Probably the most asked questions about becoming a pilot are about money. For sure, flying can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. Even becoming a commercially qualified professional pilot might cost less than you think, and if simply getting into the air is your dream, then the chances are that you can make it a reality if you’re able to save a bit of money each month.
So how much does it cost to become a pilot? Well, the short answer is ‘it depends’. The guide below gives a rough outline of what to expect, but please bear in mind that these are only representative figures.
Before you begin investigating pilot training, you will want to ensure that you are medically able to be awarded the license. To fly a powered aircraft or a glider on your own, you will need at least a medical certificate issued by your doctor, but you only need to satisfy similar requirements than those necessary to hold a driver’s license. As you go up the license structure you might need a Class 2 medical, which costs around £200 to £250 depending upon whether you need an electrocardiogram (ECG), and can only be obtained from doctors who are also qualified as Aeromedical Examiners (AMEs). A Class 1 medical can be renewed by an AME, the initial issue can only be done at a few places and will set you back £600. Fortunately you’ll only need one of these to hold a commercial license.
Learning to fly an aeroplane for your own leisure flying needn’t break the bank. Private licenses are a few thousand pounds, but you can fly gliders, hang-gliders or paragliders much more cheaply if you just want to get your feet off the ground.
A Light Aircraft Pilot License on Aeroplanes will set you back approximately £5000 – £6500 depending on the aircraft type, but comes with limitations (see the boxout).
The equivalent course for helicopters will be around £12,000, which goes some way towards explaining why you see fewer helicopters around than aeroplanes.
If you have plans to do more than fair weather flying in very small aircraft around the UK, then a Private Pilot License (PPL) is likely to be a better option. At around £12,000 for aeroplanes and £15,000 or more on helicopters, it is more of an investment. However, the license is recognised by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Importantly, the PPL can also become a steppingstone into professional aviation, as part of a Modular course of commercial training.
Once you’ve gained your PPL or LAPL, hiring an aircraft from a club is usually straightforward, and will cost anything from £100 per hour upwards. Buying your own aircraft is another ballgame entirely.
If powered flying is too noisy, or if you have a competitive streak, then gliding might be for you. Flying time is much cheaper, and most people should be capable of flying on their own before they’ve spent too much over £1000, if the weather doesn’t get in the way. Thereafter you can complete additional qualifications to soar cross-country, and getting good enough to fly in basic competitions should cost you less than getting a LAPL.
The cheapest, and many argue the purest, form of flying is free-flight; hang-gliding or paragliding. It’s also by far the most environmentally friendly way to get airborne. The qualification to fly on your own at British clubs will cost you approximately £1500, and you will probably spend about the same on the essential equipment, but thereafter it’s only a few pounds per year for club membership.
If you want to be paid to fly, then aside from some very niche opportunities you will need a commercial flying license on either helicopters or aeroplanes and it probably won’t come as a surprise that these qualifications come at a price.
Generally speaking, helicopter licenses are more expensive than their aeroplane counterparts. However, helicopter pilots can often find work with fewer qualifications than their aeroplane-flying colleagues.
The minimum qualification to earn money in either a helicopter or aeroplane is a Commercial Pilot License (CPL), and there are jobs available for helicopter pilots with only this qualification, such as flying pipeline survey work or sightseeing flights.
Almost all commercial work in aeroplanes will require an instrument rating (IR), and most pilots will gain a multi-engine qualification too, as opportunities flying single-engine aircraft commercially are much more limited.
This means that whether you fly helicopters or aeroplanes, the minimum you can expect to spend to get a viable suite of licenses to being earning money is around £50,000.
In return, aeroplane pilots can expect to be employed flying relatively small aircraft on single-pilot operations such as survey flying. Helicopter pilots will almost certainly be limited to daytime sightseeing or inspection flights in single-engine machines.
Most aeroplane pilots will have ambitions to fly larger jet aircraft as part of a crew, and to open these opportunities up, a Multi-Crew Cooperation (MCC) and Unusual Position Recovery Training (UPRT) courses are required. A Jet Orientation Course (JOC), which will familiarise you with the unique handling characteristics or larger turbine-engine aircraft, might also be a consideration. This is likely to improve your chances of an airline job, but it’s also going to put another dent in your budget to the tune of between £7,000 to £10,000. However, the news is worse for helicopter pilots wishing to advance.
