ATP Certification: Is It Really “King of the Hill”?

Wilson Gilliam Jr.

When a pilot opens his or her certificate wallet, the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate is usually the one on top. It is a diamond on a black cloth. ATP certification is a significant accomplishment, as the requirements for both the written and practical tests are demanding.

I could have used all of that ATP weight shift knowledge when Target Stores hired us to fly tours around the parking lot of a grand opening in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Passengers of all sizes stepped up to be next on board and I (the pilot) just kept waving them on. I do remember politely gesturing for one excited, portly gentleman to move to the back of the group until I had burned off a little more fuel. Every take-off was a running, bumpy, pavement scratching event and the two-seat helicopter strained to clear the rooftop shingles of a nearby apartment complex. That’s the takeoff over 100 foot obstacle problem on the ATP test.

Some professional pilots never venture into ATP training. This could be due to the relatively high costs of flight training and a necessity to generate some income to offset those expenses.
According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, ATP pilots slightly outnumber those with commercial ratings. This means that nearly fifty-percent of pilots with “for hire” airmen certificates do not have ATP certification.

It’s important to note that an increasing number of employers require the ATP. This requirement seems to be more prevalent in the fixed-wing world. Helicopter operators have a focus on “type of operation” experience but are now beginning to require ATP certification as well. In any case, planning a long-term aviation career without ATP certification could reduce your competitiveness with other job candidates.

Should a pilot attempt ATP training as soon as they are eligible? Of course, this is a personal choice and is regulated by the experience requirements in Federal Air Regulations (FARs), Part 61. ATP training is a definite plus. The route to getting the experience required for certification can be varied. I suggest becoming a CFI/CFII first.

I earned my ATP rotorcraft helicopter rating license well after I had been teaching flight students of various experience levels. In my estimation, both the CFI and the ATP are important for different reasons.

I realized that I didn’t know much about flying until I started providing flight instruction. When an instructor becomes more comfortable in the cockpit, threats to safety stress levels begin to subside and openness to outside stimuli is heightened. Stress creates a narrowing of focus, understanding and reactionary response.

Unnecessary stress in the aircraft can interfere with teacher or student learning. I can remember when I was taking fixed-wing lessons, trying to earn my initial instrument rating in a Beechcraft Sundowner. My instructor had just taken a new pilot position with one of the local commuter airlines. Like many students, I remember having trouble visualizing my position when entering holding patterns. To be honest, all of the VOR radial dialing and cross-checking left me thoroughly confused most of the time. Out of the corner of my foggles, I could see my head shaking instructor. The thought of a new career was apparently blinding my CFII to my primal difficulties with direct, parallel and yes, good old teardrop maneuvers. Stress increases, attention is focused on the threat and the student (me, in this case) doesn’t learn, nearing resignation.

As a new flight instructor gains confidence, aircraft control stressors are reduced and a whole new world of sensory data opens up. The instructor should be prepared for this new experience and realize that that it is an unbelievable learning opportunity. Being able to see most of the flight environment simultaneously permits the new instructor to recognize control input lag versus performance, traffic conflicts and allows some forecast of student accident chain potential.
This is why an experienced flight instructor makes an excellent ATP. A flight instructor combines the developed ability to discern multiple input channels with well-honed aircraft control skills. I contend that simple, point A to B commercial experience counted toward the ATP experience requirements is inferior to comparable hours of dual instruction given. For highly developed situational awareness and control skills, consider becoming a flight instructor prior to training for the ATP.

The additional knowledge gained from ATP training challenges the pilot to think on many different levels at once. The ATP experience is an opportunity for increased situational awareness. Rote learning becomes less prevalent as causal relationships and risk mitigation becomes the norm.
Choosing an experienced and dedicated flight school is another important step in the ATP process. Some of the most proficient students I’ve ever taught started with me with zero experience and became ATP certificate holders. But, they all had one thing in common – they were all flight instructors for at least one year.

ATP certification doesn’t guarantee that you will be a great pilot. Some of the best have never held an ATP. If you decide that the ATP is for you, consider becoming a CFI/CFII first. Absorb your world for a single year and then get your ATP. I think you will find that this approach is within a few degrees of being perfect.

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Featured Image by Jonathan Gross

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