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Transferring your aviation-related skills to the civilian workplace could get you off to a flying start. Here’s some advice to help you plan ahead and ensure your new career takes off.

Perhaps you have long planned a career in the aviation sector when the time comes for you to leave the Forces? If so, this feature aims to provide you with the background knowledge that will help you get that new career off the ground. It’s a huge area, so we will focus on those roles of most interest to Service leavers and which – due to the skills and qualifications you’ve been racking up while in uniform – you are likely to be well suited.

The routes from the Armed Forces into civil aviation are well established and many Service leavers have found successful second careers by following them. Holding the required licence(s) is absolutely essential for civilian employment and these can be expensive to obtain, so if you’re a pilot or engineer, make sure you use your available in-Service opportunities to gain them.

Just the job?

Such a huge industry requires a vast number of people with a wide variety of skills. Just some of the roles you’ll find in the aviation sector are:

  • pilots and cabin crew
  • airport operations
  • passenger services staff
  • cargo processors/handlers
  • aviation engineers
  • security staff
  • air traffic controllers (ATCs).

In this feature, we’ll take a closer look at the main roles likely to be of interest to you.

Ground crew

Commercial pilot

If you’re a pilot you can find a lot of useful information on national licences and licence conversions in the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) publication known as CAP 804, which can be downloaded here and describes the theoretical knowledge and flying requirements for civilian pilot licences and related qualifications. However, please note that – currently – this document is to be used for reference only as a new and restructured Air Navigation Order came into force in August 2016. Article references have completely changed and new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations have been developed since CAP 804 was last issued. In light of these significant changes, the need for a restructured and updated version of CAP 804 that reflects current UK law and EU regulations is currently being reviewed. (Please also refer to the ‘The CAA and Brexit’ box on this page.)

You may find much of the guidance that you need on the Licences and other approvals pages of the CAA website.

More information on the revised Air Navigation Order 2016 (ANO2016) is available by clicking here and current EASA regulations are available online here.


Please note that, in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a negotiated agreement, some CAA website content and application forms may in the short term continue to carry the EASA logo or reference the EU or EASA rather than the UK CAA. These will be updated in due course following the UK’s departure from the EU. In the meantime, the guidance provided and the application forms accessed via the CAA website portal will continue to be valid.
For up-to-date information and guidance, click here.

To be employed to fly as a commercial pilot you must hold a professional licence that is either a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) or an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) – the ground training and examinations are different for the two licences. These licences also apply to both aeroplanes and helicopters, although requirements differ for the two types of aircraft. An ATPL requires a minimum of 1,500 hours of flying experience and is normally acquired only after being employed as a pilot for several years. It is essential to hold an ATPL to be the pilot in command (PIC) on a commercial flight of an aircraft that must be flown by two pilots. To be the co-pilot (first officer) a CPL with an instrument rating (IR) must be held and the written examinations for the ATPL passed. This combination is known as a ‘frozen ATPL’, meaning that the qualifications for an ATPL are complete except for the relevant flying experience.

A CPL is sufficient to act as PIC of a single pilot aircraft on a commercial flight, and it is worth bearing in mind that, in addition to the larger airlines, there are many smaller companies conducting ‘aerial work’ for which only a CPL is required. This can include glider towing, parachutist dropping, aerial photography and survey, pleasure flights, private corporate work, and flight instructing for the Private Pilot Licence (PPL) and CPL. Most of these activities require only one pilot holding either a CPL or CPL with an IR. The ground training is simpler to obtain a CPL only, than for the ATPL.

The first step to gaining a commercial licence (CPL or frozen ATPL) is to obtain a Class 1 medical certificate. This means attending CAA HQ near Gatwick Airport and passing a medical examination (which may take the best part of a day) and paying the relevant fee. After that, two types of training course are available: integrated and modular.

Integrated courses combine ground and flight training, and can take you from zero flying experience to frozen ATPL in as little as 14–16 months (these cost between £60,000 and £95,000). A fixed-wing integrated course usually includes an IR – a helicopter one will not. For the helicopter pilot, the only way to achieve this is at an Approved Training Organisation (ATO) offering IR training, and the course effectively has to be conducted on a multi-engine type, usually involving extensive use of simulators. This will require a decision as to which type will be of most use in the future, and a type rating course will have to be carried out prior to commencing the IR.

