Getting Your Commercial Licence in Canada

By Phil Croucher

When I did my UK commercial exams all those years ago (I’m 35 plus VAT), there was a lot said about licensing standards across the other side of the Atlantic, probably to justify sitting down for three whole days. I never thought much about it then, but now I live in Canada and have finally got around to getting my Canadian commercial, I thought it might be instructive to jot a few thoughts down in case anyone else is wondering the same thing or even actively considering the licence themselves, because the flying is certainly cheaper here.

The first thing was to find some way of studying, typically done through ground school in the normal manner, but there are other ways. The most commonly studied book is “From The Ground Up”, which has been around from the year dot and is a bit old-fashioned for some, but is regularly updated and perfectly adequate. There is a chap called Michael Culhane in British Columbia self-publishing some study guides, which are very concise indeed, so you may have to do some reading around or have some experience beforehand to fill in the occasional gap. They cover the whole syllabus, which is just what you need if you are just starting and are wondering what you need to study.

The written tests were quite practical, allowing for Canada being the largest country in the world with anything from mountainous areas to sparsely settled regions to operate in, the latter requiring a minimum amount of survival equipment and knowledge. There are 100 multiple-choice questions (thought by some people to be easier), which can be easily completed inside 3.5 hours, and all you do is turn up at any Transport Canada Licensing Office (one in every city) during business hours, with your Letter of Recommendation or proof of exemption, proof of at least 100 hours flight time, made up of the usual elements of night, cross country, etc., Canadian medical certificate and around $45 (they take credit cards). Compared to the three days required in UK, this seems ridiculously short, but all is not as it seems! You’ve got the flight test to do yet!

Meanwhile, you have to plan a trip from a chart and identify symbols on it, which are left on the side so they can be decoded. You will be asked about fuel consumption and reserves, getting lost, have questions on Air Law and Rules of the Air, etc., which actually include questions about Chief Pilot qualifications and duty hours, unlike the UK. Weather, of course, is not forgotten, and neither are mechanicals, so you will need to brush up on variable pitch propellers and PT6 engines.

Although you can take the exams any time, it’s a good idea to do it in the morning, so your answer sheet can be scanned and faxed to Ottawa - the results come back in the next 30 minutes or so. If you do it too late in the day you will have to wait till next morning. To pass, you must get 60% overall with at least 60% in each section, of which there are 4. This allows you to retake a section or two if you fail, without rewriting the whole thing. You will be told the questions you failed on, and be given 14 days to study them before trying again.

That’s the easy bit. For the flight test, expect to use up more or less a whole day. Fixed Wing tests can be done by appointed examiners at flying schools, but helicopter ones are done by Transport Canada. A couple of days before, you will be given the route to plan, for a flight of approximately 2 hours, and your planning will be inspected thoroughly.

Before taking off, you and your examiner retire to a quiet room for an intense session of question-and-answer, with a fair emphasis on actually being a commercial pilot. For example, you could be asked for your reaction to a passenger who turns up with far too much baggage and insists that he got it all in last week, almost as if you were being interviewed for a job in your examiner’s own company. Otherwise, you must know what documents an airworthy aircraft requires (8 of them), their validity and when they must be carried, how weather is reported (I got asked why I chose certain flight levels), what types of airspace you might fly through on your trip, who you would call to pass through them (many aerodromes are operated remotely), danger areas, etc. You will not be expected to know map symbols and the like off by heart, but you will be expected to know where to find the information. During the preflight briefing, the Flight Manual and Canada Flight Supplement (Pooley’s on steroids) will be used extensively. You will only need to memorise 4 airspeeds; the rest you can find in the book.

After a couple of hours, you will move on to preflight the aircraft, and brief the “passenger”, who is actually the examiner in disguise, and able to change altimeter settings, hold the controls while you sort maps out, etc.

Although you will have planned for a 2 hour flight, after about 20 minutes, when it’s obvious you’re going in the right direction, and you’ve come up with a reasonable groundspeed and amended estimate for the destination, the trip will be aborted and you will go into the upper air work. You will be asked to make a precautionary landing, including a strip inspection first, a forced landing, some instrument flying with timed turns and unusual attitudes, electrical failures and other good stuff. During this time the examiner will be looking for good cockpit management and liaison with ATC, if you have any. The flight will still take 2 hours, though.

There is more work to do if you want your IR or ATPL, but at least you can get airborne and working with the minimum of fuss. All in all, I was impressed by the standard, from which the British authorities could learn a thing or two with regard to relevance.

Phil Croucher is the author of The Professional Pilot’s Manual, published by Airlife, and its update, published by himself, called Operational Flying, which now covers JARs. He is qualified to fly helicopters and aeroplanes, having over 6500 hours on 32 types. He has at various times been a Chief Pilot and General Manager of several companies, including a third level airline in the UK. He can be contacted through email at his web site, at

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