Is there still ‘Room at the Top?’

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

We’re packing up our home of 21 years to leave Washington, D.C., for the last time. In boxes, I’m finding 45-plus years of aviation memories, decisions made, and paths not taken. Most poignant: The 1965 full-page United Airlines ad promising, “There’s Room at the Top.” Just above that headline was a photo: an empty seat in a United cockpit. Pasted on my bedroom door back home, it was the air under teenage dreams of a flying career.

Today, there’s talk again about a pilot shortage. Most say, “I’ve heard that before.” The pilot profession now has many detractors. Glory days are past. For those with a calling, however, there’s no other way to live.

Back in 1965, United’s “recent jet fleet expansion” was an all-call for flight officers. UA bragged of a billion-dollar investment boosting “the world’s largest jet fleet from 164 to 308 jets.” Aside from 1960s prosperity and big growth in air travel, there was also the upcoming shake-out of old piston DC-6s from short-haul runs.

Steketee blog Aug. 18, 2011 DC-9s and early 737s were marching in, forcing big changes. Years later, when I flew GAMA boss Ed Stimpson around, the former FAA official would often declare, “This is a DC-9 airport!” He could identify runway and terminal expansions from the era when cities scrambled to attract jet service or just stay on the route map.

Airports like Mt. Vernon, Ill., and Allentown, Pa., competed with new infrastructure, much as towns previously fought for a railroad stop or interstate highway. Even the cover of D.C.’s phone book one year depicted T-tails of the new DC-9s parked at a now-expanded Washington National Airport, belle of the DC-3 era.

So that empty United cockpit spoke to me. “If you have a Commercial license and two years of college, you could be sitting here.” Correctable 20/50 vision was good enough, as was experience in lieu of college. There was no daunting list of qualifications, minimum hours or turbine time.

Times changed. Soon, thousands of aviators exited the military or came home from Vietnam. You couldn’t buy an airline job by 1970. Some low-time commercial flying opportunities still existed — many more than today — but times were tough and some jobs nasty or dangerous. It was hard (and expensive) to get started, as now.

After four years “in finishing school,” I was a college grad but no longer ahead of the aviation pack. I never could catch up. Plan B worked well, however, with a rewarding professional career and 20 years of associated work flying.

Would you advise today’s young person to pursue an aviation career? Recently, many airline pilots have said no. It’s still a tough, long slog. In our GA world, corporate aviation offers new opportunity but life there can be a tough, too. Forecasters say aviation will grow, however. You only need look far enough down the road.

I never talk down a flying career, although fewer young people ask me these days. I offer up the minuses and well as the pluses. Being realistic, I hope to avoid their future disappointment. After that, it’s all down to one thing: If you live to fly, there’s no substitute. It’s only a question of how to do it. The next question: How best to do it. With a little luck, some flexibility and faith in the future, young people could still conclude there will be “Room at the Top” for them.

Story © 2011 Drew Steketee

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Comments

  1. Chris says

    I am Captain at a major airline, Would I go through this again, NO.
    Pilots have above average intelligence, above average work ethics and above average attention to detail. If you have these qualities go do something that is recognized by your employer as worthwhile. Go to Medical School, or become a Lawyer so that you can screw the guys who don’t follow this advice.

  2. Poverty Pilot says

    ?These comments in response to the article are an excellent reality check and should be mandatory reading for aviation lawmakers, aviation investors, would-be pilots, and anyone dating or married to a would-be pilot.

    I’m glad to see others stepping up and firing a few pyrotechnic flares for those considering a commercial pilot career.

    Pilots are a nuisance and mere widgets to airlines.

    The crash-and-burn rates pursuing such dreams seeking such careers… like lemmings off of a cliff!

    Pilot = Poverty

  3. M. Mangan says

    Mike, Have a look at “Vignettes of a Pilot Life”, at lulu.com, amozon.com or google.com. I spent 38 years in the Business. Been evreywhere, done everything. It was never an easy business. M.

  4. Bill says

    It is clear to me and many others I fly with that the era of “hands on” flying is at this point mostly behind us. I’ve read that UPS and FED – EX are NOW actively looking ahead and planning for the time when all or most of their heavy jet fleet will be fully automated. The generation has probably been born already who will in their lifetime, board an aircraft and fly across the country and there will be no pilot or “flight manager” at the controls. This certainlly was’t my idea but it’s the direction this industry surely appears to be headed – like it or not. Those who are now begining their careers as pilots should be advised and aware that there may well come a time when their experience, skills and love of the art or flying will no longer be required. I’m surely greatful and have no regrets for the hours and years I’ve enjoyed in the cockpit. Within the next 8 to 10 years, I will retire. Considering just about all of the reasons I fell in love with flying airplanes, after I exit the industry – I honestly feel I will not be “missing out”. Within the next few decades, the current issue of “Pilot Shortage” could just jolly well be academic. So to all my fellow Gentlemen of Adventure – enjoy it while you can.

  5. Natalie says

    Until flight instructor and entry level regional airline F/O compensation improves, flying for a living is a tough row to hoe. There are always options, but lots of pitfalls too. And if educational loans are involved, forgetaboutit.

  6. Jeff says

    It is my belief that the aviation industry needs a massive re-alignment. The training requirements, input costs, working hours, sacrifices made away from home and family do not equal current compensation rates. It is an industry that takes full advantage of peoples dreams and passion and uses it against them to benefit their own bottom line. I am not jaded by past experience, but look at it as objectively as possible…as logically as possible.
    My advice to young aspiring pilots is to “not put all your eggs in one basket”. Prior to taking flight training I studied and completed mechanical engineering. Later, it did not take me long into a flying career to realize which profession was going to be the best choice. After all, when I left one engineering job for another, I did not need to go from a 6 figure salary back to earning $20k a year and be treated like a rookie. My engineering studies have allowed me to pursue flying as both a business tool and for fun, keeping my passion for being in the air alive and well.
    Maybe if the aviation industry corrects itself and starts treating it’s pilots the way other professionals are treated, being that “cool guy in the cockpit” will be a dream realized they way it was meant to be.

