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Up in the Air

Pilot Evolution: Begin at the End

Saturday, April 14, 2018

There are over 20,000 cockpit seats expected to open up over the next seven years and with constant talk about shortages, the pilot dream is a growing conversation. The pilots currently in the industry are beginning to show potential for quicker movement upward in seats and seniority while at the same time, merger mania has stunted upward mobility in the majors.

The health of the pilot industry varies widely because it depends on who you ask. So, regardless of where it’s at now, let’s talk to the wide-eyed pilot wanna-be just starting out who has aspirations of becoming an airline pilot. Where do you begin to become an airline pilot? Well, you must first begin at the end.

You must begin by visualizing your life as a pilot. It doesn’t begin with a flight lesson, it begins by adjusting your perspective on life, your goals, and definition of what makes you happy. You have to have a deep understanding of yourself and an appreciation that an aviation career requires dedication and self-discipline from not just yourself, but from your family. It’s a long game.

Even after years of flying and seniority, you will still have to work weekends and miss holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and recitals at any time on the clock, 24/7. That’s the aviation world. If you can’t roll out of bed at 0200 and be bright-eyed and alert, you need to find a different reality. If you firmly believe you have the self-discipline and focus to become a pilot, then let’s have some fun in the pilot pipeline and look at the variables before you take a step.

Variable 1: There are a variety of routes to the commercial cockpit, but the first and most significant variable has nothing to do with flying. It’s your bachelor’s degree. When competition is tough (when there is an abundance of pilots), then airlines require the degree to weed pilots out. They don’t care what the degree is, they just want you to have one. When airlines are short on pilots, then they loosen the requirements. Either way, consider this: You will probably get furloughed or have a gap in aviation employment at some point in your career and if a medical condition boots you from the cockpit, you’ll be glad to have that degree to help cushion your fall. You should get it at some point.

Now, to blow your mind: If you are struggling financially to just get your private pilot, and you think you could be happy at a charter company, regional airline or a cargo carrier (maybe even international) for a while, then don’t bother getting the degree right now. Gasp. I know many of you cringed, but the cost of a bachelor’s degree is significant. Add in the debt accrued earning your ratings and first year pay at minimum wage and you have a formula for bankruptcy. If your credit rating is horrible, the majors won’t take you anyway (yes, they check your credit rating). However, you have to promise yourself that you’ll enroll in an accredited online (or on campus if schedule allows) school once you are established and finish up that degree while you’re flying. And, it’s sometimes beneficial to not have a degree in aviation! You have to be well balanced, just like your airplane.

Our economy changes in a sunrise, so make sure you are viable for all the conditions. Pick your second favorite passion and study that. You will question your aviation career choice during your lifetime, so make sure you have a backup plan!

Step 1: So, what’s the first step to becoming a pilot? Start by gathering private pilot ground school books and materials. Look over the scope of information, but don’t let it scare you. Of course you don’t know the answers yet, but start understanding the terms and topics that you will be required to know at a moment’s notice. The actual flying is just a fraction of what you’ll have to learn, so be realistic – it’s not just about flying on a perfect VFR day because that’s not how life goes. It’s about learning to deal with an ever changing sky, economy, weather conditions and mechanical issues. You’ll have mostly great days, but you’ll need to have a deep-rooted understanding of how to handle the bad days too.

Variable 2:  Starting looking around for a ground and flight school. Even though there are some fantastic study-at-home private ground schools, I still highly recommend taking your private ground school at the airport. This is your first step in the aviation world so you should meet some of the other residents. You must go through the initiation process because if you want to do this for a living, it’s not necessarily what you know, it’s who you know. You have to start networking and this is a wonderful way to begin. 

The variable here is whether you should enroll in an FAA Part 61 or 141 school. This is just which federal regulations the school has the authority to operate under. It determines minimum requirements. Both methods churn out great pilots, one just does it faster (usually). The Part 141 curriculum is better suited for someone who can give their full attention and pocketbook to flight training. The schedules are more rigid, but you’ll get done faster and if the school’s curriculum has been approved, then good students may be able to complete training in fewer hours. A Part 61 school is more flexible but may require more flight training hours. The rule is that you need a minimum of 40 hours, but the reality is that the majority of pilots require 60-70 hours to complete the training so the cost difference between the schools might end up being negligible. 

Step 2: Let the paperwork begin! As of April 1, 2016, new flight students have an extra step. You must now complete a student pilot application through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website or fill out FAA form 8710-1 and bring to a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), an FAA-designated pilot examiner, an “airmen certification representative” associated with a part 141 school, or a certified flight instructor. What this all means is that they’re going to check your background. It will take a few weeks to get it back so start this process now. The second application is your medical certificate. Just use a search engine to type in Aviation Medical Examiners and you can get a list of doctors nearest to you. Before you go, be honest with yourself. If you have to squint to read billboards, save yourself some time and go to the optometrist before the AME. Sure, you might be able to cheat, but really, wouldn’t it be better if you could actually see clearly and to have other pilots see you?

