Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Right Stuff (Part 1): What It Takes To Be an Airline Pilot

In the golden days of aviation, (which many would say peaked right as the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was signed by President Carter) the profession of being a pilot was absolutely revered. Kids eagerly got tours of the cockpit in flight (totally unthinkable in the post 9/11 era) and aspired to be pilots. Pilots did, in fact, make incredible sums of money and the profession was looked up to as one right up there with being a doctor or a banker or a lawyer.....OK with being a doctor or a banker. There's many old pilot jokes that go something like this: "What's the difference between God and a pilot? God doesn't think he's a pilot." So, what happened to the glamour of being a pilot? From your pilots perspective, nothing happened. From an industry perspective, however, a lot happened. After deregulation in 1978 (which is when the government stopped saying who could fly where and what they could charge for it), competition happened. Capitalism at it's finest. Second only to fuel, the largest cost of running an airline is people and the economics of hordes of pilots making $300,000 a year doesn't necessarily work in a world of $90 a barrel oil and $200 round trip tickets. Something had to give and it was unfortunately flight crew pay. I'm not trying to paint you too depressing a picture because there is one exceedingly bright spot in all of this. "What is it?" you ask?  It's that you have to be one very motivated, passionate individual who flat out loves to fly in order to want to work in a very difficult but very rewarding industry. So who are these people we entrust our lives to? Who are these people who make it safer than driving when we fly in a metal tube at 500mph, 7 miles above the earth? What do they have to do to become your pilots and what do they actually do to get you to your destination safely? We will look at these questions in this two part series.

I won't go into the physics of flight other than to say the weight of any wannabe pilot's wallet is inversely proportional to the thickness of their logbook. The more hours you fly, the more money it takes. Plain and simple. Almost every single pilot in the world started flying in the simplest of airplanes: single engine propeller aircraft like a Cessna or a Piper. These planes are great to learn the basics of flight in. Usually no fancy autopilots here. In these planes, if all the instruments are working, there's a minimal amount of duct tape on the seats, the plane goes up, down, left and right and you typically burn more fuel than engine oil, you're in good shape! These are basic planes and are meant to make your pilots, well....pilots! The basic concepts of flight are the same in a Cessna 152 as they are in a Boeing 747 and you have to start somewhere!

As pilots advance, they add a myriad of advanced "ratings" that allow them to do many different things like fly in the clouds (an instrument rating), fly for compensation (a commercial rating), fly big, complex airplanes like a typical airliner (a type rating) and ultimately, fly for the airlines (the Airline Transport Pilot or ATP rating).  By the time everything is said and done, it is not unheard of for pilots who were not trained by the military to have invested well in excess of $50,000 in their ratings.
On top of all of the ratings,  each pilot must meet with a special doctor on a regular basis to be certified as fit to fly. Any number of conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart issues or a myriad of other conditions will keep a pilot grounded, sometimes for good. And, when you get to the airlines, regular drug testing becomes the norm (which puts a slight kink in the plot of the latest Denzel Washington movie "Flight").

All of this takes years of study, practice and dedication. Many aspiring pilots will also choose to combine all this work with a college degree....and that's just to earn the opportunity to interview with the airlines. No job guarantees at all! Often times, pilots will take other types of flying jobs to earn more hours to make them more attractive to the airlines. What are some non-airline flying jobs that many pilots do to earn hours? I'm sure I'm missing some really interesting one but to name a few: flight instructing, banner towing, crop dusting (yep, they still do that), skydiving flights, hauling bank checks (although this is going away quickly with electronic imaging), hauling lab specimens, charter flying, freight and mail flying, fire fighting, pipeline patrol, fish and wildlife tracking and basically anything that anyone will pay a meager wage for in exchange for the privilege of flying on their dime. "Will fly for food" is an appropriate slogan for many an aspiring airline pilot. As you can see, the guys and gals in the front office of your plane are some dedicated and passionate folks when it comes to flying......either that or crazy but I'm trying not to scare you so let's go with "dedicated and passionate"!

So, you're a highly credentialed pilot who has earned all your ratings and paid all your dues and you FINALLY land a coveted airline job. You've arrived! Whew! Kick back, relax, start flying and reap the benefits of your years of hard work, right? Wrong! Airline politics, pay and job security aside, the fun has just begun! All of what you've learned thus far was enough to get you to the dance (typically in a very low paying First Officer / Co-pilot job at a regional airline, mind you) but now you have to learn all of the things specific to your particular airline. You may have been hired to fly a different type of plane than you are certified to fly so you may need to do another type rating for the plane the airline hired you to fly. That involves classroom and flight simulator training a competency test known as a checkride. Even without a type rating, weeks of classroom work on your airline's processes and procedures as well as hours of training on all sorts of nightmarish scenarios in the flight simulator are thrown at you (like when they only have decaf coffee in the galley) before you ever make it to the cockpit of an airliner. And, once you get there, recurrent training, drug testing and medical certifications all happen on a regular basis to make sure you stay a safe, proficient and healthy pilot. Kind of gives you an idea of why the safety record of commercial flying is so good, doesn't it?

In the next part of this two part series, we'll look at what your pilots actually do to get you safely to your destination. You'll find it fascinating to see what goes into safely managing a flight and you'll see how far in advance the work for your flight really starts!

We'll get the glamour back into this noble profession just yet!

Until next time....

Blue Skies,


  1. Deregulation certainly changed things. Not that we want government regulation...but in this case, I think yes. Besides they do hold all the cards to what we do in our industry. They say who we can merge with. We are not allowed to strike if we're too big... Even if it were a safety issue.
    So... it makes me wonder. But, with all that said, it's a great job! But a changing job with many, many challenges.

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