  7. Jeff says

    It is my belief that the aviation industry needs a massive re-alignment. The training requirements, input costs, working hours, sacrifices made away from home and family do not equal current compensation rates. It is an industry that takes full advantage of peoples dreams and passion and uses it against them to benefit their own bottom line. I am not jaded by past experience, but look at it as objectively as possible…as logically as possible.
    My advice to young aspiring pilots is to “not put all your eggs in one basket”. Prior to taking flight training I studied and completed mechanical engineering. Later, it did not take me long into a flying career to realize which profession was going to be the best choice. After all, when I left one engineering job for another, I did not need to go from a 6 figure salary back to earning $20k a year and be treated like a rookie. My engineering studies have allowed me to pursue flying as both a business tool and for fun, keeping my passion for being in the air alive and well.
    Maybe if the aviation industry corrects itself and starts treating it’s pilots the way other professionals are treated, being that “cool guy in the cockpit” will be a dream realized they way it was meant to be.

  8. shas says

    from India

    currently sitting here in a strange hotel room away from my family….a 200 timer cadet with a fast growing airline,…here for my type on 320….

    Wanted this all very badly …faith and patience somehow got me here….but I tell you the days I spent searching for a job …were one of the most enlightening ones i have ever spent…am just 23 but just two years of not getting a job … are nothing as compared to what I have seen and still continue to see …as in this article …

    The pleasure of owning an a/c, though looks tough here … but ignoring the tough part it still seems feasible …

    Godspeed

  9. Dr-rgt says

    Aviation is an addiction of which the only cure is flying. Airlines play on this addiction to fill pilot seats for slave wages. This will never improve, as technology will soon make pilots redundant. Case in point, the US government bought 100s of drones to fly the Mexican border. For each drone, the US could have bought 10 Cessna 172s and hired 10 pilots, plus mechanics, support staff, and other jobs. By my reckoning, there could have been a real airplane with a real pilot every 5 miles along the border 24/7 for the same cost as the drones. So why the drone solution? Drones don’t get benefits, organise for decent wages and never make the news when they crash. There is no future for commercial pilots. Yet
    the addiction remains and my solution is to buy a small training aircraft and simply feed my addiction. The biggest problem for all of us is that flying is not a “well posed problem”, one must have money, time and health all at the same moment. For my fellow addicts, forget aviation as a career, maximise your earnings in any field you can and buy that airplane. Fly as much as you can afford and while you still can. Automation will be flying the heavy iron.

  10. RC says

    I have been a pilot for more than 33 years, starting out as an Army helicopter pilot and 21 years later became a Boeing 747-400 Captain, against all odds . . . And, much, much more.

    The Aviation industry (both military and civil) needs real mentors, tell it like it is kind of guys, and pilots with a good measure of common sense. There ARE far too many jealous bastards, suck ups, insecure fragile egos and military pilots whom exist only for the Officer Efficiency Reports.

    While this advice is geared toward those whom aspire to become airline pilots, I will touch on the subject of helicopters, as well.

    I have wanted to be a pilot, since around age 4 or 5. I spent my days drawing aeroplanes, rather than listening to some boring dud classroom teacher. Don’t get me started on the American educational system . . . I came from a poor family, by any standard, yet I succeeded, beyond anyone’s expectation or estimate of me.

    To bust three Aviation myths and contrary to popular belief . . . one does not need to be a university grad to become a 747 Captain, nor to secure a military cockpit (jet, prop or helicopter), one does not have to be an F-18 pilot to land an airline career (crap most don’t even know how to use a UHF Radio to make a position report and one of the guys I flew with overshot final at MIA) and, it is OK to be fired from your first Commuter Airline job for unionizing activities. There are plenty more jobs out there.

    I spent a lot of time and money earning a CFI, CFII, MEI, and doing renewals every couple years. During my 33 plus years, I have managed to grudgingly log 675 hours as an Instructor, teaching people with money, whom had no passion nor real love for flying. One Student Pilot who would take his Flight Test the following day for a Commercial Multiengine Rating, I had gone to the FAA Designated Examiner to urge him to fail the Student Pilot, based on his attitude. I am that kind of guy. For me, becoming an Instructor was a gross waste of time and money, especially earning $300/month working 12 – 16 hours a day, for some greedy Mom and Pop operation!

    Those hard earned dollars would have been better spent getting a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer Rating, back when I was starting out . . . Today, do whatever it takes to pay for a Type Rating on a Boeing 737-800. It is the most popular and widely used Transport Category jet aircraft. Then, find a way to get time in the aircraft, even if it means flying in India or Africa. Pay your dues, strive to get your Command, and 500 to 1000 hours Actual Time, in the Left Seat.

    In my opinion and it IS my opinion based on my more than 33 years experience . . . No operator needs a pilot whose only experience is flying the Traffic Pattern, or doing repeated stalls, and steep turns. Operators do need pilots with a broad range of experience (mountain flying, night-IFR-cross country, over water, short field, bush-flying and I am not talking about the unshaved) and, a sound foundation in basic airmanship. When shit happens, you will need to follow the Non-normal Checklist, SOP, and when those fail you, draw upon your experience. If it has been spent flying circuits doing stalls and steep turns, just to build hours at someone else’s expense, you’ll come up short.