Variable 3:  Now that you’ve completed the first two steps and you are enrolled in flight training, check back with me in a couple of years. Oh, just kidding. Well, not really, because the reality is that for most pilots, it will take you a few years to get through your private, instrument, commercial, multi-engine ratings – especially if you are also working to pay for your training and, you might need food once in a while. Toss in your BA degree and you’re looking at a significant chunk of life devoted to learning and you don’t yet have your Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. You might even want to throw in a sea plane rating or aerobatics course too. And yes, banks will approve education loans for flight training. Don’t forget that there are scholarships for flight training and federal financial aid for flight schools (

Once you have those ratings, you’ll know yourself pretty well and you will have already formulated your next steps, but since you’re reading this now, before you’ve reached that point, I’ll let you know about the main variable at this point. To CFI or to not CFI? At this point, your parents won’t understand why you can’t get a job with a commercial license. With 250 hours, you are in no man’s land. Can’t get a job, but too far in to quit. With an ATP/1500 minimum hours needed at even the commuters now, getting those hours is hard without getting your Certified Flight Instructor certificate.  If you decide to get your CFI, you’ll end up learning more than you ever thought you could about aviation, but you’ll also have to learn how to apply for food stamps.

Step 3: If you have reached this step, then consider yourself committed (literally and figuratively). You’ve crossed the line into an aviation addict. Since you’ve come this far, you need to completely abandon all ties to reality and if you haven’t already, find a job at the airport. Not just any airport, but an airport that has a general aviation FBO and a charter company or two. Bonus if it’s air ambulance. You need a foot in the door and it doesn’t matter if you have to start by washing airplanes. Networking starts by putting a fuel nozzle in a corporate airplane or smiling politely at the FBO front desk when a customer melts down because their catered sandwiches still have the crust on it. If the chief pilot sees you working there on a daily basis, it’s the beginning of what could be a beautiful relationship. Don’t be above begging. Make sure everyone knows what rating you’re working on and be willing to ride along on a maintenance flight – or anything offered to you, even if it’s at 0200.

There are lots of charter companies whose operating specifications require a copilot on their airplanes, even if the airplane itself doesn’t need one. The air ambulance company I flew for had a dozen King Airs which only require one pilot, but our insurance and ops specs said we needed two, and you didn’t need 1500 hours or an ATP. You just need category and class rating. Yes, there is debate about logging second-in-command time on an aircraft that only requires one pilot by the aircraft’s type certificate. You might not be able to use all of this towards an airline position but, you’re looking for a job and experience so this is priceless. These jobs exist, but they aren’t often posted because there is always someone already working at the airport who gobbles up these pilot slots.

Variable 4: Now that you see daylight coming from the depths of your logbook, you’re getting closer to the magic 1500 hours. The next variable is the decision to get on the Part 135 charter/corporate airplane path or try for the Part 121 commuters. Not that long ago, the majority of pilots looked at the airlines as the only end goal. Corporate aviation didn’t really exist, but it has boomed (and bust) over the last twenty years. If you live in a large metropolitan area, chances are there are numerous corporate flight departments which are competitive, but once you’re in, you won’t even consider the majors. On the other path, there is a more defined pipeline to the majors if you begin working for their commuter division. You will learn the Part 121 world and already be trained on the regulations if you eventually head to the majors.

With airline merger mania, upward mobility stops every time there is a new merger and this variable affects your pocket book. If you are on the verge of upgrading to captain and then your company is suddenly bought or merged, your seniority gets blended into a much longer list so it could be years before you earn captain’s pay. What this means is that pay difference between the Part 135 vs 121 arena could be negligible over the course of your career. Yes, you can make $300,000 year at some international majors, but it might take 25 years to get there. There is no way of knowing, so do what you have to do in the here and now. Don’t plan on what will happen in five years, because it won’t happen the way you think it will. The airline economic world is too volatile.

Step 4: Evaluate what’s important to you and be realistic. I know that you’ve been eyeing those major carriers for years, but enjoy what you’re doing now. Maybe you took an air ambulance job with bad pay just to build hours, but the tradeoff is that you enjoyed the number of days off and the flying is rewarding since you’re directly saving lives. The pay for air ambulance chief pilots is not too shabby so maybe that is a closer goal. For some pilots, what makes their heart soar is the connection to “flying” an airplane. This means being in charge of your own flight plan, weather, weight and balance, catering and charter/corporate customers. This one-on-one relationship with aviation is somewhat lost in the airline world where the trend is automation and having a pilot is considered an inconvenient cost. The trade-off is that with an airline and a seniority number, you eventually gain more control over your schedule. Doesn’t mean you don’t have to work weekends or holidays, but you at least get to pick which ones. You also have a union pay scale so you can budget to pay back all those student loans.

If you ask a senior pilot to talk about when they were the happiest flying, the stories they’ll tell usually involve who they’re flying with, not necessarily who they are flying for. It’s the comradery in the aviation world that ties and unifies pilots together. It’s part of the equation for pilot happiness. There are some who thrive on their independence so a night cargo carrier might be the perfect fit. Others consider the layover as an intricate part of the aviation experience. They might not realize it at the time, but it’s the characters and stories that build the bond. Retired airline pilots don’t necessarily miss the grind of their schedule, what they miss is being in the seat and laughing with (or at) the other pilots who helped create their memories.  The airline world is the best source for that variety of people, situations and stories. Once you’re in an airline, that seniority number will encourage you to finish out your career in one place because the thought of starting at the bottom of another seniority list gives you the shivers. No matter what variable you chose in your aviation career, you won’t know if this was your happiest time as a pilot until later, so enjoy every moment along the way.

Erika Armstrong is A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT. From the front desk of a busy FBO, to the captain's seat of a commercial airliner, Erika has experienced everything aviation has to offer. She is also an aviation professor at MSU Denver, Director of Instructional Design at Advanced Aircrew Academy, author of A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT and her aviation stories can be found in several national aviation publications. If you want to share your story or insight, she can be reached at Her next book, ZEN AND THE ART OF BEING A PILOT, is almost done and looking for a new literary agent (other retired) and publisher...

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