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This article explains the process of converting any ICAO CPL into a European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) license. I converted my South African license in Europe so the procedure is explained from my perspective. However, the conversion process should be the same for any ICAO CPL.
Now that I finally have my EASA license in my hands, I can look back at my journey and laugh at all the mistakes I made along the way. You'll notice that my conversion process took me to 3 different countries- The Netherlands, Belgium and Greece. It's possible to do what I did, or you can learn from my lessons and stick to one country for the entire process.
Anyone who has lived in South Africa is aware that we are blessed with the ultimate flying weather which makes the country a great destination for pilot training. This, combined with high training standards and affordable prices (should I also mention the delicious food and wine farms here?) means that South Africa is an attractive option to local and international students. The only tricky part is converting your license abroad afterwards. Having recently completed a license conversion myself I decided to put together information that can help others make the transition more easily than I did.
Why did I convert my license?
While working as a flight attendant at one of the major Middle Eastern airlines to fund my pilot training I was exposed to pilots from different continents. I quickly learnt that training and aviation opportunities differ across the globe. After discovering that in Europe it’s possible to move from a newly qualified commercial pilot with 200 hrs into the right seat of an airliner, I knew that I needed to convert my license to make this my reality. I was already accustomed to airline life and am fortunate to have the right to live and work in Europe. So, I decided that if there was a chance to simply move up ranks from the cabin to the flight deck, I would take it.
How to get started?
The most challenging part of the conversion is faced in the beginning, and unfortunately there is no way to soften what I have to tell you: in order to convert your license, it is a requirement to write all 14 EASA Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) exams. Yes, you read correctly. All 14 exams. Even if you already hold an ICAO frozen ATPL. And guess what? The pass mark is still 75%.
The subjects covered are:
Step 1: EASA Theory Course:
Even if you have a frozen ATPL (like I did) it is compulsory to attend a ground school course before writing exams. There are two options:
A) Full-time ground school: This route involves attending classes every day presented by specialized Theoretical Knowledge Instructors (TKI’s) organised by the pilot school of your choice. The course duration varies but plan for at least 5 months of full-time classes. Regular practice tests will be taken during the course for each subject, and only upon successful completion of the course will you be ‘signed off’ to write the real exams at the CAA.
The advantages of full-time ground school:
· Instructors to explain difficult concepts that are challenging to understand by yourself.
· Surrounded with fellow students to help each other study and offer support during this difficult period.
· Potential to complete exams in a shorter time frame since there is less opportunity to procrastinate.
· Networking. If you are converting your license, there is a big chance that you do not know people in the European aviation industry. This is your chance to start making contacts who might help you find a job in the future.
· Deepening your understanding of the European market by living in Europe. There are a ton of airlines on this continent that we might not know of when arriving from abroad. Having the chance to interact with students who have lived in Europe their whole lives might make you aware of airlines that you could potentially work for. And they can give you information on which companies offer great working conditions and packages.
Disadvantages of full-time ground school:
· Significantly more expensive than the distance learning option as the actual course fees are higher and accommodation expenses can be very high, depending on which country you select.
· Since this is a full-time commitment, it is not possible to have a job on the side. Do you have enough savings to support yourself during this entire process?
B) Distance learning: This is ideal for those doing their conversion while working, have a limited budget, or prefer to self-study. Computer based lessons are provided and can be taken at your own time. Each lesson concludes with a small quiz and after a few successive lessons larger progress tests must be completed. I selected this method because I had a full-time job and this allowed me to study at my own pace while on layovers all over the world.
After completing the computer based training (CBT’s) it is necessary to go to your chosen school in Europe for a ‘brush-up’ course (the duration ranges from approximately 2-6 weeks) during which theoretical knowledge instructors highlight important concepts for each subject and a series of class tests are written. This is the last opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings before the school signs you off to write the real exams.
My school was based in The Netherlands so, I used my leave from work to attend my brush up courses. I didn’t know anyone at that time to ask advice from when selecting a school, but The Netherlands tends to be very expensive for the conversion process. In retrospect I would have chosen a country in Eastern Europe or I would have done all my training in Greece (since I landed up going there anyways) because everything lands up being cheaper- accommodation, food, transport and the actual exam price.
Advantages of distance learning:
· The course is more affordable.
· Flexibility to study at your own pace in any location.
· It is possible to study while keeping your job.
Disadvantages of distance learning:
· Understanding certain concepts without having a teacher to clarify details is challenging. Although the computer lessons are helpful, it is sometimes difficult to connect the dots without further assistance.
· Easy to procrastinate, which is why many students who choose this method land up not completing the course in their original time frame.
· No network of fellow students to seek advice from. (It is amazing how many helpful tips can be gathered by speaking to people who have recently written the exams).
Step 2: EASA Theory Exams
Having completed the ground school, you are now eligible to write real exams.
All 14 EASA ATPL exams must be completed within 18 months from the date on which the first exam was passed. Exams are written in ‘sittings’ and a maximum of 6 sittings are allowed. Each sitting consists of a period of 10 consecutive days. No subject may be written more than 4 times, so proper studying is the only way to get past this hurdle.
Multiple exams will therefore be written in each sitting to comply with the regulations, which is the main difference between South Africa and Europe with regards to the actual exam rules. Each school offers different combinations of subjects so do your research to find a school that suits your preferences.