    Three things I have wondered about over my long career have been, did my evil TAC Officer, during Army Flight Training at Mother Rucker or that pompous prick Chief Pilot ever fly as a Boeing 747-400 Captain, and had I passed my UAL interview in 1983, would I have become a 744 Captain? I remember those three fossils interviewing me, criticizing that my primary experience was flying helicopters, had low multiengine aeroplane experience, and could not understand how a helicopter flies . . . “beating the air into submission” or some other ridiculous comment. If memory serves, I replied if you rotate the wings of a 747 fast enough, you can make it hover, like a helicopter. Aerodynamics is aerodynamics. I am sure the point was lost on them. Oddly, I did my Boeing 747-400 captain recurrent training at the UAL Denver facilities, 17 years later.

    If you have the passion and love for flying and this industry demands no less, then find the best way that suits your budget to get your Pilot Licenses and Ratings . . . Next, do not be afraid to Interview a Flying School or an Instructor to learn abut his background and what he or she will be able to really teach you about survival in the sky! I strongly believe the F.A.A. should not allow anyone to become a Certificated Flight Instructor until he or she has 5,000 hours, minimum or at least something to teach. Now, it is kids whom have no life experience and definitely no flying experience teach people how to fly, building hours, until their next job, at their student’s expense. In other words, the blind leading the blind. Sorry AOPA, that is how feel.

    For me, the US Army was my leg up. When I began my civil flight training, I deliberately sought former military Combat pilots whom flew during World War II, during the Korean and/or Viet Nam conflicts. I had one female Instructor, very briefly. The first time she screamed, in panic, I sought another Instructor. The basic airmanship you learn from your early Instructors will stick with you, your entire career, good or bad. Be sure it is the best. I will never forget and will always respect those ol’ buggers I flew with.

    Next you need to build your hours. How you build those hours is just as important as your early instruction received. Try to land a Charter Flying job and step-by-step, work your way up your career path.

    Regarding applying for a job . . . Networking is important. Work on your social skills. I have none. I am tactless and tell it like it is, but I have survived, through hard work or doing the job better than anyone else. I was interested in flying for this quasi-airline, sadly no longer in business. For years, I was writing to a dead Chief Pilot. Somehow, you must target the correct person to make application to. I did eventually go to work for that company and it was some of the best experience I had, in Aviation. I saw the world. I learned what lies beyond the east and west coast. It will amaze you! It opened my mind to the rest of the world and other possibilities.

    There is always some clever résumé-writing salesman who tries to sell you on the notion that a résumé (curriculum vitae) must be written on a certain grade and quality of stationery. One day I was passing out candy, at some airport, out west. I ran out of résumés and went over to the trash barrel, fished out a brown paper bag and ripped off a piece. I wrote my details on the ripped off piece of brown paper bag and stuck it in the door handle of a Beech King Air. Of ALL the résumés I handed out, that day, the ONLY telephone call I received was from the Chief Pilot who read my brown paper bag résumé. He told me of all the résumés he has ever received that was the best and most interesting. I did not get the job, however. Timing is everything, in Aviation.

    Professional appearance is important. Look the part.

    If you are offered an airline interview, try to buy some Simulator time in the aircraft type they will assess you. I never did, however.

    What is the assessment about? Procedures, can you fly a modern, new generation aircraft raw data, instrument scan and skills, situational awareness, can you read a Jeppesen Chart, you attitude, humility, Crew and Cockpit Resource Management. A tough ask for a fellow who has been flying helicopters, a Cessna 404 or Piper Navajo Freighter, at night, single pilot, for example. But, it can be done. I did it. And, if I can do it, anyone can. I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer nor the ace of the base. Just average.

    For the helicopter pilots, everything written in the aforementioned applies to you. There are plenty of jobs out there.

    Start to think outside the box. There are jobs overseas. There are recruitment companies whom have a vested interest in getting you a job. Do your homework on Google. My best advice.

    Lastly, once employed, NEVER compromise your integrity or professionalism. Never tolerate an employer who cheats on the Regulations or Maintenance. The first time you do, an operator will expect you to do it every time. They all do it, in one form or fashion. During my career, I succeeded in putting three operators out of business, one where I was hired to be Chief Pilot. I turned them in to the Regulatory Agency, without fear.

    If I have offended anyone, I make or offer no apology. Suck it up and learn from what I have to offer.

    Good luck.

    • Vjessel says

      This is the only comment that gave me some hope (I too have wanted to be a pilot since I was very young). I am 17 now working on my PPL deciding if I should enter an college w/ an aviation program to get more certificates or to bag the whole idea of becoming a professional pilot. Thanks for this comment it really helps!

      • RC says

        Follow your dreams. Do not waste time or money. Get your PPL, CPL, ME Instrument Rating and try to build your hours. Flying Schools, Aviation Universities only care about stringing you along and getting your money. Go to a local university or college and local airport and find the most experienced Flight Instructor(s) to teach you all the subjects. If you can pass an Air Force or Navy Pilot Medical, then get your degree and go that route. If you want a military career and can survive the politics, then go for it. Otherwise use them while they are using you. Limit your commitment to them. Get out and move on.

        Ask their Total Time. Ask them what they were doing. If majority of their experience or half was Flight Instructing, find someone else. You do not need some young girl, eager to become an airline pilot, building hours at your expense.

        There IS a difference between building hours and building experience.

        Good luck.

        • Jay says

          The Universities are not out to “steal” anyone’s money, but they are businesses, they offer a product. The real travesty is the flight schools, Universities, and pilots out there that don’t tell young pilots what the reality is of being a commercial airline pilot, especially in the first 1-10 years (and in some cases longer). For the guys that started 30 years ago, the progerssion that they experienced may be completely invalid.

