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So, You Want to Become An Airline Pilot?

My son, Jon, prepares for his 2nd solo flight.

Jonathan Thompson on the day of his 2nd solo flight @ Manhattan, KS.

So, you want to be an airline pilot? Or, professional pilot in some other field?

The article is intended for pilots and pilot “wanna be’s” who are seriously considering a full time career in aviation. This advice will aim for a coveted Captain’s position with a major airline because that is the career that I am the most familiar with and that’s the position I currently hold. Much of what is written here also applies to other various aviator career paths to some degree. Some of those positions include: agricultural applicator pilot; military pilot; fire-fighter pilot; corporate pilot; airline pilot for non-major airlines; test pilot; charter pilot….

A Few Things To Consider Before You Start

  1. It’s expensive for the average person to become a professional pilot.

  2. Some people cannot pass the medical exams

  3. It takes lifelong dedication

  4. You must change

It’s Expensive

Training may seem expensive. Unless you were lucky enough to have considerable funding readily available, you can expect to go into debt for more than a decade just to pay for your training. Getting to where you can maintain a comfortable lifestyle requires landing a job that will support that lifestyle as well as paying off your debt. A guesstimate these days, 2017, would be that getting the required certificates and experience so that someone who doesn’t know you very well would pay you to fly them or their million dollar aircraft is about the same as buying a 1500 square foot nicely appointed house in town. Obviously, housing costs vary based on locale, amenities, land values etcetera. Flight training and experience do likewise. A later blog will discuss ways and reasons to choose to reduce or pay extra for flight training. Also, realize that most major airlines require a bachelor’s degree on top of that.

So, for most folks, becoming a career aviator is a somewhat financial risky endeavor. Starting pay while building flight experience is usually lower than most people expect. However, last year, my 30th year as an airline pilot, my earnings were approximately 30 times what I made my first year at a commuter airline. So, with great risk sometimes come great rewards. Be advised that the money side of some aviator careers are very end loaded. These pay much more towards the end than they do in the beginning.

Medical Exams

The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires that all pilots have regular FAA approved medical exams from official A.M.E.’s (Aero Medical Examiner’s). A discussion for these requirements can be found under §Part 14 of the CFR’s (Code of Federal Regulations) Section 67. There are basically 3 classes of medical exams; First, Second, and Third. First is the most stringent as is required of airline pilots generally. Many employers, other than just the airlines (e.g. some corporate jet operators), require their pilots to hold current first class medical certifications. Sometimes insurance rates can be lowered which offsets the extra cost of the exam. Second class is usually for pilots who can earn a living in smaller aircraft. Third class is for non-commercial pilots (including students). The easiest way to determine if you meet the requirements is to go get a physical appropriate to the level of professionalism you intend to pursue. You might be surprised what the FAA allows and what they don’t. The surprises are far too numerous to list here, but I’ve taught people to fly with missing limbs or missing an eye. An A.M.E. would be a better person to answer whether you are fit to fly or not and at what level of aviation.

Lifelong Dedication

As mentioned earlier some aviator careers are end loaded. The pay at the end of a long career may be many times that just starting out. Most other careers have more sustainable pay early on. One of the reasons for this is the high cost of training on the employer’s part. Some employers require training contracts to reduce their risk of a hiring a pilot and paying for their training just to have them move on to a different employer. These contracts are typically 1-2 years. Generally, but not always, if an employer requires a training contract then the starting salary should be commensurate.

Aviation also requires a dedication to safety. Today, a commercial airline pilot is many times more likely to be killed driving to work, pursuing other hobbies, or develop heart disease from a sedative lifestyle than they are to be killed or injured in an aviation accident. In other words, as long as a dedication to safety is maintained, it is reasonable to expect a full and healthy career. Regretfully, a few aviators take up the mantra of “Safety First” only after they have scared themselves, damaged aircraft or careers, or placed themselves in unrecoverable fatal situations. There is an old aviator’s quote that every pilot should memorize and take to heart:

“Aviation is not in and of itself inherently dangerous, but to an even greater degree than the sea it is terribly unforgiving of any ignorance, incapacity, or neglect.” – Anonymous

You Must Change

This dedication goes beyond a less high career. Great pilots study and learn all the time. They don’t “test and forget.” So, if you really want to be a career aviator, the time to start adding these new lasting study habits is today. Don’t wait. Take up the challenge to be the best, not just the best you can be. Be the best. Getting hired into a great aviation position is very competitive. As the old adage goes, “Only the cream rises to the top.” Only the best get the best jobs. So, be the best.

