So You Want My Job: Airline Pilot

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 9, 2010 · 19 comments

in So You Want My Job

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Becoming a pilot is something I imagine many of us dreamed about as boys. While on a flight to see Grandma, the nice stewardess let us visit the pilots in the cockpit and we were amazed at the controls and delighted when the pilots gave us our own set of wings. Of course these days, kids aren’t allowed to visit the cockpit. The glamor of the flying biz just ain’t what it used to be; the pay can be low and the hours grueling. But as Mark Maxwell explains, for those who were born to fly, the call to the skies just can’t be ignored.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Where did you go to school? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

I am from Virginia Beach, VA. Although, I grew up there, I have lived in half a dozen different places due to the nature of the industry. I am 28 years old. After I graduated high school, I completed my Private Pilot License and moved to Florida to go to the Delta Connection Academy full-time. After finishing all my ratings and obtaining my flight instructor certificate, I got a job as a flight instructor for a flight school in eastern North Carolina at the age of 19. I worked at that job for two and half years until I decided to fly cargo. I flew cargo for just over a year until the company I worked for was sold. After that, I went to work for the airline I am currently employed with. I have been here five years now.

2. Why did you want to become a pilot? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

When I was young, probably around 8 years old, my father decided to pursue his dream of getting his pilot’s license. He had always wanted to fly in the Air Force or Navy, but he was too tall. I would go with him to the local airport and hang out in the flight school while he flew with his instructor to get the experience and flight hours required for obtaining his pilot’s license. I would read all the flying magazines they had in the lobby. On the weekends, he would study for his practical and written tests. I had no choice but to watch those boring test prep tapes with him. After he got his license, he would take me up with him in a rented aircraft to stay current and fly over our house and let me take the controls from time to time. It wasn’t until high school that I realized I wanted to fly for a living. During my senior year, we had to do a career project. Every student had to pick a career that he or she thought they might want to do, research it, and perform a presentation of the research you discovered. I picked the profession of an airline pilot. I researched it pretty heavily and during the research I decided to take some flight lessons to see if I liked it. I was hooked, as you could say. It is one of those things where you “just know” if it is something you want to do.

3. There are a few different ways into the airline business. Some pilots come from military backgrounds while others go to pilot’s school to get their license. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these different paths?

In the past, the best way for an aspiring pilot to get employment at an airline was through military service. Airlines used to give preferential treatment to former military aviators when they were hiring. Presently, I would have to say that the tables have turned. The military has less pilots now than it had 30 years ago, and the number is constantly shrinking as UAVs take over the conventional role of a manned aircraft. The military also retains their aviators for a longer period now. The last time I checked, the Air Force and Navy required a ten year contract after completion of flight training.

Right now, airlines want to hire pilots that have airline experience in aircraft similar to what they operate. That’s not to say that a military aviator will not get consideration for a job, but they are likely to hire a guy with seven years experience at another airline over a guy that flew in the military for ten years. If you are thinking of joining the military to fly, make sure it is for the right reasons.

If you decide to get your flight ratings through civilian channels, there are several things to think about. The first and the biggest is the cost. It is very expensive. Right now, the average cost for all your flight ratings is about the same as the cost of a high end Mercedes. If you go to a high-end flight school that is attached to a University, you can expect to spend more than a medical student.

You can get your ratings in as little as a year if you fly every day, but most people take longer than that. If you plan on working your 9-5 job, and flying after work and on the weekends, plan on it taking several years before you have the ratings and experience to get your first flying job. Your first flying job will not be glamorous, or pay well, but it will get your foot in the door.

4. New pilots start out with regional carriers and work their way up to the major airlines. How does one do that and how long does it take?

That’s mostly true. There are numerous rungs in the ladder of an aviation career. Almost everybody starts out being a flight instructor as his or her first aviation job. Some choose not to instruct, and find jobs flying pipeline patrol, power line patrol, traffic watch, geo-mapping, crop dusting, scenic flights, etc, etc. There are a lot of different aviation jobs out there for you to gain enough experience and flight time to get a job at a regional airline.