        • Jay says

          That’s great, but you also realize how different the game was when you were becomming an airline pilot. Things have changed big time. Wouldn’t you have liked to move to the “big time” by your 30s? Maybe you did, but that’s a pipe dream these days. The military experience is another issue that makes the playing field biased. What if we don’t want to go into the military and just work hard and still be the best we can be? Military pilots have still gotten some huge preference, and so what, you are “forced” to go into the military to have any shot at getting that major commercial airline job? (I was in the military for the record). Luckily all that is about to change with UAVs, except for some transport jobs, fighters and bombers are being phased out. The playing field is being leveled to some extent in that regard.

    • Dan says

      To build hours, no one can afford NOT to fly on “someone else’s dime” these days, despite the fact that it’s just “around the patch” experience. How do you propose a young person with a fresh commercial certificate, and 50k in debt (EVEN IF YOU WENT TO A TINY TINY FBO, IT STILL WILL COST THIS MUCH) get a job as a bush pilot or a freight dog WITHOUT building experience as a lowly instructor trying to “move on to the next job”? You can’t blame the pilot; you need to blame the industry, the oil tycoons, and the people who deregulated the lending industry for the ‘time building’ system we have in place today. Last time I checked, there aren’t regional airplanes dropping out of the sky like dead birds. Getting a NON-AVIATION job and keeping it these days is hard enough, even with a 4 year degree or higher. I do agree that night IFR, short field, yada, yada, is way way way better experience than ‘flying around the patch’. But people gotta start somewhere, and these shiny new instructors probably shouldn’t be flying night IFR in ice with under 1000 hours either. I agree the pay is just plain bravo sierra. But now that ‘hopefully’ the word is out, from Colgan 3407, then that will deter many many young people from being pilots. That way the supply goes down, demand goes up, and hopefully QOL and pay goes up in the process, for working-poor born people like me who want to escape the cubicle and travel / fly for a living.. I propose that a school like ATP is probably THE BEST option for someone wanting to get into the career. By all means, get your PPL on your own time at an FBO, and if you still love it after that, and want to do this for a living, then getting there in an efficient, fully immersed manner (and not by doing an hour here, and hour there, on your own) makes the most sense these days. About ‘networking’… Supposedly they have a great alliance with a few airlines to get you started. Today’s FBO usually has no such networking opportunities.

      • Genral1 says

        In todays world EVERYTHING is expensive. I am not an airline pilot, but I sure am working towards that end. I have spent time being an airport rat for the past 4 years. I have met everyone of influence and they have been terrific mentors! I like many others don’t have unlimited funds to just pay for ratings in order to facilitate an airline interview. So I became shrewed, asked a buddy to tell me everything that he was asked in the interview he just had, and then my game plan went it to place. They want multi hours, so I am giving them multi hours!! I joined the US Coast Guard Auxilary, where I can fly missions for them and they pay for the gas. To me that is like getting paid to learn. Can you imagine the number of people that I have met in this program? Next I went to Oshkosh and met the Lady who manages Mercy Flights. They pay 100% of the fuel each way if you donate your time to fly patients to hospitals. It is strictly an on call as needed thing, so I am totaly able to work around my day job, where I really do have flexibilty. Lastly, before I started my plan, I bartered 2 of my four ratings so they really did not cost me anything. I found a seasoned Mulit Engine owner who was willing to sell me a 1/4 share of his Baron, so I have been using this airplane to build my hours. I am 43 1/2 and I know if I want to realize the DREAM, I need to have my 500TT/100 Multi very soon in order to obtain a 20 year career and a pension, (if they are still available). This will be a total life change for me and my wife is totally on board as she knows this is what I really want to be doing for a living. My point to this story is if you have a strong will there is a way, it does not have to be 100K or more to do it, I am living proof!! To the young or old pilots who want to get a professional pilot job, think out side of the box, that in my opinion is what will set you apart in an interview!

    • Golan says

      I work for an airline as an avionics instructor (I teach pilots & technicians about boeing 7567, 744.737,777) becoming a pilot was & still is my dream, recently (almost 38 years old), with my wife support & 2 kids, i became a MEL private pilot, i do intend to complete my instrument & commercial training for my own satisfaction but i dont know what can i do with it beside flying for fun from now & than, at work i teach the autopilot system among others, some times it feels so close but not close enough to hold the stick, i guess i will have to finish my certification and than check my options.

      Thanks for your advise,

      • S.S says

        Hey Golan
        Have you done your ratings in Aviator?
        I think i know you and you know me…
        What a small world it is.
        Good luck in achiving the dream!!

  11. SamJet says

    SamJet
    UNBELEVEABLE postings…..read everyone of them….incredibly “painful” to read due to having experienced most all of them through 25 years of “trying” to earn a living flying airplanes. I believe the “true” aviators are “infected” with the “flying disease” at an early age. I spent 20 years corporate flying for “practically NOTHING”. In some cases $50 a day. Leave at 7AM, fly two hours in a “corporate” single engine plane, sit at the airport till 6PM, fly two hours back home. Repeat next four days….$200 bucks….wow…we ate cheap steaks that Friday! One “relatively” stable job for 8 years then the company was bought out. Odd thing about being in “corporate” aviation…..you are “owned”, not “employed”. You’re “on call” 24/7. If hard times come or the company is bought out, pilots are fired because the airplane will “sit” in a hangar till sold for cash for the purchasing company. Then there is Part 135 charter. Still on call 24/7. I believe the best year was about $16K on 850 hours flying. Struggled to “build time” to “out qualify” all the “F-teen’ers” being flushed out of the Viet Nam era. They flooded the market flying for “less than nothing” fighting to get picked up by the “majors”. Constantly passed over due to the inability to put the “check mark” in the “College degree” box. Never mind 5000 hours in 26 different airplanes, I was “beat out” by the thousand hour “butter bar” who trained in tweets in Del Rio! Long story short.. started “checking the box”!!. Always wondered what a degree in nuclear physics or animal husbandry had to do with flying!!?? If I had it to do again…I’d get a “real career” buy a small airplane to satisfy my flying “urges”, stay home and enjoy my wife who actually “supported” my “habit” for 40 years!…..She is the “real” hero!!….God Bless Her and still got her!

