It usually all starts with your eyes turned up to the sky, and a dream of flying those magnificent machines called aircraft. Practically, however, school career guidance councillors, if available, are often not informed on the process of how to become a pilot, so here is my suggested guide:

Decide what kind of pilot you want to be.

When considering a career as a pilot, the first thing that comes to mind is often the ‘glamour’ associated with being an airline pilot. However, there are a number of other exciting options for pilots, such as: contract pilots, medical evacuation, anti-poaching operations, corporate jets, tourist charters, firefighting etc. Do some research and try to find a pilot / company in the field that interests you and ask questions. Getting a glimpse into their daily activities will give a good understanding, and help you find the career path that suits your personality and ambitions.

Do not simply decide to become a pilot because you think they earn a lot of money. To succeed as a pilot you need to start with an insatiable passion for flying and aeroplanes, as it is going to cost you a lot of years and money before you can even consider those big pay checks. If you have more than one passion, it is quite ok to follow another career path, and then fly for fun by obtaining a private pilot licence (PPL).

What subjects should you do at school?

In South Africa there are currently no compulsory subject requirements, or minimum mark requirements to start training as a pilot. It is, however, strongly recommended that you do maths, science, English and geography at the highest possible level, as these will definitely help with the theoretical exams. Do take into consideration, if you intend applying for a bursary or private funding, to check the minimum application requirements, as you can be sure they will require top marks in the previously mentioned subjects. If you did not attend an English medium school, or you are from a country outside of South Africa, you will need to prove your ability to speak and comprehend English by undergoing an English proficiency test, and obtaining a minimum of level 4. Your school will advise you on how to do this test.

Are there bursaries or funding available for pilot training?

Unfortunately, in comparison to university fed careers, bursaries are very scarce. Those that are available have specific requirements and are mostly government funded through the CAA. Information can be found in this document. If you have really high marks, it is also worth a try to approach your provincial education department. Also consider the air force if you are a South African citizen.

If you are able to fund yourself up to a PPL (Private Pilot Licence), you can apply for a TETA bursary to pursue training towards your CPL (Commercial Pilot Licence). Information and application forms can be found here.

It is also helpful to ask around at your local flight school – some of them do have programmes where one can work at the school in exchange for flight training. These opportunities are usually quite limited, and generally only exist at the bigger flight schools, but definitely worth an ask.

Choosing a flight school

Careful thought must be given when choosing a flight school – you will be spending a lot of money, so making a bad choice will end up costing you even more. Try to speak to other student pilots and get their recommendations. While it may be tempting to go for the cheapest quote, there are far more important considerations:

  • Location – will you spend a lot traveling to and from the school?
  • Did you feel like a VIP when you visited the school? There should not be a feeling of big egos and belittlement, and the staff should be excited to share their passion for aviation with you.
  • Aircraft – Are they generally clean, in good condition and well-maintained? Do they have a sufficiently large fleet to cater for the number of students? I also suggest going for ‘common’ aircraft which are familiar to many schools, these are designed for training, and parts are readily available. If they have a rare type of aircraft, there may be delays if maintenance is required and a part needs to be sourced.
  • Airport – There are pros and cons to going for a controlled (busy) airport or a quieter unmanned airfield. A quiet airfield will provide a calm environment, especially if you are a complete beginner. You will also be able to maximise your flight time in this type of environment, as there will be very little waiting at the holding point with your time running. That said, controlled airports are especially good if you intend to fly commercially, as you will be exposed to that environment from the beginning, and gain significant practice talking to controllers on the radio. However, if the airport has significant traffic volumes you may find your flying time limited by waiting time on the ground.
  • Climate – Choosing a location that generally has good weather will mean that you can fly more often.
  • Access to a general flying area – Ask how close the nearest general flying area (GFA) is in relation to the airfield. As a considerable amount of training time will be spent in the GF practising various exercises, you want to be close in order to maximise your flying time (and minimise costs).
  • Instructors – The instructors should appear neat and professional, and interested in answering your questions, and showing you around.
  • Structure – There should be a clear structure as to the process that you will follow to achieve your goals. Every student progresses at a different rate, but there should be a plan in place with specific milestones.

