in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

So You Want My Job: Airline Pilot

Mark Maxwell airline pilot in front of airplane.

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.

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