Self-funding My ATPL Journey

YouTuber ‘Plane Old Ben’ talks about his journey to becoming a commercial pilot. 

‘Whooooshh’ ‘Ben, what was that?’ A question I recall being asked all my life; the sound of an aircraft flying overhead has always make me look skyward and has been backed up by my parents pointing it out for as long as I can recall. I grew up in Lancashire close to BAE Systems aircraft test site at Warton. From my bedroom window I could see aircraft in the visual circuit and hear the sound of a jet engine rumbling from the Typhoon being test flown and developed. My family and I always used to holiday in Anglesey in North Wales and we would spend many an afternoon sat at the end of the runway at RAF Valley watching pilots on advanced fast jet training in the Hawk T1. From this stemmed my interest of being a Pilot and something which I can’t ever remember not wanting to do.

Starting out…

This initial passion for wanting to be a pilot grew rapidly from joining the Air Training Corps (ATC) when I was age 12. I spent two evenings a week for seven years studying and learning about the Royal Air Force and undertaking theoretical study about topics ranging from principles of flight, aircraft navigation and radiotelephony. I also had the opportunity to fly in an aircraft for the first time from RAF Woodvale in the Grob Tutor for Air Experience Flying – something which I was fortunate to do four or five times a year. I was also fortunate to achieve a Flying Scholarship on the Vigilant Motor-glider which culminated on my first solo on my 16th birthday. This was the first time I had undertaken a formal flying training course and I worked tirelessly studying every spare minute I had – reading the Vigilant T1 POH, checklist and trying as best I could to stay ahead of the pace and understand the content for each flying lesson. I was too young to get a job and I wasn’t fortunate to have any flying lessons paid for by my parents unlike many teenagers I see nowadays; it was my one opportunity. On completion of the scholarship I had logged just over 10 hours and that was that – if I wanted more I was going to have to earn it myself. Whilst the ATC taught me a lot about the world of aviation it also taught me important values which I still use in my day to day life to date such as time keeping, leadership and how to work effectively in a team. These values I hoped to grow and develop and utilise in a career in the Royal Air Force as a Pilot.

Fledgling wings!

Up the road from where I lived a new Italian Restaurant opened and I got my first ever job, as a Waiter, with friend and fellow pilot, Steve. This was in 2008, I was in year 11 at High School and would work three or four nights a week earning £4.50 an hour. This is where the value of money became very apparent to me. The first thing I wanted to do with my hard earned cash was fly. In 2008 a one hour flying in a Cessna 152 cost £136.50 an hour. This meant that I had to work around 30 hours at the restaurant to pay for just one hour in the air. I would work on average four nights a week for four hours and well, if reading this you should be able to work out, that I would need to work for two weeks to pay for a one hour flying lesson! I set myself the goal of flying solo again within my 16th birthday year and achieved this in the Cessna 152; an aircraft that will always hold a special place in my heart. I did that after eight hours flying and around £1,100, or, two hundred and forty four hours work at the Italian Restaurant. 

Ben flying the C152

“I had to work around 30 hours at the restaurant to pay for just one hour in the air.”

At this point I was now juggling studying for GCSEs, progressing through the ranks in the ATC, working at the Italian and also study towards my PPL. It’s fair to say that in life you can’t have everything and you must find the balancing act that works for you, this is where I first realised that. I was able to achieve good GCSEs mostly at B grade, however, my teachers told me “I could’ve done better” and I do agree, looking back that if I had cut back my hours of work at the Italian and quit ATC I could’ve achieved higher grades. Yet, I wouldn’t have had as much personal growth and there’s a lot more to life than school grades. I believe that the balance enabled me to become a more well rounded person and appreciate early on that if you want things in life then you’re going to have to work for them. I carried my passion for flying into an application for a Royal Air Force 6th Form Scholarship which offered a bursary through 6th form. To achieve this I had to process an RAF Pilot Application and pass the Pilot Aptitude Tests at RAF Cranwell. After around 5,000 applications across the UK 100 bursaries were awarded and I was successful in receiving one. This is where I realised that it could be possible to achieve my dream to be a pilot, I could hardly believe I was successful. However, on completion of my A-Levels in 2010 the government completed a Strategic Defence Review, cutting all RAF Pilot applications, removing around 30% of Pilots in the training pipeline and cancelling aircraft projects such at the Nimrod MRA4 which I had often seen being test flown from BAE Warton. I had finished 6th Form, but what next, the RAF had temporarily shut the door so I found myself working at the Italian Restaurant full time, something which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

“It’s fair to say that in life you can’t have everything and you must find the balancing act that works for you.”

Life goes on!

Along with my passion for aviation I have also had a passion for cars and motorsport. When a new job as a BMW Genius came up at my local BMW Centre I was offered an interview by a friend and became successful in achieving the job. This was a test role initially, designed at increasing levels of customer service in a BMW Centre through offering someone to talk about the cars in a more relaxed non-sales environment. There were initially twelve BMW Geniuses around the world and I became the UK and then worldwide representative helping design and roll the job out around the world. This involved trips to and from Germany and culminated by myself being interviewed on stage by Dr Ian Robertson, BMW AG Group Sales Director, in front of the worlds media at a press launch of the BMW i3 in Leipzig. Whilst all of this was going on I was involved in somewhat of a whirlwind and with the RAF still not open to applications and two years into the BMW job I woke up one morning realising that this wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I found this hard to process at the time. Being successful in a career and well respected by colleagues and told by management that I would no doubt one day be working with BMW UK in head office. I took time to consider my options and continued working at BMW and decided to start training towards my Private Pilots License. 

Plane Old Ben!