Medical requirements

The next step, before you can get your student pilot licence, you will need to get your medical. As this will be your very first medical examination, you will be required to bring with you a chest x-ray. Most hospitals / clinics with an x-ray department will be able to do this for you – explain that it is for an aviation medical. Once you have this, you need to book an appointment with the Designated Aviation Medical Examiner (DAME). Your school should be able to provide you with a local contact and number. For information on various medical conditions and for a list of aviation doctors click here 

A Class 2 medical certificate is the minimum required to obtain PPL, and when you progress to CPL training you will need a Class 1.

Getting your Student Pilot Licence (SPL)

Your school will assist you with the forms that you require to obtain your SPL. These forms, together with your medical certificate will need to be submitted to the CAA in order to obtain your SPL. The SPL allows you to fly as a student pilot undergoing training, and you may not take passengers.

The Private Pilot Licence (PPL)

This is the first level of aviation licence that you will aim for. It allows you to fly on your own, or take passengers in a private capacity. You may not fly for payment, or fly at night without a night rating. Depending on your time availability and personal progress it can take anything from between 12 weeks to 9 months to complete a PPL.

While the flight training follows a specific structure, which your school will explain to you, you will also be required to study for, and complete 8 theoretical exams, as well as a radio course. Costs can vary depending on individual progress, but in 2019 you can count on an average of R120 000 total, with everything included. Some schools may be a bit less, others a bit more. Remember, it is not wise to pay the entire amount up front before you are sure that you are happy with the school, or happy with what you are doing. While most schools do require you to have at least one lesson paid in advance, you can usually pay as you go. If finances are tight, then explain this up front and see how the school can accommodate you. Many students work regular jobs while they learn to fly in order to cover the costs, this may be slow, but at least eliminates the prospect of heavy debts.

Requirements for a PPL:

  • 17+ years old
  • Education Requirements: Able to read, write and speak English fluently. If you completed maths, science & geography at school this will help but is not a set requirement.
  • Medical: A Class II aviation medical is required. This can be obtained through an Aviation Medical Examiner. We recommend students complete their medical within the first 5 hours of training.
  • Flight Training Requirements: 45 hours minimum total flight time of which 30 hours is dual instruction (with a flight instructor) and 15 hours is flown solo.
  • Examination requirements: There are 8 written/ online SACAA examinations with a pass score of 75% or better.
  • Restricted radio licence (Theoretical and oral exam).
  • English language proficiency test.
  • PPL skills test, this includes an oral exam as well as the flight test which will assess both general handling and navigation skills.

Night Rating

Once you have completed your PPL this is the next logical step. Not only will it make you a safer pilot in the event that you find yourself unintentionally flying in falling light, but it is also a requirement towards getting your CPL. You will need to pass a theoretical exam, and undergo some night training, and a skills test. Costs will average around R25 000 in 2019.

Instrument Rating

One can obtain an instrument rating as a PPL, and it will greatly improve your skills and make you a safer pilot should you find yourself in adverse weather. The costs are, however, quite high for someone who wishes to remain a PPL, and the current IR theoretical exam is very challenging, but if you have the money and dedication it is well worth it.

If you plan on moving onto the CPL (IFR), then you will be required to pass the theoretical IR exam before continuing on. In light of the current difficulty of this exam, many young pilots are first completing all 8 CPL theoretical exams before attempting the IR exam, as many of the subjects form the basis of the IR exam. The other option is to first complete a CPL (VFR) licence, and then dedicate time to specifically focus on the Instrument Rating, which can be achieved on either a single engine or a multi engine aircraft.

While the multi option is expensive, rather than ending up doing two instrument ratings (one for single and one for multi), it is probably best to save up the funds, and go for the multi instrument rating immediately, as this will cover both types of aircraft.