The rate at which you will advance in your career will fluctuate with the current state of the airline industry. It is all about timing. When I was in flight training, the airlines were hiring like crazy. Guys (and gals) were getting hired at regional airlines with less than 500 hours (which is very low time), spending a few years there and advancing to the major airlines after that. Then 9/11 occurred and that all came to an end. There were a lot of pilots that were suddenly jobless as airlines trimmed their fleets and schedules to compensate for the reduced passenger loads. By 2004, the airline industry was in full swing again and they were on a major hiring spree that lasted until the current economic downturn. We are just now seeing the industry start another upswing. We have an old saying at the airline: “If you don’t like the way things are, just wait a minute and it will all change again.” It is very true. You just have to be patient and ride the waves through the good times and bad. Generally, you will work for a regional for 5-8 years before you have a shot at a major airline.

5. What is the best part of the job?

The flying, of course! Have you ever seen a sunrise or sunset at 36,000 feet? Seriously, we all get into this job because we love to fly. We don’t get into it for the money. We don’t get paid as much as people think, but I will expand on that later. The nice thing about our job is that we never take our jobs home with us. Once we walk off that aircraft on the last day, we are done.

6. What is the worst part of the job?

I would have to say initially the pay, and sometimes the schedules. It is an unavoidable fact that when you start as a First Officer at a regional airline, you will make less than $27,000 a year. At some regional airlines, you will make less than $20,000 your first year. Also, depending on the airline you work for, and the time of the year, your schedule can be really bad. A bad schedule usually means working 90-95 flying hours and only having 12 days off. Some airlines can take you down to as little as 8 days off.

7. What is the work/family/life balance like?

Well, for me, when I am at work, I am pretty much disconnected from almost everything at home. My girlfriend knows that if something comes up, like a leaky faucet or a power outage, then there is nothing I can do about it being 500+ miles away. She has learned to become pretty self-sufficient with those things. If you have kids, get used to the idea that you will miss quite a few soccer games, birthdays, and holidays. The airlines fly 365 days a year. I didn’t have Christmas off until a couple years ago.

Sometimes after a grueling trip, it can take you the entire next day after the trip to recover and rest up. You have to play catch up. For me, I try to watch the TV shows I missed on the DVR, read my mail, pay the bills, clean the house, etc, etc. All the stuff that normal people can do every day after they get home from work.

8. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

The pay, as mentioned earlier. Airline pilots used to make pretty good money and have easy schedules. Those days ended on 9/11. Almost every airline pilot took a steep pay cut after that day to keep their airline from going bankrupt. Unfortunately, we are just now starting to get some of that pay back.

Another misconception is our schedules. People think we show up to work, fly one leg and are done. I have had as many as seven legs in one day. Our days can start as early as 4:30am (at the airport) and can sometimes end close to midnight. Our schedules can only be built to a maximum for 14 hours on duty in one day, but we can be forced to stay on duty for up to 16 hours for weather or mechanical delays. Those days can be brutal.

9. I’ve read several articles bemoaning the current state of the airline pilot profession, that basically major airline pilots, and especially regional airline pilots have become greatly overworked and underpaid. Sully Sullenberger told Congress that pilots no longer tell their children to grow up and become pilots themselves. What’s your take on the current state of the airline pilot profession? Would you recommend the job to others?

I have tremendous respect for Captain Sullenberger, and for the most part, I would have to agree with him. The only advice that I can give right now is that you need to have a good idea of what you are getting yourself into before choosing to enter this profession. Some people like it and some people don’t. If my son came to me and said he wanted to be an airline pilot, I wouldn’t tell him “no,” but I would make sure he knew the dirty truth of it. Another thing to understand is that the airline industry is constantly changing. There are peaks and lulls. One thing to keep in mind is that all airline pilots are required to retire at age 65. There will be tremendous amounts of pilots retiring in the next 5-7 years as the baby boomers reach that age and hang up their wings. With the lull in new students enrolled in flight schools, it means that qualified pilots will be in high demand once again and hopefully we will recover what we once gave up. We will see.

10. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

1. Always trust your instincts
2. Always know your pilot contract
3. Never ever trust a crew scheduler
4. Never try to take a shortcut in your career to jump ahead. Those guys always get burned in the end. Pay your dues and enjoy the ride.
5. Always be respectful and courteous to your passengers. Without them, you wouldn’t have a job.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Clayton T. June 9, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Great post Brett and great interview Mark! The best thing you said about the job is “The nice thing about our job is that we never take our jobs home with us.” That must be a great feeling. Also, great advice for some of us ladder climbers. ” Never try to take a shortcut in your career to jump ahead.” Word brother!
Keep em’ coming McKay, you never let me down.