All multi-engine helicopters require individual type ratings, so there is no catch-all qualification or price. They are also all capable of flying in poor weather so you will need an instrument rating. The cheapest that you will be able to pick up that lot is going to be around £20,000, and will depend entirely on the type of helicopter you wish to qualify on. The bigger it is, the more expensive. This also leads to a chicken and egg situation in which you either have to choose a popular type to qualify on and hope that jobs become available, or seek employment and then try to acquire a suitable type rating for the job.
Whether it is VIP/Charter operations, flying offshore, or para-public work such as Air Ambulance or Police flying, all will require a type rating and an instrument rating.
Of course, unless you’ve got £50,000 to £80,000 (or more) stashed under your sofa, these qualifications are going to take time to work towards. Many pilots opt to build their experience and earn their keep in a flying job by becoming flying instructors. Teaching other people to fly is a topic all of its own, but to qualify as an instructor you can expect to pay around £8,000 for aeroplanes and (yes of course it’s more expensive) about £15,000 to teach helicopter flying. The only good news for helicopter pilots here is that you will earn slightly more per hour than your colleagues instructing aeroplane flying, and you get a front row seat to watch your students’ hilarious/terrifying first attempts to hover.
Before you are allowed to fly as the captain of an aircraft carrying passengers as a commercial air transport operation, such as an airline, you will need to hold an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL). To qualify, you will need to meet prerequisites such as minimum hours flying as part of a multi-person crew, which will almost certainly require you to spend considerable time as a first officer or co-pilot. Even if you have met all the other requirements, your ATPL will be considered ‘frozen’ until you have the necessary experience.
The bottom line is that the more you want to earn from flying, the more you need to spend. However, there are some really cheap ways to get your feet off the ground, once you’ve paid for the training, and sport flying like free-flight or gliding will give you really valuable experiences, even if you decide that you want to fly for a living.
You should also take any help you can get. Research and apply for as many scholarships as you think you are eligible for, and network like crazy to make connections in the aviation business. Research the pathway through training that best suits your situation and do everything you can to reduce the risk, because jobs are far from guaranteed. You need to have a long-term mindset and plenty of backup plans.
Professional aviation training is costly and the expense is intensive – that is that you can expect to burn through a lot of money in a short period of time. This may seem like a distinct downside, but it does mean that while you will need to save or borrow a sizeable sum of money, your training will take place over relatively short periods of time. This makes it generally compatible with training while you work.
Furthermore, some aviation jobs (such as flying instruction) will allow you to build experience and earn money while you save for the next step on your journey. However, the overall financial intensity of pilot training does inevitably mean that those with greater means will have the opportunity to achieve their goals faster.
The cost of a professional aeroplane license is approximately twice that of gaining a degree in the UK, and in most cases, you won’t qualify for student finance. Part of the reason for this expense is that unlike other vocational training, flying training is not exempt from VAT.
There are some institutions that offer degree courses alongside flying training. This carries the potential benefit of being able to use a student loan to meet some of the costs, but the benefit is often offset by the additional cost of involving a university in the delivery of your flying training. They will take their cut! If you are investigating these schemes then do the mathematics carefully and be sure you understand exactly how much you are expected to contribute and what it covers. Some schemes do not include the cost of the flying hours in their pricing structure, and these pricing details are usually only available on request.
Yet other training schemes offer complex financial products to spread the cost of your training out. Again, these must be considered carefully as they are often linked to specific training providers (usually the most expensive ones) or airlines. The days of the airlines covering the cost of training, or even guaranteeing a job on completion of training are long gone, so understand the risk you are taking. Some may well offer to protect you against the risk of failing the course, but none will protect you against the cost of finishing the training and then being unable to find work as a pilot.
Whatever course you intend to pursue, the watchword is research. Be sure that you understand how much you are paying and what you are getting in return. Moreover, have a clear idea about what you want to do as an aviator and choose your training appropriately. You do not need to give ridiculous sums of money to an international training school in order to fly privately.
Read our guide to finding the right training provider and beware flashy promotional material that promises you guaranteed success or the image of a glamourous lifestyle.
Learning to fly can be expensive, but you do not necessarily have to spend as much as the largest schools will quote you for training, and getting some air-time under a paraglider, hang-glider or at a gliding club provides unrivalled value for money.
If you are determined, do the right amount of research and follow a pathway that minimises the risks, you have the best possible chance of success, whether your ambition is a career or simply the occasional weekend aloft.