The alternative is a modular course, which does the same thing but in individual sections, thereby spreading the cost (typically £40,000–£45,000 in total). This type of training is more suited to military pilot conversions for which special terms are currently available. To qualify for modular training without military experience, you must obtain a PPL, for which numerous flying clubs and training schools offer courses. Modular professional licence courses are available from about 20–30 ATOs in the UK. Once you have identified an ATO that offers a course that suits you, you should contact it direct for further guidance regarding costs, etc. The ground studies for a modular course can be completed via full-time classroom study or distance learning

On completion of the written examinations, you would move on to a CPL flight training course (typically taking about six weeks), ending with a skill test flown with a CAA examiner. CPL flight training can be started only when you have acquired 150 hours of flight experience as a PPL holder. Following the CPL course, those students training to obtain a frozen ATPL will also complete IR training.

Licence application to the CAA is made following the satisfactory completion of all necessary training, examinations and tests. 

passenger plane



Qualified Military Pilots (QMPs) are defined in CAP 804 (which, as noted above, is to be used for reference only as it is currently under review). Depending on the military training completed, a QMP may qualify for credits against the requirements to complete the civil flying training and ground instruction specified for the various civil licences and qualifications. To obtain a civil licence or qualification, all pilots must pass the applicable CAA theoretical knowledge examinations and skill tests. 

Ground operations, flight dispatch and airfield operations

Airlines’ or handling agents’ dispatchers are responsible for aircraft turnrounds and, although their duties may vary by company or location, these are likely to include making weight and balance calculations, providing crew with weather details, and general turnround supervision and progress chasing, followed by dispatch of post-departure signals. Dispatchers are employed either by the airlines themselves or by their handling agents (e.g. Menzies or Swissport).

Airline ops staff check the progress of the flying programme worldwide, which may involve sending and receiving signals, obtaining ATC clearances, checking the significance of delays and re-routings with regard to crew duty periods, and arranging for ground support in the event of diversions, among other things. They may also become involved in route planning and the preparation of flight plans. Airfield ops staff employed by airport authorities are responsible for the operational serviceability of the runway and manoeuvring areas, airfield lighting, aircraft marshalling, bird scaring, snow clearance, and dealing with any incidents or accidents. 

Training in these disciplines is often done in-house following employment, however it is also available through open learning programmes, some of which lead to recognised qualifications from bodies such as City & Guilds. 

Ground operations

Cargo processing/handling

This is sometimes done by airlines themselves, but normally by specialist handling agents. The work involves the processing of cargo documentation, dealing with customs clearances and security, and ensuring correct handling of special cargo such as dangerous goods and live animals. The work also involves the physical handling of both import and export cargo through airport freight sheds and to and from aircraft. 

Working for an airline

Individual airlines employ their own flight crew (pilots, cabin crew) and, if you are interested in such jobs, will be able to advise you about the qualifications you will need. The personnel department of the airline in which you are interested will provide the criteria for each job (e.g. pilot, cabin crew, passenger service staff, airline operations and dispatch staff) and details of what you will need in order to be a candidate. Individual airline contact details can be found through the CAA website. Details of recruitment opportunities and procedures can be obtained from them direct.

Aviation engineering

Aviation engineering

Understandably, suitably qualified and experienced ex-Service people are a welcome addition to the aviation engineering industry, which essentially splits into two areas: aircraft and avionics. Aircraft engineers inspect, repair and maintain airframes and engines. Avionics engineers are concerned with the electrical and electronic equipment on aircraft, including instruments, radio and radar.

Entry and training 

Taking the example of an aircraft maintenance engineer’s licence, training to obtain one is usually via: 

  • completion of an approved CAA basic training course (see below), at an ATO (although not compulsory, this allows a reduction in the experience required to gain a Part-66 aircraft maintenance licence – see below)
  • recognised industry apprenticeship scheme, which provides on-the-job training to NVQ level 3 and usually takes two to four years (contact individual employers direct for specific details on entry requirements and availability).

It is also possible to enter the industry with the equivalent UK Armed Forces training. However, for a Part-66 licence, one year’s civil experience is required. In addition to relevant experience, exams need to be completed and no exemption is given. There is also a special route for CAA licence holders seeking registration as Incorporated Engineers (IEng) and Engineering Technicians (EngTech). For further information and guidance contact the Royal Aeronautical Society or the Engineering Council. Information on how to obtain a Part-66 Engineer’s licence may be found on the CAA website. 