2 Schmidty - Man Vs. Style June 10, 2010 at 12:28 am

I have a few friends that are pilots, but not as their work. they do it as more of a hobby and on weekends and stuff. It is great, because once they have their license light plains are relatively cheap to hire, and we can get “chartered” around the country for next to nothing on weekends.

3 Nick June 10, 2010 at 2:05 am

This was an awesome interview and I’m sure Mark is an awesome and safe pilot, but I have to say, this is why I started flying only on Southwest after that regional airline crash in Buffalo, NY. Reading up about the schedule and pay of regional airline pilots scared me shitless. This was only reinforced by the movie Capitalism in which Michael Moore points out that managers at Taco Bell make more money than these pilots that are paid to fly us through the air and land safely and how many of them have to get on food stamps! It’s a freaking crime not to pay these valuable people what they’re really worth. Really sick.

4 Skyhigh June 10, 2010 at 7:58 am

Nice interview,
Some other point from an long-haul guy flying overseas for an Asian airline

In the advantages category:
- multi language, multi cultural environnement
- meeting incredible colleague whose professionalism is humbling
- possibility to see first hand, places other people can only dream off
- higher salary than in the States

In the not so good:
- multi language, multi cultural environment (after several weeks paying attention not to make a a cultural faux-pas it become more annoying than interesting…)
- jet lag! around the world and back in 36 hours, I can guarantee it take you more than one day to recover.
- keeping professional when everybody around you don’t give a sh..
- Being in a wonderful place and having no time to enjoy it
- Working 6 weeks before going home for a mere few days.

For the rest, Mark just nailed it.
Great post

5 Adam June 10, 2010 at 9:45 am

I didn’t realize how many artices you had in this series… but the the job I really want is Brewmaster. How about doing that for your next one?

6 Sam June 10, 2010 at 11:15 am

I always dreamt of becoming a pilot, but then circumstances and situations changed all that. But again the lifestyle and the pressure they have is highly demanding.

7 A. P. June 10, 2010 at 11:22 am

O man. I too am that guy who wanted to fly in the Air Force but was “too tall.” So I decided to go after my second love, computers, and then fly as a hobby. Now, I have talked to a professional pilot or two and all of them have said I made the right decision, although I have doubted it at times. But as I just read in an essay on vocation, you don’t normally see the drudgery that goes into a job.

Well, I sure appreciate the professionalism of our airline pilots and, when I get the chance, thank them pilot-to-pilot.

8 Mark M June 10, 2010 at 11:30 am

Sam, if you still have the urge to fly, never give up the dream. Find a local FBO (flight school) at a nearby airport and ask them if they offer Discovery Flights. They are usually less than $75 and last about a half hour. You will know right away after the flight if the “bug” has bitten you. You can always get your Private Pilot’s License or Sport Pilot License. We as pilots are very enthusiastic about our vocation and love to see new guys (and gals) join the pilot ranks. Every one of us started out a a student pilot at one time. You will never, ever, forget your first solo experience. Trust me.

Nick, although Southwest is a great airline, they are subject to the same duty time regulations as any other airline and their schedules can be just as grueling. Their pay is better as far a the industry average, but it is unfair to pigeonhole regional airlines because of naive news stories and films that aim at scare tactics to incite fear of sorts. All US airline pilots are held to the same standards and training requirements, regardless of the airline or whether it is a “major” or “regional”. You are just as safe on a so called “puddle jumper” as you are on a Boeing 777.

9 Nick June 10, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Again, I respect your opinion Mark, but I’m not basing my opinion on naive news stories or scare tactics either. Statistically you are NOT as safe in a puddle jumper as you are in Boeing 777. The last five fatal crashes of commercial passenger carriers in the U.S. involved planes operated by regional airlines. That’s a fact. It’s also a fact that regional airlines cut corners to save costs, that their pilots have far less experience that those at the major airlines, and that because of their low pay, some take second jobs and have to commute from hundreds of miles away because they can’t afford to live near the airport. And that’s just the beginning. This article is a good read:

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=aaNPBjZ2kB54

At the end of the day, I would prefer a 35 year old with 10,000 flight hours of experience who makes 100k a year over a 24 year old with 2,000 hours who’s making $17,000. I think that’s a wise choice personally.