I was under the assumption that all EASA member countries would charge the same price for writing an exam. This is NOT the case and I wasted money because of this. In retrospect I would have rather enrolled in schools in Eastern Europe or a country such as Greece where the exams are cheap. To draw a comparison - in The Netherlands each exam costs 140€ where as in other countries each exam costs as little as 7€. Trust me, writing 14 exams at 140€ per subject is a lot of money when you do the exchange rate to South African Rand.
I landed up writing my exams in Belgium to save money, but even this was more expensive than Eastern Europe and came with a lot of special exam rules. What do I mean by this? In Belgium, the exams are divided into 2 sittings - half of my exams were written in one batch, and the second half within a 6 month period. To achieve this, I had to write multiple exams (3-4 to be precise) on the same day. I do not advise this method as it is incredibly stressful and, in my opinion, more time consuming since there are more subjects to keep revising before the final exam.
It’s also essential to note that your final exam scores matter. Several airlines require a first-time pass for all subjects and a certain average. For example, I once saw a job posting where the required minimum average to apply was 85% for the ATPL theory exams and no rewrites.
Step 3: EASA Class 1 Medical Exam
A foreign medical license is not recognized in Europe, so you will have to go through the process again. The actual medical exam is very similar to what I experienced in South Africa, but the main difference is that these initial class 1 medical exams sometimes have to be booked months in advance due to the backlog of applicants. So, plan this step in advance to avoid any delays - you could land up waiting for up to 7 months for an appointment.
Another thing to remember is that it is best to do the medical exam in the country that you want to issue your license to avoid complications and delays. For example, if your goal is to do your practical flight training in Greece to obtain a Greek license then it is best to also do your medical license in Greece. Or, make sure to tell your medical examiner to send your file to Greece immediately if you know your goal is to fly in Greece but you completed your medical exam in a different country.
I did my medical license in The Netherlands but landed up doing my practical training in Greece. It took 2 months for my medical file to be transferred between the 2 countries (since I did not plan to go to Greece from the beginning). As a result, I waited a long time to finally receive my license.
As I keep mentioning, it is best to pick 1 country and to do your entire conversion in that country. Moving documents between EASA states is complicated and time consuming. Not to mention expensive since you have to pay extra to request documents to be sent.
Step 4: English Language Proficiency
Even if English is your mother tongue, you will be required to pass the EASA English Language Proficiency (ELP) assessment. South African ELP’s are not recognized.
If English is your home language then there isn't anything to prepare for this test. I recommend booking the test as soon as possible because achieving a level 6 means you never have to take the test again in your life. Why not get it out of the way so you can focus on your exams and the flying?
Step 5: Practical Flight Training
Depending on your level of experience and in which country you decide to do your training, the practical part of the conversion varies. It is not as 'black and white' as the previous steps.
The average estimated conversion flight hours for a candidate holding only a CPL (200 hrs flight time) with Multi-Engine and Instrument Ratings is in the range of 20-30 hours. These hours include a combination of VFR and IFR flying and include flying in aircraft and simulators. It's up to your selected school to decide on whether to do all the hours on a multi-engine aircraft or to do some of the required hours on a single-engine to lower the price.
All my training in Greece was on a multi-engine aircraft. Since the prices are so affordable in this country I decided to rather only fly the DA42 to get more comfortable in the aircraft for my final skills test.
Certain schools have set training programs that all their conversion students follow. Other schools personalize the training to your level of experience, so your training can be as beneficial as possible.
The duration of the training varies but it is possible to complete all the hours in as little as 2 weeks if the school is willing to assist you. If the school is slow, it could take a few months to complete the practical training. To complete this training in 14 days, I had an instructor and aircraft specially assigned to me. I had also already studied the aircraft manual and school's SOPs BEFORE arriving in Greece. To ensure that my flying was up to scratch, I arrived in Greece already having practiced my instrument flying so I wouldn't have to waste time recapping anything. My days were long and busy, so I would recommend assigning an extra week or two to have more time off.
A practical skills test concludes the entire conversion process and then you simply submit the required paper work.
I started my practical training in Belgium, but that was the biggest mistake I made during my training. The weather in Belgium is terrible for VFR flying during the month of March (which is when I was trying to fly). I therefore decided to rather head to Greece. It was the best decision I could have made, and I had an incredible time flying around the Greek Islands. I would recommend Greece to anyone looking for a stunning destination for a license conversion. The prices are affordable, the food is delicious, and the people are friendly.
To summarize, converting a license in Europe is a lengthy process and a true test of someone’s will. However, all of this seems insignificant when you consider the benefits of having the license. There are an incredible number of airlines and charter companies on this continent with fantastic work environments. The countries in Europe are beautiful so you are guaranteed to be based in a stunning country, often with the possibility to move between bases.
Career progression is often faster than elsewhere in the world...
So, in my opinion it is the ideal continent to work on. I’ll never forget how challenging my conversion process was, but I will forever benefit from the new license I hold.
Hopefully this article will give you the guidance you need if you ever decide to convert your license to join me in Europe. Of course, it obviously only makes sense to convert your license if you have the right to live and work in Europe. But if you do, it will definitely be worth it. For those of you committed to obtaining an EASA license, this next article (After and EASA License Conversion-Part 2) will benefit you since holding an EASA license isn't the only thing you need to work in Europe.