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.
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
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