AOPA - Career Pilot

Career Success Stories

A tale of two pilots

By Wayne Phillips (From AOPA Flight Training)

This is the way it's supposed to go:

Somehow, the flying bug bites. Rather than follow some traditional career path, you announce to astonished family members one night that you want to become an airline pilot. Be certain to have smelling salts nearby when mom and dad or a spouse or a significant other ask what it's going to cost and you reply, "Oh, anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 depending on where I get my training."

Once they return to consciousness and realize that you might eventually extract yourself from training debt by the year 2030, given the pay scales of certificated flight instructors and regional-airline new hires, you miraculously receive the green light from the loved ones. Off you go to get the training, followed by flight instructing and maybe Part 135 jobs for a couple of years, then a five-to-seven-year stint at a regional airline. If the hiring gods are with you, about 10 years down the road Southwest, JetBlue, FedEx, or Continental calls, and life becomes good. You're finally making big money--well into six figures--and hunker down for a lifelong career at Big Time Airline. You get the spouse, the kids, the boat, the Mercedes, the condo in the Keys, and a ranchette in Colorado.

Here's a wake-up call: It doesn't always work that way, and anyone chasing the airline flight deck job should consider that the dream could become a nightmare. As testimony to the realities of the airline game and what could happen, read on. These are true stories.

Thirty-something Larry started flying at age 16 in suburban Detroit and soloed July 8, 1986. However, finances kept him from going at it full-time until college. At the time, the thought of flying professionally was only in the embryonic stage.

Later, while at the University of Michigan, he joined the naval ROTC program but jettisoned that effort and his college career when he learned he did not qualify for a gig as a naval aviator. It was years later that he completed his degree through the Embry-Riddle system. So, after chugging through his FAA certificates and ratings at a Part 61 school, he took his first CFI job in August 1988. In just 11 months, young Larry racked up more than 1,200 hours.

With some good time in his logbooks, Larry started flying Part 135 operations in a Piper Seneca III and a Chieftain--all this at the age of 20 and with only a year and a half of college.

During late 1989 and 1990, the job market fell flat, and 21-year-old Larry took a job as a firefighter. But, with a flexible schedule at the fire station, he was able to grab contract pilot work on days off, continued working as a flight instructor, and eventually secured a chief pilot position with an air taxi company. All was well for the next decade. Larry had the stability of a city job but vented his lust for flight during his days off.

In January 2000, Larry changed course dramatically to pursue that dormant goal of flying for the airlines. With a boatload of quality time, including turboprop experience, he hooked up with freight hauler Reliant Airlines, based at Willow Run Airport in suburban Detroit, and flew jets--for 10 months. Then, the first layoff hit.

Ameristar, another freight hauler, offered a job flying Boeing 737s, and Larry grabbed that. But, as luck would have it, while in simulator training at Ameristar, Midwest Express (now Midwest Airlines) called with an offer to fly DC-9s and a class date of January 2001. This was the job that Larry had hoped for. As he says, "I wanted to retire there. I was going to stay until they threw me out." And that they did. In less than a year, he was furloughed.

Thankfully, in October 2001 a good friend at Ameristar convinced management to bring Larry back into the fold. But, in August 2002 while still at Ameristar, he got the recall from Midwest Express and returned to the DC-9--only to be bumped in April 2003. By the end of the month, Larry received a call from American Trans Air for a May interview and by June he was in class at ATA for 737 training. While based at Chicago Midway Airport, Larry moved up the seniority list quickly and was flying 737-800s.

During the summer of 2004, ATA filed for bankruptcy. Larry and his colleagues received the dreaded news that a furlough was imminent. Once again, Larry is shown the exit door in April 2005.

Because of union agreements between carriers, Larry was offered an interview at Southwest, but no job offer came. An interview at Continental followed and, voila, he passed the interview and was offered the job of a lifetime at last. But, he turned them down.

The job at Continental offered a starting salary in the neighborhood of $28,000 and a move to Newark. Larry was making twice that at the fire department. He was also offered a job at USA3000 and turned that down as well.

