I got my FAA commercial pilots licence (CPL) in October 2007. The flying was fun. Dealing with the flying school, the paperwork and interpreting the requirements were not. This article outlines the steps you need to go through as a British pilot trying to get an American CPL. I hope that I can help you avoid some of the pitfalls.
When I took the test I was a 500-hour pilot. My experience is split 50:50 between the PA28s that I trained on and the Cirrus SR-22 that I fly in England. I have a JAR PPL with IMC and night ratings. I also have an FAA PPL which is conditional on my UK licence. I passed my FAA instrument rating in 2004.
There are some preliminary checks and some early planning you can do that will make the process easier.
Get an FAA PPL
If you have a UK PPL, this is easy because the FAA will issue you with a temporary airman’s certificate at one of their local offices (a FSDO) in the US on presentation of a letter of authenticity from the FAA head office (see below). You need to book an appointment and it takes less than an hour. You can’t do this by post or in Europe – you need to go to a US-based FSDO.
Get a letter of authenticity
Unless you already have a standalone FAA PPL, you will need to have a current letter of authenticity to take the test. (Once you pass your CPL the FAA will issue you with a standalone CPL and this formality will go away in future.) The process is straightforward. You fax one form to the CAA and another to the FAA with the required information – medical, licence etc. Within two or three weeks you get the letter by post. The FAA make no charge for their part in all this but the CAA will charge a fee to confirm your identity.
Get a visa
If you turn up at a reputable flying school (even some disreputable ones) without a visa they won’t let you train. Similarly, if you are stopped at immigration and they find out that you are doing flight training without a visa, they will send you home and it may be difficult to return. I have been told that a rental checkout does not constitute training but a rating or certificate checkride does. Take your own counsel on this but in my view, it’s not worth the risk.
You need an M1 non-immigrant, vocational training visa. Your flying school will assist you with the application because you need some paperwork from them before you apply to the embassy. Flying schools charge for this paperwork. Also, once you apply with paperwork from a given school, it will be difficult (but not impossible) to change schools once you arrive. Part of the difficulty involves getting a refund of any deposit given to the first school. The name of the school is printed on the visa in your passport. This puts a great emphasis on choosing a good school early on. More on this later.
Once you get the paperwork (the I-20 form) from your chosen flying school, you can begin the visa application process. They ask a lot of questions about your personal history and you need to complete three or four long forms. Expect to spend a day on the paperwork. Apply for a visa interview at the embassy as soon as you get the paperwork from the flying school. In my case, London was booked up a month or so in advance so I had to fly to Belfast and do the interview in the consulate there (this is a good backup plan if time is tight and, hey, you’re a pilot so it’s easy.)
Double- and triple-check you have the right paperwork before you go for the interview. When I was waiting, I saw several people turned away because they didn’t have this or that form with them. You will want to have strong evidence of your desire to return to England – mortgage statements, payslips etc. Expect to be at the embassy for several hours but, at least in my case, the actual interview is a formality that lasted about three minutes. They returned my passport by Special Delivery in a couple of days.
Allow two months for this process to avoid stress. I did it in four weeks and regretted the rush. Any slip would have delayed my departure.
The visa photo is not a normal passport sized picture. The easiest way to get it done is to take a large single image in a passport photo booth, scan it into a computer, crop it the required spec and then print it out on photo paper.
Also, they will tell you not to bring a mobile phone or bags to the embassy. In Belfast, actually, you can leave these kinds of things at the security post before you go in. This is preferable to not taking them or leaving them in the hotel while you go to the embassy. I don’t know whether a similar arrangement is possible in London.
One last point, expect to be stopped on arrival at the US when you go through immigration. They will see your visa and the words ‘flight training’ will alarm the immigration officer. “Have you ever been to the middle east?” was her first question to me. Without even waiting for an answer she called over a uniformed officer to escort me to small waiting room for further checks. I think they cross-checked the paperwork and the TSA records (see below). It only took 15 minutes but I guess it could take longer. Not a warm welcome so better to expect it.
The final bit of administrivia is the TSA permit to begin training. To do this you need to use the Alien Flight Student Program (www.flightschoolcandidates.gov) to apply. Sadly, it doesn’t operate out of Area 51. You will then be invited to submit your fingerprints. You can do this at Flight Safety in Farnborough or (I believe) Oxford Air Training. The process takes an hour or so. I enjoyed going to Flight Safety because they showed me the sims after the fingerprints were taken. Also, you can take the CPL written exam at Flight Safety so one trip covers two tasks.
I was very badly caught out because I did not read and understand the pre-requisites for the CPL properly. I booked and cancelled two check rides because I didn’t have enough night hours. First, I hadn’t completed a required night cross-country flight with an instructor (I did it solo) and second, I had didn’t have enough night solo hours.
There are several concepts that you must grasp to interpret the FARs. First, ‘solo’ means that you are alone in the aircraft. PIC with passengers doesn’t do it. Second, ‘training to include…’ means that each qualifying flight under that heading must be signed off by an FAA instructor who must come with you. Third, ‘cross country’ has a specific meaning in terms of distance and the required types of airports. In retrospect, the easiest way to satisfy an examiner is to tick off all the specific requirements while you are training in Florida.
Expect an examiner to go through your log book and check, flight by flight, that the requirements were met. You should ask your instructor or the school to do the same thing on the day you start training and make sure that you plan to tick every box before applying for your check ride. Cancelling a $450 check ride because you have 4.9 hours of night solo and not the required 5 hours can be embarrassing, frustrating and expensive. No refunds.
In the end, I made up a table and indexed every flight in my log book using little Post-it signature tabs. Here are the requirements (in summary – please, please check the FARs for yourself!)
