FAPA.aero | Should You Become a Professional Pilot?

Job-Hunting Pilots

Should You Become a Professional Pilot?

By Peter Forman

The decision to embark upon a piloting career is a momentous one. The career offers work satisfaction and quality of life that is difficult to equal in any other field. On the other hand, career preparation is expensive and time-consuming, the work can be demanding, and pilots typically spend much time away from home. Here are suggestions for determining if this profession is for you.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether you’d be happy taking to the skies on a regular basis. This is where the joy of flight comes in. Even a big airliner can become an extension of yourself, a nimble set of wings that allows you to experience the sensations of flight as you weave above the Potomac on your River Visual Approach into National Airport. If you don’t feel visceral joy from flight when you’re behind the controls, this is the wrong profession for you! Fortunately, at FAPA Future Pilot Forums, nearly all who attend express that the joy of flight is a big component of their decision to enter the profession, and such numbers almost certainly reflect broader tendencies. If you’ve never flown an airplane, a discovery flight at your local flight school would be an essential reality check, and there’s no minimum age for taking such a flight.

Seriously consider what the profession would be like for someone who does not find joy in controlling a flying machine. There will be dark and stormy nights when you blast into the murk as a captain with a low-time copilot in the right seat, times when you realize you’re pretty much solely responsible for returning your passengers safely to earth. If you love to fly, chances are you will also embrace the need to become skilled and knowledgeable, for these traits dissipate uncertainties and magnify the enjoyment of flight. Skills and knowledge give you the confidence to successfully manage the dark and stormy night or the emergency that pops up.

Your joy in flying well allows you to live in the moment, to constantly take in the nuances of the machine. You will be so prepared for an emergency that as you thunder down the runway you’re almost daring the craft to fail an engine so that you can demonstrate your mastery of a scenario you’ve rehearsed in recurrent training simulator sessions time and time again. The pilot who finds no joy in the art of flight will likely have never developed the same confidence in dealing with emergencies, may not be as focused in the moment, and may even experience a moment of denial when something bad happens. If you’re riding in the back of an airliner, which type would you want to be your pilot?

It’s not uncommon to spend $60,000-$80,000 acquiring one’s flight qualifications. The cost of a college degree usually needs to be added as well. You may rack up a lot of debt in the process, but keep in mind that with a pilot shortage underway, there's a significant probability you’ll find a good job. More and more airlines are offering programs to minimize your costs if you agree to flight instruct and then fly for certain regional airlines on your way to your destination airline. With senior wide-body captains making over $300,000 a year these days, the return on investment for your education can be spectacularly high.

Consider, too, that a pilot career with a major airline offers an excellent path for those individuals who prefer early retirement. Manage your retirement fund well (including taking advantage of matching contributions by the company) and you could be financially independent in your 50s. The percentage of wages offered as contributions to pilot retirement accounts with destination carriers is very high compared to other professions. Age at which you upgrade to captain is, of course, an important factor. You may choose to continue flying until age 65 to take advantage of the opportunities in schedules that seniority offers, but the option is there for early retirement. Such flexibility goes a long way toward compensating for days spent away from home during the career.

Would your marriage suffer from your career choice? The answer depends upon the qualities shared by you and your spouse or spouse-to-be. When each member of an airline couple is self-sufficient, trusting and trustworthy, marriages can be excellent. The time a pilot spends away from home enhances the quality of the time spent together at home. When the couple lacks these qualities, however, the time a pilot spends away from home can indeed be problematic. The bottom line is to choose a mate wisely should you plan to fly for a living.

Time spent away from home can be a big quality of life issue. Will your layovers be at a Holiday Inn in Cleveland or at a mountain chateau alongside Lake Como in the Italian Alps? The quality of your layovers depends to a great extent upon your seniority, and your seniority in turn depends upon how quickly your get hired at your destination airline plus how wisely you chose that airline. Even if your layovers are in less than inspiring locations, though, the time can be used well if you bring a laptop computer and pay your bills or figure your taxes during the layover in Louisville.

Efficient use of time on the road means that when you get home, that time is yours, all yours. Other than some preparations for recurrent training once or twice a year, you can forget about work on your days off like few can. Many airline couples lead extraordinary lives. When one group of airline couples that I know celebrates the birthdays of a few of the friends, they all meet in Mexico for a week of celebration. You might do your Christmas shopping in San Francisco, New York, or London. When Hawaiian Airlines finds it is overstaffed on a piece of flight equipment, it offers surfer leave, which allows a pilot to take the month off but still receive half pay. Creative airline pilots and their families often lead better lives than millionaire business tycoons.

A huge quality of life issue for pilots is the commute to work. If you can drive your car to the airport where your flight begins, there’s little stress and wasted time. If instead you need to jump on a plane the day before and spend a night in a hotel prior to the trip, or even worse do a multi-legged journey to work, the commute is taxing. Where your airline offers domiciles and where you’re willing to live are key ingredients to how enjoyable your life as a pilot will be.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to a small number of factors. Is your spouse or spouse to be compatible with this lifestyle? Are the positives of flying for a living, receiving significant compensation, and having the free time and flexibility to lead an adventurous life worthwhile when you consider the negatives of nights spent away from home and years of expensive education plus more years building experience to reach your destination airline? Are economic troubles and maybe even pilot furloughs visible on the horizon or are the prospects for airline hiring in the years ahead sufficiently robust to point towards few roadblocks to your destination airline and then quick ascension to the captain’s seat? These are so much the crux of the decision-making process.

We appreciate your ideas and input. Please email your comments or questions about this article to: support@fapa.aero.

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Mark J. Stevens

Director of CyberCompass Corporation

Mark J.Stevens

Mark is a Delta Air Lines flight officer currently serving as Captain of a B-737. Stevens, 57, is an Airline Transport Pilot and has a Flight Engineers Certificate. He is a 1981 graduate of the University of Michigan Business School.

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