‘BA pays pilots £90k, Ryanair £70k – I’m on £30k, which is a bit demoralising’

'I spent £100k to be a pilot but I only get paid £30k a year'
'I spent £100k to be a pilot but I only get paid £30k a year'

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Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot. When I was three years old my grandmother took me to an airport to look at the aeroplanes and I was transfixed, perched on a fence, watching them. Apparently, I said: “I’m going to drive planes one day.”

I’ve never wanted to do anything else; being a pilot was always at the top of my list. All the way through primary school, aeroplanes were the only thing I was interested in. My family was very supportive. The training to become a pilot is really expensive and it does stop people from getting into the career but I was always told: “You’ve got to work for it and, if you work hard, you’ll get there”.

At the age of 14, I started flying. I had a paper round and I saved up all my earnings, plus my pocket money and cash from every Christmas and birthday, to put towards flying. I showed enough willingness for my parents to pay for the lion’s share of the training. A private pilot’s licence, when I did it, set you back around £7,000. I got my licence about a week after my 17th birthday. I could fly a plane before I could drive a car.

I thought: “I’m going to travel the world, fly aircraft, stay in amazing places, meet new people, and look really cool in the uniform.” The image was Leonardo DiCaprio as a Pan Am pilot in the film Catch Me If You Can. A lot of pilots have that reference.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can
'It's not Leonardo DiCaprio walking through an airport with six cabin crew on his arm' - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

I started my real pilot training when I was 18. There are a few different routes to becoming a pilot. If you have a lot of money, you can do the integrated route where one fee – around £130,000 – covers it all, and two years later you come out with your commercial pilot’s licence. The lucky few get sponsored by an airline which covers all the training costs and guarantees you a job at the end. I went down the modular route where you pay for each section of your training individually.

I chose that route because it was cheaper. My family couldn’t just give me £130,000. Pilots fall into two different categories. They are either very determined and from day one that’s all they want to do (I’d put myself in that category),  or they are rich kids with Mummy and Daddy’s money behind them.

My training took me about five years and it cost me around £100,000. I have worked ever since I was 16 to pay for it. My parents did help me out and I had an inheritance, but I did odd jobs on the side and worked as a flight instructor to pay for it too. I lived very frugally and had no holidays for five years so that I could put every last penny towards my training.

It was intense. You learn how to fly in zero visibility, using just GPS, tracking and navigational aids. Finally you move from a propeller aircraft to a commercial aircraft, like an Airbus or a Boeing. The theory exams were the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life. For five months, I had no social life. I would live in four-hour slots: four hours sleeping, four hours studying. I wouldn’t ever do that again.

Sometimes I wonder if the training was worth it. For me, at the moment, it probably wasn’t worth it financially. I’m a pilot for a regional airline and I earn just over £30,000 a year.

That’s a pretty low salary for a pilot job – especially when you think about how skilled pilots are and how much work we’ve put in to get to this point. The yearly salary doesn’t cover a third of the cost of the training. The bigger airlines offer more money: British Airways pays pilots a salary of around £90,000, Ryanair is about £70,000 and even EasyJet offers £65,000. It’s quite demoralising knowing that you’ve spent so much money and worked so hard to get paid so poorly.

Initially I just accepted the pay. I needed an airline job – your first one is really hard to get straight out of flight training. I had worked so hard and I just wanted to fly. I do look at other airlines and think: why are those pilots getting paid so much more money? They have bigger, more modern aircraft which are more fun to fly, so why am I getting paid so poorly? Money is the reason that a lot of people leave smaller airlines to go work for the big boys.

But at the moment, this job works for me. I like the lifestyle. I live a six-minute drive away from the airport and I can turn up 20 minutes before departure; that’s unheard of for the big airline pilots. You are also away a lot if you work for one of the big airlines. I’m home every night. Even with my late shift, I’m home for dinner at 9pm. So I’m happy at the moment. I work two flights a day, five days a week. If I have a morning shift, I’ll start at six o’clock and I’ll be home by 11.30am. That’s quite a nice little lifestyle.

The best part of the job is flying. I enjoy the challenging conditions and because our aircraft is older, there’s a lot more hand-flying involved, as opposed to auto-pilot. Pulling off a really good landing or a really good approach is always a great day at work. You feel like you’ve achieved something. I know everyone I work with really well and I love my colleagues. Our passengers are primarily travelling for business so you get to know the regulars who go down to London on Monday morning and come back Friday afternoon. It’s like a bus service.

'Pulling off a really good landing is always a great day at work' - Michael Dunning/The Image Bank RF

I’ve only had a disruptive passenger once. The crew said he was getting a bit aggravated so I put my jacket on and walked out the back and seeing someone in uniform was all it took. He was good as gold for the rest of the flight. I’m not flying kids to Ibiza, luckily, because that would be horrible.

The worst bits of the job are probably the pay and the disruption. If something is wrong with an aircraft or someone’s called in sick, you will get a phone call from operations and you have to go to Bristol or Manchester or Cornwall to cover.

The most challenging flight I’ve ever had was when we hit a bird and the windscreen cracked. The crack got worse and worse throughout the flight and we had to fly a different route and go lower and slower.

I always make an effort when I turn up to work – shirt pressed, trousers ironed, shoes shined, jacket clean. It’s always quite nice to walk through the terminal with your uniform on. You do get looked at a lot, with kids going “look, it’s a pilot!”. But then you get in the front, your jacket comes off, your tie comes off, your shirt gets untucked, you sit there eating a warm sandwich, drinking a lukewarm coffee, gliding through the skies, having a chat. It’s not Leonardo DiCaprio walking through an airport with six cabin crew on his arm, as much as we’d like it to be like that.

The job has its good days and bad days but the bulk are good days. It’s not what I thought it was when I was a three-year-old kid. But I’ve grown to accept that. I still love flying.

There’s a joke that you can tell someone is a pilot because they will tell you within five seconds. That’s 100pc true. Everyone thinks it’s a cool job and you don’t mind telling them because you know you could spend an hour talking about it. Everyone always wants to know about what I do.

As told to Isolde Walters