  Details are on the ASL and CAA websites respectively.  (See and

Expect to fork out anywhere between $5000 and $8000, and that’s after you have your CPL, IR and medical (all of which must be current), and logged the required hours.

My article hasn’t explored the flying hours you will need to log between the end of your basic CPL/IR and the minimum experience level expected by the airlines, and the options for achieving them.  This article is too long already, so I will save that topic for another time.

The Multicrew Pilot Licence (MPL)

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) are a specialised agency of the United Nations, which set standards and recommended practices concerning most things pertaining to aviation.  ICAO have recently added an alternative licence path to the front seat of an airliner, i.e. the Multicrew Pilot Licence (MPL).

The MPL is designed to take the student pilot from zero qualifications and hours to being employed on a sponsoring airline’s fleet, including all of the checks and ratings required along the way.

The MPL can only be achieved by training through an approved Flight Training Organisation (FTO), and internationally a number of FTOs are now offering MPL courses, including some in Australia.

However, the MPL has arguably gotten off to a slow start with airlines and FTOs alike.  One of the perceived problems with the MPL is that it is dependent on student pilots being sponsored by an airline.  Consequently many in the industry consider the MPL to be overly restrictive.

While the MPL may be a more focused and possibly faster path the gaining a suitable licence to fly an airliner, it is significantly more expensive than traditional ATPL training.  While the flying hours for an MPL are much less than for the ATPL (at least 60 hours for the MPL against 1500 hours for the ATPL), ICAO has very clearly defined the simulator hour requirements, the simulator capability requirements, the flying instructor experience requirements and a requirement for reporting back to ICAO the progress of every individual student training on an MPL programme.  None of which come cheap.

An MPL allows a pilot to act as a co-pilot on an airliner.  But to date there has been no definitive declaration from ICAO on how an experienced MPL holder will gain the prerequisite pilot-in-command hours they require for an ATPL.  An ATPL currently being the only licence allowing a pilot to act as pilot-in-command on an airliner.

Although the first graduates of the MPL have now qualified overseas, internationally the ATPL remains the principle airline pilot’s licence and the one almost all students are training for and aspire to.

At this stage the NZ CAA have not adopted the MPL, nor established any equivalence for recognising an MPL issued by another country. 

Still Interested?

Well, after absorbing all of that, are you still keen for a career as an airline pilot?  I sure hope so!  I have found it a very challenging and rewarding career and I’m sure you will too. 

Good luck.  Work hard and fly carefully.  Maybe we’ll crew together one day.