This is when I created the YouTube channel, Plane Old Ben. I had purchased two GoPros to film my flight training all aimed at being able to watch back key moments of the lessons, review and improve and therefore reduce the overall flight training costs. I achieved my PPL around 12 months later on minimum hours and put this down to being able to debrief the flights. I then spent another couple of years flying as a hobby waiting to see what the RAF would do. At that point becoming a commercial pilot was still unachievable, I didn’t have £80,000, wasn’t able to receive any financial help from family and wasn’t able to secure a loan from the banks myself to fund it. It also wasn’t on the forefront of my mind, I still wanted to go in the RAF. 

Filming another episode for “Plane Old Ben“!

“I didn’t have £80,000, wasn’t able to receive any financial help from family and wasn’t able to secure a loan from the banks myself to fund it.”

A few more years passed and the RAF had now opened up pilot applications. I had around 200 flying hours and enjoyed many a PlaneOldBen project on YouTube flying a variety of aircraft from Cirrus SR22T to Avro Anson and visiting airfields all over the UK and Europe with friends. I had freedom with my life and having progressed into the role of sales person at BMW was in a much better financial position to look at going commercial. I spoke with contacts in the RAF who painted a rather sad picture of what it was looking like for current pilots in training – talks of two, or even years on “hold” and overall around five or six years before reaching a front-line squadron. I had already waited four years and I just wanted to fly. With a heavy heart I decided to park the dream of being a pilot in the RAF and started to focus on becoming a commercial pilot. 

Big money time!

Funding becoming a commercial pilot was going to be tough. At this point BMW had realised that my interests were laying in other areas and after a period of blatant resentment from them I was pegged in a position with no further company progression. I understood why, I could’ve moved up the ranks and may of been able to one day work for BMW UK, but that wasn’t going to work alongside my new objective to become a commercial pilot. I would work on average 55-60 hours a week at BMW and every other weekend. It was a lot of hours and a lot of stress due to the pressure of sales. You had targets to achieve otherwise you were’t going to get paid commission on cars or bonuses. I had enough flying hours to go straight into a CPL course yet had to get through the barrier of the 14 ATPL exams and these took me around 20 months to complete. I would get home from BMW around 18:30, have quick dinner, and then study until 23:00 at night, every night, for 20 months. I had pressure from work to sell, pressure to average 85%+ plus on the ATPL exams a lot of financial pressure to keep the plan going. I was able to pay cash each month for my flying and ATPL exams during this period however I was very aware that at the end of the exams I would need £30,000+ to pay for the CPL, MEIR, MCC JOC and airline assessment preparation. I planned to use an unsecured bank loan for this and had made an effort to use different opportunities to take out credit where I could over the years. I had a credit card where I would pay for my flying and then pay the balance off the next month. This showed I was able to manage credit and helps boost your overall credit rating. My salary at BMW had increased after becoming a sales person and after completed the exams I was in a position to take out a  bank loan to pay for the final stages of the training. I had never actually planned what I was going to do if this didn’t happen, I didn’t have any other options, no help from family or friends and I was doing everything I could to make it work. 

“I had never actually planned what I was going to do if this didn’t happen, I didn’t have any other options, no help from family or friends and I was doing everything I could to make it work.”

I was now in the position to move into commercial flight training and took a couple of months to find the flight school that suited my needs. I spoke with Aeros Flight Training and their value of finding solutions for modular students just like myself who couldn’t just turn up and fly full time for 6 months really appealed to me. I had to keep working full time at BMW to pay for all of the training and Aeros created a bespoke plan to suit my needs. Every Wednesday and every other weekend I would drive down to Coventry, stay over in a hotel, fly all day and drive back at night before going into BMW the next day. Aeros would have an instructor and aircraft ready for me and the plan was working. Towards the end of the CPL and ME-IR I would take a week off work to fly the final few course hours and consolidate before each skills test. Again, I had been filming each flight and shared some to YouTube. This really worked well for me as I could review the footage and study back at home before driving back down to Aeros, I would then also fly the trip back on my home simulator and plan the next flight. 

Ben getting stuck into flying the DA42 at Aeros Flight Training.

“This really worked well for me as I could review the footage and study back at home.”

Does the training not end?!

After being successful with Aeros I moved onto the MCC / JOC with CRM Aviation at White Waltham. While it not being a walk in the park I have to say this is one of the most enjoyable flying courses I have done. It was no longer about proving yourself but growing new skills and utilising the information you had learnt throughout your previous flying training. After the course finished I now had a fATPL and was ready to apply for my first my first airline job. Flybe really interested me due to the four sector days and flying a more complex aircraft in the Dash-8 Q400; it was the most dynamic flying I could think of. 

Essential preparation.

Before applying however I wanted to make sure I had the best chance of being successful and that’s when I got in contact with Flight Deck Wingman. I went on one of their day courses where I was able to sit face to face with my peers and understand what I would need to do and how to improve to be successful. I was used to speaking with new people from my time as a sales person at BMW but had to be able to show the competencies required for being an airline pilot – the FDW day course was perfect to tech me that and I’m pleased to say that I was successful in my application at Flybe and became a First Officer on the Dash-8 Q400 based out of Belfast.

A Dash-8 Q400 of flybe

Ben Cornwell

Former flybe pilot and YouTuber ‘Plane Old Ben’

Did you know?…

…that Plane Old Ben has over 20,000 YouTube subscribers and that Ben’s videos have had more than 3,000,000 views?! Here are some great articles for aspiring pilots and those that are waiting to secure that dream job on the Flight Deck 👍

Airline Pilots Home Simulator Setup | How To Help Keep Current

Commercial Training Start to Finish

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