Why did he walk away after all this time and so much grief? "First and foremost is family. My wife has a great career, and it was virtually impossible to relocate to Newark and give that up. I've got young kids whom I adore. I coach baseball. I just could not see myself in that lifestyle any longer. If I was single, I'd be flying for Continental out of Newark. But, under the circumstances, I could not bring myself to climb out from the bottom of the barrel again and be on the road away from the family so much."

Did Larry walk away from aviation? "I became a chief flight instructor for a [Part] 141 school. The work is rewarding because I like to teach and mentor the young guys. I've made better pay in my lifetime, but I'm at home nights and I can see my kids grow up. I could not have done that staying in the airlines."

Want some words of wisdom from a guy who's been in the ups and downs of the airline game? "Be prepared for the crash. If college is your thing, take a major or coursework in areas outside of aviation. The airline industry is one of cycles, and there will be booms and busts. I know!"

Larry's is just one story of frustration. Consider Russ.

He was a bit of a late bloomer to aviation. He earned a degree in geophysics at a Big 10 school and set out as a gravity surveyor for oil companies after graduation. In 1984, mom gave him a $20 introductory flight for a birthday gift. That set off the fireworks for flying.

Soon after, Russ started flying lessons and earned his private pilot certificate in 1986. After a few hours in a Cessna, he experienced an epiphany. Russ said to himself, "Flying is costing way too much money, and there has got to be an easier way." After seeing an ad in the local paper that the Air Force was looking for pilots, he signed up. Because of his glasses, he could not qualify for pilot training but, instead, became a navigator and flew aboard the F-111 for about a year.

In 1998, the Air Force relaxed its vision requirements in light of the pilot shortage it was experiencing at the time, and Russ entered pilot training and ultimately started flying F-15s out of Alaska. He remained in the Air Force until 2000.

Russ says that he always had the goal of flying for the airlines, and his 14 years in the military was part of the grand plan to make it to the major carriers. Within one year before his separation from the military, Northwest Airlines presented him with a job offer and he segued nicely from flying fighters for Uncle Sam to flying DC-9s for civilian customers. At various points in his short Northwest career, he logged time in 747s, 757s, and even 727s as the company's fortunes rose and fell along with his seniority.

After September 11, 2001, Northwest began furloughing pilots, and Russ was on the block. But, according to a company letter in early 2002 stating that furloughs were ending, it appeared that Russ escaped the axe. That was to change.

Expecting a furlough to take place, Russ had sent out a number of résumés and had received several job offers. But, based on the letter stating furloughs had ended, he turned those down. Guess what? He was furloughed anyway.

Fast forward. Russ took a corporate flying job to keep the family afloat. In the summer of 2004, Russ left the Hawker jet and launched a government career in aviation. It seemed as though job and economic stability had returned to Russ's life. Then in early 2005, Northwest called to say, "C'mon back!" And he did--only to be furloughed again by the end of the year.

Russ, hitting the bricks one more time, landed at the famed freight-hauler Kalitta Air flying 747s. But, in a blessed twist of fate, the U.S. government offered him his old position in early 2006. He returned to the job, never to look back.

Russ maintains a philosophical view about his trials. "It is all part of life. I would say this to anybody looking at an airline career. Just talk to the older guys. The feeling is that it just isn't the same as it was before 9/11. If my kids wanted to jump in the airline track, I would not discourage them. I would say, though, that they should not take on the tremendous debt that some of the kids are getting into today. To be saddled with $100,000 or more of debt and realize that the debt can't be retired early because of poor starting salary is really tough. I was lucky to have the military foot the bill for my flight training. That was a great plan."

Other pilots have become disenchanted with airline life. This is not intended to rain on your parade if you are slogging through your ratings. There are many pilots who have made it through a 30-year career unscathed by firings and who have led contented lives. But, the visions of happily prancing through an aerodrome on your way to the flight deck of a Boeing, drawing top pay, need to be tempered with a reality check. If you know both the upsides and the downsides and you can prepare for that inevitable rainy day, then terrific--you are a realist. If you can honestly say, "That's for me," go for it!

Wayne Phillips is an airline transport pilot with a Boeing 737 type rating. He is a B-737 instructor and operates the Airline Training Orientation Program in association with Continental Airlines. He is an aviation safety consultant in Michigan and speaker for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.