Rob Mackie served Devon Air Ambulance as a pilot for 23 years. He is now the Safety Manager for the charity. He talks to us about what's needed to make it as an Air Ambulance pilot. This article was originally posted in September 2012.

The question about which qualifications you need to become a pilot is a very good one, and one that is not easily answered (but I’ll try my best!). If you’re a parent please excuse me for saying this BUT in theory, you don’t need any specific qualifications to be an Air Ambulance pilot! It might sound a little bit strange to say this, but it’s true. What you do need is a good head for maths, some of which is quite complicated, and a good command of English as this is the international language for aviation.

Although our patients don’t pay a fare (ours is a free service) the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) say that patients are actually ‘passengers’ and so, as pilots, we have to have a commercial helicopter pilot's licence: either a CPL(H) Commercial Pilots Licence – Helicopters, or an ATPL(H) – Air Transport Pilots Licence – Helicopters. These licences are not difficult to get, assuming you have an aptitude to fly helicopters. However, they are VERY EXPENSIVE to achieve! You would have to start by getting a PPL(H) – Private Pilot's Licence – Helicopters.

This will include all the flying and your instructor and all the CAA examinations that you will need to sit and pass your exam in Aviation law, meteorology, navigation, performance, technical papers on the type of aircraft, theory of flight - plus a separate radio examination to allow you to speak on the radio to Air Traffic Control (ATC). All this is very costly, but it doesn’t stop there! Once you have your PPL, and you can achieve that in around 20–30 flying hours depending on your ability, you then have to get over 200 flying hours before you can convert your PPL to a BCPL (Basic Commercial). And yes, there will be more exams to go with that as well. After you have your BCPL, hopefully you can continue to build up your flying hours and go on to a full CPL or ATPL, but for those you’ll also need a night rating and for an ATPL an instrument rating (flying in cloud solely by the aircraft instruments).

Having said all that, there are other ways and means. Most Air Ambulance pilots are ex-forces (Army, Navy or Air Force). They will teach you to fly and if successful, you will build your flying hours fairly quickly. The down side is that you will probably, but not necessarily, need a degree to become a pilot. You would also have to commit to a set period of service as well. Maybe as many as 6 or 9 years, but the best start if you want to follow this path is to visit your local Forces Careers office.

There are also helicopter companies like Bristows and Bond Helicopters that have cadet colleges and sponsorship deals available, where they will train you and you agree to work for them for a set period as a training bond. Also, if you go forward with your education and get to university there are a number of university air squadrons where you can learn to fly as well. Try doing a search on-line.

I will say you need to study as hard as you can – you can’t get too much education. If you really want to do something, you can do it if you set your heart on it. Being an Air Ambulance pilot is one of the best jobs ever.