The aviator’s lifestyle also requires that you give up some things. Over the years, I’ve given up: being part of intramural sports teams because my schedule was non-predictable; fads, such as tattoos, smoking, partying, drugs, intentional felony speeding; being lazy about my connection to God, and finding my “center” in the universe; some video gaming; some social media posting; vulgarity; and a few more “things” that might detract from my career. Hopefully, you were lucky and brought up by people who cared about your character. If so, tell those character builders thanks…later, you’ll understand why. If not, maybe it’s time to seek out those character building relationships.

A few years ago, while sitting in a flight instructor lounge at a college, it became quite apparent that some of the aspiring instructors were going to have to change to succeed in commercial aviation. Pity overwhelmed me as I looked at a few young men speaking in vulgar, sometimes sexist, sometimes derogatory terms amongst themselves. I thought to myself, “Boy, I hope I never have to share a cockpit with that guy for 4 hours let alone a 4-day trip. He’ll never make it past probation unless he changes his attitude.” But, thankfully, there were others with whom I would have gladly flown. Thankfully, the filtering process of my companies hiring is fine enough to weed out the more difficult personalities.

Is It Worth It?

For most pilots the answer is YES! Although, all career pilots have done things they didn’t enjoy. They have all “worked” for a living. To us, flying is better. How great it is to be able to do something I truly enjoy and get paid for it at the same time! Most pilots truly love flying.

Just a few of the things I love about flying.

Little can compare to the inner joy that comes from touching down on a snow covered runway so softly that you’re not quite sure you’ve landed. Once I landed a Saab 340 so perfectly that neither the captain nor I knew we were down until the aircraft had slowed well below flying speed. 30 years later and I still remember the details of that landing.

Most ground pounders (non-aviators) never get the chance to see the sun peek over the morning horizon between thin layers of clouds through the cockpit of an aircraft. It’s magical.

The first time you see some of the more surreal and fleeting aspects of aviating you might be hooked for life:

  • Although I’ve seen St. Elmo’s fire many times, it is still quite intriguing - bluish white flashes of light that spark across entire windshields that resemble sea fans for a split second then vanish on snowy nights. On some aircraft St. Elmo’s fire looks like little pricks of blue flame glowing from the leading edges of the wings, windshield wipers, and cowlings. On some propeller driven airplanes a blue glowing, sparkling ring forms at the spinning prop tips.'s_fire

  • I’ve been fortunate enough to see plasma lightning twice in my career. The first time on a Boeing 727 it appeared as a 4 inch diameter blue jousting lance protruding from the nose cone about 15 feet for a few minutes.

  • Most persons living in the continental US see the Aurora Borealis a couple times in their lives, if at all. Most international airline pilots see the Aurora a few times a year while crossing the north Atlantic or traversing Canada or Alaska.

  • I’ve only seen noctilucent clouds a few times over the north Atlantic, but they were amazing.

On the human side, being a professional aviator is very rewarding also. I wonder, how many couples I’ve carried on their honeymoons over the years? How many folks have I carried to funerals or to see loved ones the last time? How many have I carried to see a new family member for the first time? It’s always very rewarding to hear stories from passengers who were going on life changing journeys on flights that I’ve flown. There is a great sense of connectedness to humanity in these moments. Yes, aviation can be very rewarding. On the plus side, I’ve met several celebrities over the years while flying.

On the character side of life, becoming a pilot means developing the character required to be “captain shaped.” That character building has helped me in many ways over the years. Leadership skills are difficult to come by, but valuable to possess. Yes, becoming a pilot can be very rewarding.

  • Captain Dave

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