  12. Vjessel says

    Hello everyone
    I am a highschool student preparing to apply to a bunch of colleges (some with aviation programs, others without). It has been my dream to fly professionally ever since I was young. My plan would be to go to a college with an aviation program and get all my certificates/build time. However, as I read on about a daunting future as a carrier pilot, my mind is starting to change. I am unsure weather to fulfill my dream of becoming a pilot, or find another thing to study. Application time is coming up and I am very, very stuck on what to do.

    • says

      It would seem to me its best to study another field….then get your pilots ratings and do it for fun…or if you do it for a “career”, then at least you will have something to fall back on… Flying had always been a life long dream, but I ended up as a computer programmer because of the boom in the 90s and the pay…its hard to fight the urge to fly professionally and trade a computer job that makes 4 times what a first officer makes…I will probably end up just buying my own plane one day..at least I’ll have a good paycheck to pay for the fuel and fly on my own terms.

  13. Anonymous says

    I was also living the “dream” until an ugly round of “Musical Chairs” had forced me out of commercial aviation. While flying, life was every bit the way I had wanted it.

    Now at 57 and in need of a good job – however hard it was to enter professional aviation, today seems even more difficult to leave it. My interviewer asks – “Please tell me – how does your past twenty years experience of flying around the world relate to this job that you are applying for?”

  14. fr8dog says

    If one is in this business for prestige, glory or money, you’re in it for the wrong reason. I’ve been in this business for over 30 years and by my observations, every airline pilot that is in the business solely because of their love of flying are the happiest by far.

  15. Gmantis says

    It seems to me dreams of being a captain on a major route, for a major airline and making well into the six figures are about as realistic as a career as a professional athlete. And after a great deal of sacrifice both of those careers could end in an instant. If you just love to fly and don’t really mind what kind of plane it is, get an education and a good career doing something you enjoy that allows you to fly on your on time in your own plane. If your young and want to live the dream with a healthy dose of responsibility and adventure maybe a flying career in the military is a better choice. I think the Air Force pays better than any regional airline and meals, clothes and a bed are included. If you are too old for that, like me, maybe being a weekend CFI or charter pilot can feed your habit, but somehow I think this advise is like telling your friend he is marrying the wrong girl, your just not going to listen

    • Rooster says

      Concur for the most part, but you do PAY for it. The plus is that it’s also pretty rewarding and you get to fly “tactically”. Big problem in the AF is that you don’t just get to fly and go home at the end of the day. You are an Officer first which means you also have a desk job of some kind and many other distractions from the business of flying. Also, the “bed” you get can vary in quality and location. Finally, you are required to serve for 10 years AFTER training COMPLETION and in those 10 years you can be relegated to non-flying duties for years at a time. You are at the mercy of the Air Force. On the whole, after 12 years, I think it’s worth it, but many of my cohorts feel differently.

    • Anonymous says

      I feel that your analysis is accurate, but it’s not likely able to fly for yourself these days at $6 gal fuel or $150/hr C-172.

  16. irishwriter says

    I think Drew hit the nail on the head here. Times have changed. But the love of flight has not. As long as there are people who will take the jobs for $16K just because they love it, flying will not be about the money. I hate that so many really great, qualified pilots can’t get work that will provide a decent living, but that’s how our economy works. At least you got to do it for a while. Others of us will never be able to afford to pay for the training required to take even the worst job in flying. Flying professionally, like professional sports, still has opportunities – but the truly lucrative positions are very few and very far between.

  17. irishwriter says

    I think Drew hit the nail on the head here. Times have changed. But the love of flight has not. As long as there are people who will take the jobs for $16K just because they love it, flying will not be about the money. I hate that so many really great, qualified pilots can’t get work that will provide a decent living, but that’s how our economy works. At least you got to do it for a while. Others of us will never be able to afford to pay for the training required to take even the worst job in flying. Flying professionally, like professional sports, still has opportunities – but the truly lucrative positions are very few and very far between.

  18. Jay says

    I work in flight training and I can definitely say that this is not a career path for most people. If you can afford to spend tends of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the education, and can also afford to live on 20,000-30,000/yr for a while, and can also afford to live on 40,000/yr a few years down the road for possibly a very long time, then by all means, go for it. This doesn’t even address the “gap” between getting your certificates and enough experience for that first job. In other words, all you have to do is be independantly wealthy (being “real good” and a “go-getter” doesn’t mean anything at this stage) . The industry doesn’t work like it used to though, the regionals fly most of the traffic and pilot’s do not “move up” to major airlines in a year or two like they used to. The major airlines have found it’s cheaper to have regionals fly their routes, and the majors are getting smaller and smaller in that respect. There are lots and lots of pilots out there, no shortage, just a shortage of pilots willing to work for that kind of pay under the work-rules and conditions that airlines demand. Are there positive aspects? Sure, but most people trying to sell you something will not speak about the negatives. I’ve worked in a variety of industries and roles and I find that being a “professional pilot” is the worst of them. You’d think that with the schooling and required professionalism that things would be different, but in the past the industry counted on pilots only spending a year or two at regional airlines. The industry is broken and it has been for some time. Maybe the majors will expand, but there are lots of qualified pilots out there and I really don’t see the “shortage” comming any time soon.

