I’ve finally got my pilot’s licence!

Some excellent news to report: I passed my General Skills Test yesterday – the pilot’s equivalent of the driving test – which means that I’ve finally got my Pilot’s Licence! I couldn’t be more chuffed, as it’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point and it’s a great sense of achievement. It’s also the first item I can properly tick off on my 30 Before 30 list (see item 2).

I wanted to dedicate a post to describing what I’ve had to do to get a pilot’s licence, as there’s no denying it’s been quite a hard slog at times, and although I really love flying, I haven’t always enjoyed the process of getting a pilot’s licence! I have been training slowly over the last couple of years, but it’s been a bit stop-start because of having an unexpectedly busy first year of self-employment, among other things.


To get this licence, which qualifies me to fly in the UK but will eventually be converted to one that will allow me to fly in Europe as well, I officially need 32 hours – of which 22 are under instruction and 10 are solo. It’s not like a driving licence in that respect, as solo hours are part of the training rather than something you only do when you pass the test. I have more than a whopping 90 hours now, of which 10 are solo. This hasn’t all been proper flight training though, as lots of those hours have been accumulated on all the trips I’ve done with Lee, such as to the Isle of Wight, flying Wilhelm back from Germany, to the Shuttleworth Evening Airshow, etc etc. But all this flying has been great experience even when it hasn’t been formal training, and it’s meant that I’ve picked up a lot by osmosis, simply by being in the cockpit with Lee, who is a fantastic pilot and instructor.

My first solo flight was probably the biggest sense of achievement I’ve felt during my training. The feeling of freedom you feel on flying by yourself for the first time is tremendous, although it’s also bloody scary when you realise that, having got yourself into the air, you also have to get yourself safely back onto the ground, without an instructor to help if things go wrong!

first solo flight

This is a short video I took on my first solo flight:

I completed my solo hours last week, and this is a video Lee took of me coming in to land on my last solo flight:

Exam hell

In addition to flight training, there’s a great deal of theory to be learned as part of getting a pilot’s licence. I have had to do a lot of ground-based study and pass nine exams, in the following subjects:

  • Air Law – the rules of the air, e.g. how high you’re allowed to fly over things, which way you should turn in order to avoid a mid-air collision, etc.
  • Operational Procedures – marshalling, airfield procedures etc
  • Human Performance & Limitations – human factors that can affect flight safety, e.g. hypoxia
  • Meteorology – weather forecasting and understanding how the weather can affect the safe conduct of your flight, including cloud types, and how to decipher the ridiculously arcane aviation forecasts
  • Principles of Flight – how a plane flies, and the forces to which it is subjected
  • Flight Planning and Performance – how to plan a flight, e.g. calculating fuel needed, weights and balances and so on
  • Navigation – using navigational aids, working out estimated time of arrival, etc
  • Communications – radio terminology and procedures
  • Aircraft General Knowledge – how the aircraft is built and how it works.

These exams are multiple choice, but they are horrendous. The questions are worded in such a way as to catch you out at every turn, and at least half of them are totally irrelevant to the private pilot. Many questions involve – horror of all horrors – maths, which is in no way my strong point and you can’t simply guess the answer on those either. These are definitely the worst aspect of learning to fly.

Radio licence

You have to do a separate application for a radio licence, which was quite an ordeal. Basically whenever you want to go in or near airspace, you need to talk to air traffic control (or information service) on the radio to get permission to do things. But it’s a language all of its own, which you have to learn on top of all the other things you already have to think about when flying, and it’s really scary because when you talk on the radio EVERYBODY who’s tuned into that frequency – all the other pilots in the area – can hear what you say, so you don’t want to muck it up. It’s all really formulaic and you have to learn the correct language for telling them where you are, what you want to do etc. To give you an example, this is an actual radio call I had to make when I was on my navigation skills test (which I’ll talk more about in a minute):

“Gloucester approach, Golf Kilo India Alpha Uniform is an SF25 motorglider on a navigation test from Wellesbourne to Wellesbourne via Northleach and Berrow, currently overhead Northleach at an altitude of 2,000ft on a QNH of 1015; we’ll be routing just to the north of your zone in approximately 12 minutes, request basic service.”