A Part-66 aircraft maintenance licence confirms that the holder has met knowledge and experience requirements for any aircraft basic category and aircraft type rating specified. The licence is divided broadly between mechanical and avionics trade disciplines, with the mechanical licence category being further subdivided. There are also levels within the licence that allow the holder to perform certain roles within line and/or base maintenance. These reflect different levels of task complexity, and are supported by different standards of experience and knowledge.

The wider privileges of the Category B licence, and the role of the technician in defect diagnosis/rectification and system inspection require a more detailed knowledge than for Category A. This requires a longer period of experience and examination at a higher level.  

The requirements for Category C can be achieved through being a:

  • graduate with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering recognised by the CAA, or a similar discipline that is considered relevant to aircraft maintenance and that has been accepted for this purpose by the CAA
  • B1 or B2 licence holder with certifying experience.

Applicants who successfully complete a Part-147 approved basic training course will have received instruction in the required subjects, and passed the exams associated with that course and the respective licence category.

Under Part-66 there is a requirement to record satisfactory basic training and skills attainment as a prerequisite for basic licence issue. To assist both basic and type rating applicants to demonstrate that they meet the licensing requirements, the CAA has introduced an aircraft maintenance engineer’s logbook.

We have given just a few examples here, but as you can see, licensing and training to work as an aircraft or avionics engineer is quite a complicated area – and additionally so in light of Brexit – so for the latest information on current licensing requirements, please refer to the EASA and CAA websites.

Aviation security

To find out about working in this sector, please take a look at the full-length feature here. Further information can be obtained direct from potential employers.

Air traffic control

Air traffic controllers provide instructions, advice and information to pilots by radio, to keep air traffic flying safely, efficiently and quickly. Aircraft movement is controlled by NATS Holdings (formerly National Air Traffic Services, widely known as NATS for short). It provides air traffic control (ATC) to aircraft flying through UK-controlled airspace and at several UK airports, and has its own training college. To find out more about becoming an air traffic controller, contact NATS direct.

Use your ELC

Under the ELC scheme, a wide range of learning can be taken, provided it is offered by an approved provider listed on the ELC website and is at level 3 or above. For full details of how to make the most of your ELC, refer to the in-depth features elsewhere on this website.


Continue your studies with virtual training

Although training providers are currently unable to run their usual face-to-face classroom courses, many (such as the CAA) have been quick to adapt and find alternative ways to continue to support your learning and development, such as delivering courses virtually. This means you will still get the same level of expert training, but from the safety and convenience of your chosen remote working location.

The CAA, for instance, is using the latest WebEx video conferencing platform from Cisco to facilitate its virtual training, which will – albeit through a different medium – give learners the same high-quality training and face-to-face access to the CAA instructors who deliver its classroom courses. Other features and benefits include:

  • HD video- and audio-conferencing
  • option to can join virtual classes from any device and any location worldwide (with internet access)
  • private/group discussions and Q&As with instructors
  • virtual whiteboards and collaboration tools
  • you can raise your ‘virtual hand’ if you need support or have a question.

The CAA has a wide range of courses already available virtually (for full details click here), and also offers a host of online e-learning courses, which are ideal for remote working.

The CAA is just one example and it is extremely likely that many other training providers are following suit so, when enquiring about a course, be sure to ask them about their virtual or online learning provision, to avoid unnecessary interruptions to your studies.

The Business School (UK) Ltd | Aviation
The Business School is a first-class professional development provider, delivering the highest calibre of training to the highest standards. We specialise in the provision of learning and development to military audiences – indeed this was our driver for setting up the business in 2014. We are ELCAS, Cyber Essentials and ISO:9001 approved. The courses listed below all attract ELC and SLC funding, and there are specific mapped options for particular trades.
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Transport For London (TFL) | Aviation
The Compliance, Policing and On-street Services (CPOS) Directorate delivers integrated pan-TfL enforcement, compliance, policing, security and community safety functions in support of our transport priorities. We provide uniformed services across TfL, be it one of our circa 2,500 police officers or our own uniformed officers, we lead on workplace violence and aggression ensuring a pan modal approach to ensure our network is safe, and to support and look after our people who work in some of the most challenging environments
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BAE Systems Saudi Arabia | Aviation
When you’re considering working and living in Saudi Arabia, we appreciate that you’ll be taking all kinds of factors into account. The anticipation of discovering a new way of life is exciting and probably prompts many questions. BAE Systems has been present in Saudi Arabia for over 50 years. Over that time, we have successfully relocated many employees and we would like to give you a flavour of what they’ve experienced.