  19. Jfwhis3 says

    I will not rant because it is just a repeat of all the other posts. I have been in the business for over 17 years and have left to make a career change. The guys that are still flying 121 are idiots. I left the business because I do not want to be an idiot anymore. The business has been sold out by the pilots themselves and the younger guys that will keep flying for free. The memories that my two year old will have of her dad being around is much more valuable than flying an airplane and making upper airline management richer. Fly safe idiots!

  20. 32 year airline pilot says

    A couple of points to remember.

    Nothing will ever compensate you for the time you will spend in some hotel room away from your family, if you are able to keep one. Divorce is much more common than in the 1960’s when this add was created. Happiness in life comes from being around those you love and who love you back. You won’t find that in a strange hotel room.

    Flying is fun, but does it pay? Not like it used to! Think about your family and what they need rather that feeding YOUR “fun addiction.” Or, just decide that other people in your life are just not important and never acquire a family.

    No matter how good a job you do as a pilot, your future is in the hands of the company who OWNS those airplanes. Just ask any Braniff, Pan Am, or Eastern pilot.

    I tell young aviators to find a way to make enought money to purchase your own personal airplane. Then you can fly when you want to for real fun, and be secure in your future knowing that YOU do have some control of it and you will be rewarded for YOUR efforts, not the intelligence level of the airline manager you work for.

    • Jay says

      Good comment. With all of these fancy certificates and ratings that I have, all I want to do is have my own plane to fly around. I love flying, but I do not want to be a slave doing it. There are other aviation opportunities out there. It’s hard to see past the “airlines” though.

  21. John says

    I myself went into the flying for a living.
    I bought into the “Shortage of Pilots” of the 1980’s
    Twenty years later, I left. (Just before 911)
    Not only was I broke. My family life was in shambles.
    The flying was fun. But, the living in Crash Pads, Motels, and being gone on birthdays, and holidays, has distroyed my life.
    Ten years later, I no longer can afford to fly. I work at a low wage job, and have very little left after child payments.
    Sadly for everyone that gets “To the Top.” Twenty others, suffer scratching at the bottom.

  22. Pilot says

    Drew, Flying is a “JOB”. Nothing more or less. It’s a glorious (to the wanna be’s) life style. But it is basically a heavy equipment operator occupation with entrants willing to work for less and less. I’ve been flying over 25 years (I fly for a semi major airline) and work 2 other jobs to try to ensure my families security. I don’t recommend this job to anyone! The only people who think this job is romantic are you aviation writers! The only way an airline pilot can make good money is to ditch in the Hudson River and write a book.

  23. Glen says

    As in every career, the key to success is to make yourself more marketable than the other applicants. The more experience and the more quality experience you can get, the better. The next generation of successful aviators had best pursue as much experience in TAA cockpits and simulators as they can get. New pilots MUST train in these TAA cockpits. Flight schools with older aircraft MUST retrofit the front panels and market the programs accordingly. College degrees, Bachelors being the benchmark, are still very much desired, and will set you apart from those that do not have them. Pilot training costs should be considered an investment in your future. If you want to earn Dr.’s level of pay, you have to pay first to learn the skills just like the Dr.’s do. Just be glad you don’t have to pay their yearly liability insurance bills. Job wise its a mixed bag. There are all kinds of jobs in aviation, and I see more demand everyday coming from overseas with some really good numbers. It will affect the domestic markets. So, my advice is go for it. Just don’t expect everything on a gold platter right off the bat. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey either!

  24. Glen says

    As in every career, the key to success is to make yourself more marketable than the other applicants. The more experience and the more quality experience you can get, the better. The next generation of successful aviators had best pursue as much experience in TAA cockpits and simulators as they can get. New pilots MUST train in these TAA cockpits. Flight schools with older aircraft MUST retrofit the front panels and market the programs accordingly. College degrees, Bachelors being the benchmark, are still very much desired, and will set you apart from those that do not have them. Pilot training costs should be considered an investment in your future. If you want to earn Dr.’s level of pay, you have to pay first to learn the skills just like the Dr.’s do. Just be glad you don’t have to pay their yearly liability insurance bills. Job wise its a mixed bag. There are all kinds of jobs in aviation, and I see more demand everyday coming from overseas with some really good numbers. It will affect the domestic markets. So, my advice is go for it. Just don’t expect everything on a gold platter right off the bat. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey either!

    • MTP says

      What a mixed bag everyone has presented “to slip the surly bonds and touch the face of you know who. I was a CFI for several years, very dedicated to my students without any intention of building hours for my own logbook padding, am a woman…and no, I didn’t scream thru an engine fire, emergency landings, alternator failure at night, students puking during spins and many hours flying all over Alaska. My favorite memories are of puddle jumping cross country to Oshkosh in a Taylorcraft with another gal who was an EC-130 Navigator and owned the plane, sleeping under the wing of our plane en route and thinking about Richard Bach’s poetic script…having an OMG moment seeing a crescent moon while the sun was rising over the desert, flying a Stearman with the wind in my hair and oil spatters on the windscreen, giving kids their first ride for Wright Flight…those memories I often harken back to since I didn’t pursue a career in aviation, mostly grateful, but yes with tinges of remorse. Many things are morphing and changing in our rather conflicted world, aviation included. Heed well the words my fellow aviators the wise words of the many folks who warn it ain’t an easy path but if you LOVE it and embrace the amazing fact we can soar above terra firma, and refrain from being a cynic, THEN try, even the memories you generate amidst the trials are worth it. The tenacious will prevail, as always.I love hearing from the folks retrospectively about their flying careers. Despite the ridiculous pay, the ruthless ladder climbing, the endless hours spent away from family (my Uncle was a Learjet pilot and former band member and wrote many lyrics in lonely hotel rooms) it is not for everyone and there are trade offs. We remain a privileged lot regardless of the path we choose….greasy side down, shiny side up.
      Ciao MTP

  25. Frank says

    You have to love it. I lucked in to a pretty good life with a major in ’61 after Air Force. Never made “6 figures” , but saw the world and had some great times. Missed most birthdays and holidays and couldn’t plan on when vacation time would be, went through 2 marriages, then had to scramble when the company crashed. Gone about half the time, but that meant home about half the time.

