Pilot Craig Bisset

One of our pilots, Craig Bisset, discusses the possible routes to becoming a pilot and shares a little about what flying means for him.

How did you become an air ambulance pilot? When speaking to members of the public, this is probably one of the most common questions I’m asked, and possibly one of the least straightforward ones to answer!

There are several routes to becoming a helicopter pilot and almost every pilot you meet will have a different story of how their journey landed them in their current role.

Different paths to travel

There are two civilian routes to achieve a basic commercial licence, CPL(H): through either a modular or integrated flying course.

The modular course allows you to study and train at your own pace. Many people choose to learn this way due to work or family constraints that make a part-time course a more viable option.

You will complete a Private Pilot Licence PPL(H) followed by a period of hours building up to 155 flying hours, a distance learning theoretical course and 14 written exams. You will then be eligible for the CPL (H) course, which covers approximately 30 flying hours, lots of ground school and a final flying skills test.

The integrated course covers the same content, but the difference is that you are enrolled as a full-time student. You arrive with no experience and on successful completion of the course you will leave with a CPL(H), albeit with slightly fewer flying hours as only 135 are required for this course.

The cost of training

Both of these routes are expensive and most people nowadays are self-funded. Sadly, gone are the days of fully-sponsored courses,Nightflying: the view from the cockpit however there are a couple of bursaries out there if you look hard enough!

The content itself is challenging, but mainly due to the sheer volume of course material. You are essentially completing a university degree level of study, but in a shorter space of time.

For those that decide to train with the military, there are helicopter flying positions for all three of the armed forces in the UK. Most will now require candidates to complete officer training prior to being selected for a flying role. Should you be successful, you will be required to fly operationally and complete your minimum service before you are able to leave the military and look towards a civilian flying role. Upon leaving you will need a ‘bridging’ course to convert your military qualifications to a civilian licence.

The beginning of your journey

Of course, the basic qualifications are merely the beginning of your aviation journey. Early civilian flying roles can vary, anything from sightseeing tours, flight instruction, co-pilot in multi-crew aircraft and lots more in between. Most operators (HEMS, police etc.) will look for significant experience before recruiting an aircraft commander e.g. >2500 hours total flight time as well as night experience, an instrument rating with demonstrated experience and an operational background in a similar or appropriate role.

If you are considering a helicopter flying career take the time to speak to several flying schools, ask for advice from operators on current industry requirements and consider your actual career goals.

This is one of the most fulfilling and challenging industries, and for those that are able to commit to the courses, be patient and flexible to gain the necessary experience, you will be rewarded with a career like no other! Be driven, be realistic and be committed, believe me it’s worth it - good luck!

Without our aircrew our lifesaving helicopter service wouldn't be possible and it is thanks to your support that we can keep flying! If you feel able to lend support to our operations then every donation counts and makes a lifesaving difference to our patients. 

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