Costs in 2019:

Single Engine IR – +-R75 000
Multi-Engine IR – +-R100 000

The Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL)

The next step towards your career as a professional pilot is to obtain your CPL. There are a few options in doing this:

  • CPL (VFR) Single Engine – This licence is the quickest, lowest cost option to becoming a commercial pilot, however, you will be limited to flying in VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions only, and only a single engine complex aircraft. The job options for this kind of licence are quite limited, as most commercial operations involve flying in all kinds of weather, and eventually aeroplanes with two or more engines.
  • CPL (VFR) Multi Engine – As with the previous option you will be limited to flying in VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions only, but is more desirable as it allows you to fly aircraft with two or more engines.
  • CPL (IFR) Multi Engine – By far the most marketable option, this option will have quite a high cost initially, but will probably save you money in the long run if you do it all in one go. The training will involve completing multi-engine training simultaneously with multi-engine instrument rating. The training will take somewhat longer, but the skills gains are tremendous and job prospects are greatly improved.

In order to obtain the base CPL licence you will need the following:

  • You must be the holder of a valid South African Private Pilot Licence with a night rating.
  • You must be no less than 18 years of age.
  • You must be the holder of a valid General Radio Licence.
  • You must be the holder of a valid Class 1 Aviation medical certificate.
  • You must have completed all SACAA commercial licence theoretical examinations.
  • The practical flight test must be undertaken with a SACAA approved designated flight examiner within 36 months of having passed the theory exams.

Then, before you complete the flight test, you will need to meet the following minimum requirements (most students need more than the minimum, so this will affect costs):

  • 200 hours of flight time which must include:
  • 20 hours of flight instruction time in an approved flight simulation training device.
  • 100 hours as pilot-in-command, or 70 hours in the case of and applicant who has undergone integrated training.
  • 20 hours of cross-country flight as pilot-in-command. This must include one flight of not less than 300NM. This flight must also include two full-stop landings at no less than two different aerodromes away from base.
  • 5 hours night flying as pilot-in-command, this must include not less than 10 take-offs and 10 landings at night. It must also include a cross-country flight of at least three legs, each leg is to be a minimum of 50NM.
  • 20 hours instrument instruction time, of which no more than 10 hours may have been acquired on a flight simulation training device.
  • At least five hours instruction on a complex aircraft (variable pitch propeller, retractable undercarriage).

 (The above requirements are based on the single-Engine commercial pilot licence with an instrument rating.)

Base cost of a CPL including books and hour building in 2019: +-R180 000

Single Engine CPL Instrument Rating in 2019: +-R77 000

Multi Engine CPL Instrument Rating in 2019: +-R105 000

After your CPL…

Do not imagine that once you have completed your CPL, be it instrument rated or multi-engine, that you will immediately get a job. The hardest part of the process is actually getting that first job! Very few companies will hire a newly minted CPL, simply because their insurance companies do not cover them for pilots less than a certain minimum hours, which is usually around 400 – 500hrs. The solution is challenging, and many young pilots opt to do an instructors rating (Cost in the region of R60 000 in 2019), and gain hours by instructing other students. However, not every pilot makes a good instructor, and it is also not fair on other students if you don’t actually care for the job, and just do it for the hours. Rather consider finding work flying as a volunteer pilot, do a rating on an aircraft that is popular with charter operations, or fly family and friends until you have the required hours. Keep your eyes on pilot employment sites on the internet, and be willing to snatch up low hour opportunities in other parts of the African continent, as well as international airline cadet programmes.

In conclusion

This article is intended as a guide to young and aspiring pilots, the process can vary from one person to another, and the costs are also not set in stone, so please do not swear at the author when you find things work out cheaper, or more expensive! The important thing to do, if you would like to become a pilot, is to plan a long time in advance – do not wait until you have your Grade 12 certificate.

If you obtain a bursary to study a degree in something else, then with the greatest encouragement, please do that first! Not only will an additional qualification boost your CV when looking for a flying job, but it will contribute to a greater level of thinking in the cockpit, and provide you with a back-up should you ever lose your medical due to unforeseen health reasons. Degrees in engineering, computer science, business and aeronautics will certain help you when studying to become a pilot. You also have a better chance at obtaining funding / sponsorship if you have a proven record of being committed to your studies, and completing a course.

Whatever it is you decide to do, becoming a professional pilot is a long process, which requires a dedicated, motivated and passionate personality. Do your research, read all things aviation, and ask questions before taking the leap!


Image credit: Future Captain, Tshepiso Lobeko