    Never had to work for poverty wages, though. If that had been the prospect, I would have stayed in the Air Force.

    I don’t see how anyone could have my life now. I’m grateful and sad.

  26. Agent53 says

    You are right about Victor’s comment Ken. It is a new transportation era and yes, airlines are being more cost conscious than the expansion glory days of Juan Trippe. I believe that police officers, firemen, and even air marshals today play an important part of our security. I mention this because pilots although from 1 to hundreds of lives to secure during flight, they do not have a “national security” based job description that allows them to received free training and federal job wages, insurance, etc. My point is, since the “glamour” of being an airline pilot is not the same as it used to be in the 50’s, 60’s and even the 70’s; those wanting to enter the civil aviation industry as pilots need to do it for the love of flying, period! No one is going to magically increase pay. As long as there are pilots filling out applications at the regional’s at $18/hour first officer positions, airlines are not going to budge. Think about it…. Supply and demand.
    Another interesting point to make is that earning a college degree is a must for any future pilot! I have seen pilots with thousands of flight hours be passed for promotions because they lacked a college degree. In the “There’s room at the top” time period, a college degree was not at the top of the list for many growing airlines. Today, anyone interested in becoming an airline pilot should have plan “B” and “C” in some cases. Why? Because there will always be pilots who love to fly and are willing to trade in their grandmothers for the low paying right seat in the cockpit. Since commercial airline pilots are limited to 1000 flying hours per year, many have 2nd jobs. Again, for the love of flying; one is willing to make these sacrifices. If someone who is considering entering the airlines after spending about 80k to become hirable, please take the time to invest in a college degree that allows you to stay close to the love of flying. I am doing that now and I only have 2 years left in my BS degree in aviation business administration, plan “b”. I am also a real estate broker while not in the sky. I also have a wife and three kids. I can not stress to those who are looking to become airline pilots to get a college degree. This could be the way to subsidize your income during the first couple of “poverty years”. Below is a link to a site that was compiled by industry pros that compares airline pilot salaries. As you will see income levels get pretty interesting after 5+ years at the regional airlines. Like everything else, demand will create the supply so don’t let anyone tell you that pilots can not earn a decent living doing what they love! Check out what a Southwest airline’s first officer makes 2 year and beyond. Well worth the time and investment in college education and flight training. So is there “room at the top”, hell yeah!

    Pilot53

  27. Sun500 says

    The Aviation Industy is headed for problems with the mandatory age retirees (FAA extended to 65 hit that age. The farm team-already smaller from the shrinkage of military pilots will shrink and then, the airlines and corporate/charters will have to come up with more money. Supply and Demand will eventually replace today’s ridiculous pay rates. I’d suggest telling newbies to take a sales job or a career that will allow them to earn based on performance, earn enough money to buy their own plane and fly for fun. Or tell them to get the training and then, move to flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for the Defense Industry contracted by the Department of Defense, CIA, etc. I know a guy who’s client runs a team of UAV pilots and most are making 100K + and going home every night. Or they can take “international assignments.” The travel to exotic lands, meet interesting people and kill them. Got to remain a growth industry in that line of work.

  28. Alan says

    I was a NASA pilot for almost 20 years. I left NASA to fly Corporate and Charter. I was living “The Dream”. Life was great in the aviation world until about tree years ago when everything came crashing down. I lost my job and have been out of work for almost 3 years now. I hear there is a pilot shortage but I don’t see it. I can’t buy my way into a pilot seat right now. It’s hard to believe that I was making close to six figures and the airlines who want to hire you only want to pay you about 16K a year to start. Can you say food stamps. With all my years of experience and education to make 16K a year is ridiculous. People say we are glorified bus drivers, but bus drivers are making more than pilot are making now. I would not advise anyone who wants to get into aviation to do it unless there is a dramatic change in the aviation market. ( 25 year professional pilot)

  29. David Saravia says

    The article brings in a sense of reality in a period where the “flying glamour” for pilots, crews and passengers are gone, but it is also a fact of taking the industry to massive volumes needed to keep the business going. It is also a moment to reflect in the new minimums to have the right seat, for a young pilot, both in terms of potential income as well as the importance to conduct safe operations for airplanes and souls on board.

    Many blessings to all airmen, in the air or grounded.

  30. Waldo says

    Until passengers start paying for professional pilots and stop relying on technology to keep them safe in the air. The next generation of Sullies will not be in the cockpit to save them. The cost of being away from family for half of your life and having your entire lifestyle depend on your medical fitness is not being offset by the WalMart greeter wages the airlines offer. As a 23year military pilot it is not a job I will do or recommend to any of my family or friends.

  31. Gino says

    When I gave up a commercial pilot career – letter in hand – in 1972 for show business, it was the hardest decision of my life, but it proved fulfilling. Many ups and downs, for sure, but today, looking at where I would had been had I chosen the flying career, I am blessed to be where I am. At 71 I am still in show business and I plan to be there at 100! You can’t say a pilot can have those kind of prospects. Bless you all.