Crazy huh?! And then they say a load of stuff back at you and you have to repeat it to show that you’ve understood it, and they’ll tell you at what point to report back to them (in this case “report north abeam Gloucester”) and you confirm that. It took ages to learn how to speak like that, but (if you’ll allow me to blow my own trumpet briefly) lots of people have said that I am very good at it – a fact that I attribute solely to doing lots of flying with Lee and hearing his radio brilliance all the time!

The actual test for the radio licence involves sitting at a computer, flying a test route on a basic flight simulator with the examiner in the other room acting as air traffic control. You have to fly through various airspace, talk at the right time, say the right things, make Mayday and Pan calls when appropriate, and that kind of thing. I was petrified. The examiner, though, said that I was the best student he’d seen!!

Navigation Skills Test

The Navigation Skills Test is the first of three major flying tests, and, as you might have guessed, it tests your ability to navigate. Navigating in the air is harder than you might think, because the wind speed and direction differs at different altitudes and can make you drift off course without your even realising it, as can imprecise flying. Though you can generally go in a straight line from place to place, you need to make sure you’ve planned to do so at a safe altitude, avoiding restricted areas such as danger zones, and you need to correct all your planned headings to take into account the wind speed and direction at your planned altitude. This, let me tell you, is a nightmare, and involves using this highly complicated contraption, called a whiz wheel.


For the navigation test I had to plan a route taking into account the above, check aviation weather, NOTAMs (notices to airmen – basically anything that might affect our flight, such as a planned airshow or the installation of a new radio mast or something), mark up my flight chart and write a log sheet detailing how long it would take us to fly each leg, how much fuel we’d need, etc. Then in flight I had a stopwatch so that I could time each leg to check my calculations were correct. During the course of the flight my examiner took control and went away from my planned route and then tested me on my ability to work out where we were now, and to work out a heading to get us home while in flight. Highly stressful, but thankfully I passed! This is just after we got back from my test…


 Qualifying solo cross country flight

I wrote about this recently, so I won’t dwell on it too much here. It’s the second of the three flying tests, and it involves planning a route of at least 100nm, landing away at two other airfields, solo. I did mine to Shobdon, near the Welsh border, and Kemble, in Gloucestershire.


General Skills Test

This is the final big flying test, and is roughly the equivalent of a driving test. It tests your handling of the aircraft (such as take-offs, landings, steep turns etc), airmanship, and your ability to recover from various problem scenarios. Said problem scenarios include stalling (in various configurations, simulating stalling on take-off, final approach, in turns etc), incipient spinning, spiral dives, engine failures, fire in the cockpit, etc. You have to actually stall the aircraft in these configurations (just higher than you would if you were taking-off, on final approach etc), and then recover from them. While you don’t actually have the engine turned off on you, the examiner puts the power to idle and you have to select a suitable field to land in, do a pretend Mayday call, and do an approach into that field well enough for the examiner to be assured that you would be able to land in a field if you had to. For the smoke in the cockpit scenario, you just have to run through what you’d do, including the pretend mayday call, and then find a suitable field and do an approach. As you can imagine, this is all incredibly stressful! I was immeasurably relieved when I switched the engine off after my hour-long test and Matt, my examiner, told me that I’d passed!


As you will by now appreciate, the process of learning to fly is massively more rigorous than the process of learning to drive. And this is just the start of my journey as a pilot – the learning never stops! The next step for me is to add an additional rating to allow me to fly other aircraft, such as a Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior (item 6 on my 30 things), and also to take my first ever passenger up! Any volunteers? :)

4 Comments on I’ve finally got my pilot’s licence!

  1. Jill and peter
    February 21, 2015 at 12:47 pm (5 years ago)

    Just wanted to say a great big WELL DONE ! hope you have many pleasant hours of flying ! Xxxxxxx

    • Rachel McCombie
      February 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm (5 years ago)

      Thanks Jill and Pete! xxxxxxx

  2. Mona
    February 23, 2015 at 5:59 am (5 years ago)

    CONGRATULATIONS!! Also, I totally volunteer, but I’m a wee bit out of the way for you to drop in and pick me up. Till you’re able to fly across the Atlantic that is ;)

    • Rachel McCombie
      February 23, 2015 at 9:32 am (5 years ago)

      Thanks Mona!! And yes… that might be a little far! ;) Whereabouts are you?!