“Wow, you’re a pilot? That’s fascinating!” I get this remark quite often. The life of an airline pilot conjures up images of travels to exotic destinations where there are beautiful places to be explored, exciting people to be met and rip-roaring adventures to be had. And these fantasies are exactly why many aspiring pilots chase this dream, which, when viewed this way, can be fraught with disappointments.
Let me give you some insight into this profession. An airline pilot’s primary responsibility is to ensure that he or she flies the plane and its passengers safely from the departure airport to their destination. This is foremost on our minds, before all those dreams of glamour and adventure. Navigating the skies, seeing the world from above and realising what an awesome responsibility we bear in the safe carriage of our precious cargo – our guests – these things drive us to be our best.
EDUCATION AND REQUIREMENTS
So, now that you know what our priorities really are, let’s look at how one becomes a pilot. In Malaysia, the minimum requirement to apply for training to become an airline pilot is an SPM (O Levels) certification with at least five credits in subjects such as Science, Mathematics and English. However, most airlines prefer applicants with an undergraduate degree. Candidates should also be physically and mentally fit, possess good eyesight, should not be colour blind and have a minimum height of 163 centimetres (five feet three inches). But these are really just the most basic requirements that will help one get through the door to be accepted for training.
LICENSE & TRAINING
The first step is to obtain a commercial pilot license or CPL at a flying training school. This is where most pilot aspirants spend at least 18 months learning the principles of flying, from navigation and aerodynamics to aircraft systems, radio communication and meteorology. During this time, candidates also learn to fly a small plane powered by a propeller engine. To obtain their license, students will have to pass a check flight conducted by an examiner from the Department of Civil Aviation; this involves flight and oral exams on aviation matters. During the flight exam, the candidate will have to execute a number of difficult manoeuvres and handle manufactured situations designed as a test of proficiency. If the examiner is satisfied with the performance of the candidate, then, a Commercial Pilot License will be issued.
With this, one can apply for more comprehensive and specific training as a commercial pilot in an airline. Generally, pilots need to log up to 1,500 flying hours to convert their CPL (also known as frozen ATPL) into an ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot License).
At AirAsia, pilot aspirants must obtain an A320 type rating, as the airline operates an Airbus A320 fleet. Candidates who wish to fly for long-haul sister airline AirAsia X require an A330 type rating to operate the Airbus A330. Training is done in a flight simulator where, during check rides, trainees are confronted with various challenging scenarios to test their knowledge, competency, speed in reacting and ability to remain calm under pressure.
Once a trainee is certified proficient at handling the A320 or A330 in the simulator, this qualification will be endorsed on the license. Only then will he or she be allowed to go on line training as a Second Officer with an instructor and a safety co-pilot. Here again, the trainee will need to prove competency at operating safely without the supervision of a safety co-pilot. If the trainee passes this test and is certified by an instructor, he or she will continue training for a prescribed number of hours before a final check flight. Only once the trainee pilot passes this last hurdle will he or she join the airline as a First Officer. A First Officer may serve around seven or eight years to accumulate between 4,500 to 5,000 flying hours before he or she can be considered for promotion to captain.
LIFE AT WORK
In 2015, premier career site, CareerCast.com, rated a commercial pilot’s job as the fourth most stressful job in the world. Flying a plane is a unique skill that requires substantial training before you can do it as a profession, and with good reason, as commercial pilots are responsible for the safety of thousands of passengers.
Pilots are subject to physical, physiological and psychological stresses, which are normally attributed to cockpit noise and fatigue. Additionally, other sources of stress come from irregular working hours, jet lag and inclement weather conditions.
Therefore, apart from having the necessary skills and knowledge to operate an aircraft, a commercial pilot also needs to be physically fit. Pilot candidates will need to pass a medical exam and an instrument rating (IR) test to assess their ability to fly in low visibility in a multi-engine plane. To receive a first-class medical certificate, candidates must be certified by an authorised aviation medical examiner.
It was once believed that you could not become a pilot if your vision needed correction. Whilst this might have been initially true, now, many professional pilots wear glasses or contact lenses. This is allowed, as long as vision is correctable to 20/20.
To ensure that pilots are always on top of their game, pilots are also required to pass a check flight every six months.
THE FUTURE OF PILOTS
Aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, recently released a forecast displaying continued demand for commercial airline pilots over the next 20 years, with a projection that the world will require some 558,000 new commercial pilots. In the Asia Pacific region alone, there is a need for 226,000 pilots. But those who wish to pursue this career path should know that there’s no guarantee that an airline will hire you upon graduation. This is largely because in some countries the recruitment of new pilots into airlines is slow, where supply exceeds demand. However, there are signs that the employment rate is gradually improving.
Although being a pilot can be challenging and stressful at times, most pilots wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. Most of us have dreamed of this career from a very young age. This deep passion for flying is what truly makes a good and dedicated pilot.
Captain Lim’s book, LIFE IN THE SKIES, which won third place in the Reader’s Choice Award at the Malaysia BookFest 2015, and its Mandarin version 【飞行日记】 are now available for purchase onboard all AirAsia and AirAsia X flights. Enjoy these great collections of articles by a veteran aviator.