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Qualifications needed to become pilot - by Captain Rob Mackie

My name is Rob Mackie and I’m the senior pilot for the Devon Air Ambulance based in Exeter.

The qualitifications needed 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 saying that, 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.

That’s the good bit – and now the bad bits. . .

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 pilots 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 Pilots Licence – Helicopters.
This will include all the flying AND your instructor AND all the CAA examinations that you will need to sit and pass (Aviation law, meteorology, navigation, performance, technical papers on the type of aircraft, theory of flight and a separate radio examination to allow you to speak on the radio to Air Traffic Control (ATC)). All this is very costly, but unfortunately, 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 though, 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 much 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 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 hope I haven’t put anyone off too much. All I can say is 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. Unfortunately I have to retire in 3 years as the CAA say I’m too old to fly commercially! I’m dreading that day as I shall miss it so much.

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