61.123 Eligibility requirements
a) 18 years old YES
b) Read, speak, write and understand English? YES
c) Receive a logbook endorsement from an instructor for the written exam. YES SEE (1)
d) Pass the written exam YES SEE CERTIFICATE
e) Receive required training and log book endorsement for practical test YES SEE (2)
f) Met the aeronautical experience requirements YES SEE BELOW
g) Pass the required practical test …
h) Hold at least a private pilot certificate issued under this part YES SEE CERTIFICATE
i) Comply with the sections of this part that apply to category and class.
61.125 Written exam. Complete ground school or a home-study course for the written exam and be signed off by an instructor to take the written exam
61.127 Receive and log ground and flight training. There is a list of required topics in the FARs and you should plan a syllabus to meet them and get your instructor to note them in your log book.
61.129 Aeronautical experience. Part (a) Airplane single-engine [Best to prepare a spreadsheet and list all the flights that meet the requirements with dates so that your examiner can check the requirements – s/he will go through your log book and add it all up.]
Log 250 hours of flight time.
a. 100 hours in power aircraft, 50 of which in airplanes.
b. 100 hours of PIC flight time.
i. 50 hours in airplanes.
ii. 50 hours in cross-country flights
c. 20 hours of training on 61.127(b)(1). Note that this ‘training’ requirement means that each of these requirements must be done with an instructor in the plane who must sign off each flight in your log book.
i. 10 hours of instrument training. If you have an IR, your training will meet this requirement, otherwise you need to do this.
ii. 10 hours in a ‘complex’ aircraft. Complex means retractable gear, variable pitch prop and retractable flaps. I did my training in an Arrow with no GPS and semi-working VOR. Compared to the Cirrus that I normally fly it was hardly complex but the FAA doesn’t see it that way. I did the whole check ride in an Arrow but I understand that you can do circuits in an Arrow and then hop out and do the rest of the check ride in something better, like a Cirrus. But then you’ll be cross-examined on two sets of aircraft systems etc.
iii. One cross-country flight of 2 hours, day VFR, >100nm. WITH AN INSTRUCTOR
iv. One cross-country flight of 2 hours, night VFR, >100nm. WITHIN AN INSTRUCTOR
v. 3 hours in preparation for the test in the last 60 days. WITH AN INSTRUCTOR
d. 10 hours solo time in a single-engine airplane on the areas of operation listed in 61.127(b)(1). Note that ‘solo’ means that you are alone in the plane.
i. Cross-country flight of 300nm+, three points, with one leg being a straight line 250nm. This should be done solo, i.e. alone in the plane.
ii. Five hours in night VFR conditions with 10 takeoffs and ten landings. Do this at a US towered airport so that the examiner has confidence that you’ve actually done it and not made it up.
If you don’t have an IR, expect to do at least 20 hours of training (at least!) and up to ten hours of solo time to meet these requirements. Flying schools advertise a ten-hour CPL course but this promise assumes that you have already met the other requirements and it is unrealistic. In my case, I flew about 22 hours in the Arrow in Florida.
UK log books don’t track the information that the FAA requires (e.g. solo time, night landings etc.) Consider buying a professional, FAA-compatible log book or tabulating your flights in Excel so that they match the requirements on the 8710 application form.
Choice of flying schools
I did my CPL with Orlando Flight Training in Kissimmee. I do NOT recommend them and would not go back there myself. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you all the gory details.
Choice of examiner
I did my IR check ride with Mark Griffin. He was thorough, fair and set a high standard. I have met but not flown with Bob Raskie, a United Airlines pilot. I have heard good things about him.
I booked two check rides with John Azma (http://johnazma.com). He behaved with complete propriety but, speaking personally, I found him a little distant and that made me nervous. Since both check rides didn’t get started because I hadn’t met the requirements I can’t judge what he is like during an actual test.
In the end, I did my commercial check ride with Janeen Kochan. She is a pearl who lives and breathes aviation. She’s an ex-airline pilot, an instructor and examiner. She has a Phd in human factors and is also an A&P mechanic. Wow! She put me at my ease immediately and the whole process was (surprisingly) enjoyable. It was no cake walk – the oral was over two hours and we got into some deep details on aircraft systems, weather interpretation and so on. But it felt like an intense conversation with a pilot friend rather than a cross-examination. Ditto the flight – more like being with a really top-notch instructor than a checklist wielding inquisitor. (“Our weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and a fanatical devotion to the FAA.”)
A word of warning. My flying school led me to believe that John Azma was the only examiner I could use. In addition, I couldn’t book the check rides directly with him but only through the school. In consequence of this (and perhaps because of their frustration with two cancelled, but paid-for, check rides) they said I would have to wait a further five days before I could attempt my third check ride.
On investigation, this is not the way the system should work. Within reason, you should be able to take your check ride with any examiner who is on the FAA list in the area of the test. My wonderful UK instructor, John Page at TAA (www.taauk.net), put me in touch with Janeen who was able to book up a checkride the next day.
Here are some tools that I found helpful in preparing for the test:
- King Schools CPL Check Ride DVD
- King Schools CPL Written Exam CD-ROM course
- ASA CPL Oral Exam Guide
- Dauntless CPL Oral software (www.dauntless-soft.com)
- Index cards to help memorise facts for the oral (probably around 300 of these)
Software, books etc. £400 Approximately
OFT fee for VISA paperwork and deposit: £379
DHS/TSA fee £67
CAA fee for Letter of Authenticity £39
Fingerprint fee for Alien Flight Students £77
PA-28R Arrow checkout at Cabair, Denham £750 Approximately
OFT for flight training £3,558
Checkride fee £250 Approximately
I’m sure there was a small fee for the Visa and other sundry costs like postage. Plus flights, car hire, hotel and food for two weeks. I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes. I’m not going to tell you how much it cost!