  32. Ken says

    Drew, a little less vagueness and more bottom line facts, opinion and specifics would be helpful. No offense but I got more out of the 1st comment than the article.

    I’m advising my college age daughter to not pursue a professional career as a pilot unless and until opportunies and compensation improve. I have not seen enough facts to support that happening now despite the current PR by the industry and my perspective on the future of the economy in general is rather pessimistic toward that end.

    I will remain skeptical until the trend actually changes with measurable results.

  33. Victor says

    Unfortunately, the younger generations see pilots as nothing more than glorified bus drivers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that expression. The thought process from the younger generations is simple: Technology is so advanced these days, that all a pilot does is punch buttons. They need to be less of a pilot and more of a computer operator.

    The Glitz and glamour of being an airline pilot is all but gone now. The constant media bashing of the airlines and their fees as well as focusing stories on the TSA screeners, drunk pilots and crew members getting fed up with passengers and popping the emergency chute with a beer in their hand is doing nothing to help the industry.

    The magic and privelage of being a passenger on a commercial flight is no longer there. It’s an every day occurance – equated to riding on the subway for some. It’s not longer the adventure that it was in the 50’s and 60’s, it’s a necessary evil.

    Couple those problem with the high cost incurred just to get the wheels off the ground and it’s easy to see why Commercial aviation no longer attracts the droves of hungry young pilots that are needed to keep the industry afloat. The six-figure incomes of Commercial Carrier pilots are nothing but legend now. It’s virtually impossible to fly for a living and live above the poverty level at the same time these days. Why? because the profit margin is an ever shrinking part of the business. Pilots are a necessary expense to the airlines and no longer seen as the backbone of their business. The pressure is on to find replacement pilots that don’t mind qualifying for food stamps after they receive their paycheck.

    I didn’t give up on an aviation career in the 90’s becuase I was burned out on flying. I gave up because there was virtually no way I could live on what the commuters payed. at the end of the day, I had to choose: A job I love, or a being able to afford to put food on the table for my family. The family won (of course) and I don’t regret the decision.

    If the Commercial Airlines want to attract today’s shapest minds to be the best airline pilots they possibly can, they need to be prepared to pay for them. In turn, the average consumer needs to realize that flying isn’t cheap (or easy, frankly) and they need to be prepared to pony up the money for the experience.

    The course of commercial aviation cannot sustain itself in it’s current state because the days of the nearly god-like status of commercial pilots are over. The job is no longer an attractant in itself like it was in the 50’s.

    • says

      ditto all. no one could understand why i would turn my back on a career i loved and excelled at. for me too it was in the mid 90’s when i finally couldn’t justify spending more than i earned and never being home. twice since then i’ve had the opportunity to go back, i did, i was furloughed after 4 months, 2 days before xmas and most recently, the contract i was hired to fly for expired 10 days after i hit the line; that after 3 months of living on NO compensation out of state to go through the (unpaid) training. the pay was 50$/hour. let me think, most service professionals hourly rates are more, the plumber, electrician, computer tech, lets not even discuss doctors or lawyers, and yet – not one of them is responsible for a piece of equipment valued at millions of dollars nor are they responsible for hundreds of lives, they are not responsible for maintaining their health OR their ability let alone their knowledge – as pilots are, and they are not required to pass tests proving as much every 6 months. i love flying, i miss it terribly. i hate the industry and don’t miss it one bit. i stopped recommending flying as a career long ago. don’t mean to sound bitter but the facts are rather biting. i make more an hour training horses than i ever did flying.

      • Jay says

        No, most major airline CAPTAINS do, many major airline pilots do not, and those ones that do earn the “big bucks” are a very small percentage of the total airline pilots. Go look at the pay rates for year 1-5 first officers for most major airlines. Some of the more successful major airlines (Jet Blue, Southwest) pay susbstancially less those legacy airlines that perpetuated the glamor and lifestyle. It’s nearly every pilot’s dream to fly 747s across the Atlantic making $200,000+ a year. The number of pilots actually doing that is so small, and what’s the point if it takes you until you are 55 years old to even get there? You’ve wasted most of your life for something that can fall apart so easily (losing medical certification, etc).

        • Jay says

          And even is not quite true, American Eagle, Skywest, and others are “major” airlines these days by passenger volume, many of their Captains do not make 100K/yr or even close to that. The whole idea that the number of lives you are transporting has something to do with your pay/skill/experience is ridiculous, but that’s how the aviation industry works. Flying 20 people on a turboprop that may be more complex and difficult to fly=$20,000, flying hundreds of people on a much bigger jet that is different, but not harder (not going to say easier though) can mean much more money. That’s the way it works….

    • Tom says

      There will never be a shortage of pilots, maybe a shortage of “qualified” pilots, but that term is whatever the company wants it to be.

      I think you will see things such as single pilot cockpits proposed. The senior flight attendant will receive minimal training to be in the cockpit during takeoff and landing.

    • Tom says

      There will never be a shortage of pilots, maybe a shortage of “qualified” pilots, but that term is whatever the company wants it to be.

      I think you will see things such as single pilot cockpits proposed. The senior flight attendant will receive minimal training to be in the cockpit during takeoff and landing.

    • Cryptik says

      some people may think of pilots as glorified bus drivers… but take it from somebody that spends a huge part of his life sitting in the passenger seat of a commercial airplane… when the crap hits the fan… I want to know you all are up there making things right. I know such events are rare…but when they do happen… those “glorified bus drivers” become heros.

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