10 Mark M June 10, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Nick, while your individual comfort level may differ from others, you can’t use statistics from a news source as reliable data. News sources can “cherry pick” their data to paint the picture that they want you to see. Regarding the news article, NOT all regional airlines (or Majors) are created equal. While I may not personally agree with Gulfstream’s business tactics, I can assure you that almost all airlines do not follow the same operating principals. Safety is always the primary concern for ALL flights at an airline. Fixing a malfunctioning part is ALWAYS better than an incident or accident. If you are truly concerned with our pay, hours or service, and working conditions, then by all means contact your Senator or Representative in DC and voice your opinions. The NTSB has recommended for years that the rules be changed in those respects, but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Washington. The FAA has drafted new duty rules, but the legislation has since stalled due to lack of media and consumer interest in addition to “political pressure” from parties that would suffer financially. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) does tremendous work to advance our quality of life and enhance the overall safety for passengers and flight crews. That said, they cannot do it all alone. They need help from consumers (voters) to change things for the better.

One final note, don’t assume that all pilots at a regional airline are young kids with little experience. My airline has been around for over 40 years and has partnered with several major airlines over the years. We have pilots in our ranks that have been with this airline for over 30 years. We also have pilots that formerly worked at major carriers that either went bankrupt or furloughed many of their crews. These guys also have vast amounts of experience to bring to the operation. So the assumption that a B777 is safer than a turbo-prop because of the so called “gray hair factor” is just plain false.

11 men's t-shirts June 10, 2010 at 4:21 pm

You’ve sold it to me! Although I’m not a massive flying fan…..bit of a downfall that.

12 Paul II June 10, 2010 at 10:02 pm

My father has been an airline pilot for 20 years, and has some great stories. It used to be a job up there with being a doctor, but now is more common of a job – what a shame, but still a great job. Should of got my father to help with this article a while back, but Mark did do a bang up job.

I’m always delighted to read about pilots, and listen to my dad’s friends.

13 oopsy June 11, 2010 at 12:38 am

” 3. Never ever trust your Crew Scheduler”

A pilot with a great relationship with a crew scheduler has a much easier life. He can get those trades approved and days moved in several different ways. A pilot who writes “Never, ever, trust your Crew Scheduler” right underneath his picture on the internet will not get alot of sympathy on those long duty days.

Change your attitude with your Crew Scheduler and doors will open.

14 Mark M June 11, 2010 at 3:17 am

Oopsy, you misinterpret my meaning of the rule. I am always courteous and professional with a crew scheduler when I have to talk to them. They can be great assets when you need to rearrange your schedule. That said, some crew schedulers try to get you to skirt around the pilot contract or will purposely mislead you on the contract language in order to better serve them. Rule three directly refers to rule two. You should never be hostile towards any scheduler, but you need to be absolutely fluent in your contract language in order to be given your rights guaranteed by your pilot contract. Your union reps and members fought hard for that contract, why give those rights away? It would be selfish and detrimental to the group to say that you can ignore certain parts of a contract in order to better serve you. The old saying goes “If you give a mouse a cookie, they will ask for milk”. If you give up your rights once, they will expect you to give them up again.

15 Doug June 12, 2010 at 8:42 am

There was a brilliant part in Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” about the state of pilot’s jobs. If you can work your way around Moore’s typical emotional blackmail, the film’s fairly interesting, and really develops this whole airline affair quite well.

16 oopsy June 16, 2010 at 2:09 am

Thank you for clarifying. I agree that pilots and schedulers should stay within the contract. Well said.

17 Felix Isaiah Lafal January 13, 2013 at 8:34 am

I am Felix Isaiah Lafal,am a Nigerian i have completed my training as Airline Professional Pilot.I need a job

18 Ted June 16, 2013 at 11:11 am

Hello Brett

Thanks for sharing this information with us.This report has a lot important information about how to become a pilot.

19 Andrew October 24, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Don’t forget that there are LOTS of other pilot jobs out there if you want to fly for a living. As Mark says, just be aware of the realities of them!

Some good alternatives to the “majors” are corporate flying, cargo flying (yes, FedEx and UPS pilots – among others do pretty well and operate under similar rules), and fractional ownership flying (in my opinion, the best combination of corporate and airlines).

Get familiar with the industry and if you want to fly, don’t pigeonhole yourself into becoming an “airline pilot.” Know that there are lots of avenues and options for anyone who has the determination and drive to become a pilot in the first place to make a pretty good life!

Tailwinds,
Andrew

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter