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From Private Pilot to Airline Pilot

Jeremy King had 700 hours as a private pilot flying at a grass strip in Georgia, but his ultimate goal was to become an airline pilot. Thanks to some prodding from his girlfriend, King took the plunge. In this six-part series, King documents his training experience.

The Big Day

Like most major changes in my life, I can blame it on a woman. I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty girl.

Six months ago, my girlfriend handed me a note with all the stuff that aggravated her about me. High on the list were my job and ambition, or lack thereof, on both counts. I was turning wrenches at a flight school, still believing my own story about building time so I could get a flying job. I had 700 hours, most of it flying off a grass airstrip, but I was still just a private pilot. She was right and I knew it, but I fought tooth and nail to defend myself.

Joe, an airline recruiter, saw me on the ramp soon afterward and flat out asked me what I was doing with my life.

“I’m going to save up my money, build some more time, and become a professional pilot,” I said, trying to cover up the rut my life was in.

“Rob told me all about you, and you’re the kind of pilot we want to have at the airline,” Joe said. “I know you’re just a private pilot, but you’ve got some great experience. If you get your instrument and multiengine ratings and your commercial certificate, you can interview.”

The world spun as I tried to put it all together. With only a couple hundred dollars in the bank, it was hard to imagine dropping thousands of dollars in a hurry to get a flying job. Kelly, a longtime friend who owns several of the airplanes I maintain and fly, had one question: “How much do you need?”

Lesson learned: Don’t go begging for money without knowing how much you need. I started surfing the Internet and reading the classifieds. I found a few places that offered flat-rate accelerated courses, so I made some calls. I drafted up an e-mail to Kelly, and he wrote a check and a simple repayment plan.

A month later, I stood on the ramp of a rural North Carolina airport. The examiner shook my hand after a successful instrument checkride. I called Joe.

Three weeks after that, I used the brand-new instrument ticket on my multiengine commercial checkride to descend through a real cloud layer with a simulated partial power failure for an ILS approach into Lakeland, Fla. The failure was simulated; the sweaty palms were not. An hour later, I phoned a progress report to Joe. “Let me know when you get 50 hours of multi time,” he said. I had 25 hours, and the thought of having to pay to double my multi time frightened me.

A month later, I called Joe. It was a week before Thanksgiving and the luck continued. “Can you be here Monday to interview?”

Monday morning came. After a sleepless night, I walked into the general office and handed my folder across the table. I sat down and wiggled uncomfortably in my new suit. The interviewer looked at the piles of paper, asked some questions, and led me into a testing room. She handed me the booklet: 30 questions, multiple choice, mostly pulled from the instrument and commercial knowledge test banks, and a smattering of ATP questions to mix things up. After that, a tabular speed test evaluated how well I could pull numbers off a chart. I never saw the scores on either. I felt pretty crummy about the whole deal. I must have passed, though.

Finally, someone asked me some airplane questions. Then came the human resources part of the interview.

What would you do if crew scheduling called to pin an extra leg or two on you after landing on the morning before your child’s soccer tournament? Go fly some more. Someone’s got to buy the kneepads. (That was an easy question for me, with no experience at that family stuff).

Why did you choose this company? I like the people I’d met from here, and admire what I saw in them.

What is your biggest weakness? I’m my own worst enemy when I mess up. (That one came back to haunt me later on in training).

I had to write an essay on what crew resource management meant to me. After years of flying single pilot (often single-seat) aircraft, the concept of CRM was about as high on my priority list as knowing who won last year’s World Cup Cricket. I’m not a sports person, by the way.

Then came the simulator evaluation. We took off, punched into an overcast layer at 700 feet, and stayed in it the rest of the flight. My brain bogged down under all the details presented by the displays and the number of knobs, switches, and buttons surrounding me. We did some basic air work—steep turns and holding. The instructor vectored us around for an ILS approach, and we somehow punched out of the overcast and lined up on the runway.

My flying wasn’t the greatest, but I felt a lot better when I got lucky and greased the landing. I swapped seats and ran the heading bug and altitude alerter for another interviewee while he flew. The instructor handled all the checklists and configuration changes, all we had to do was handle the gear and flaps while the other guy flew.

Pretty soon, our director of pilot recruiting gave me the “welcome aboard.” My head was spinning. In the span of four months, I had progressed from a flight school mechanic to newly hired regional airline pilot. Sometimes goals are much easier to achieve than one realizes, and a simple prompting from someone who matters most can set a drifter back on course, even if the prompt is written on a pink sticky note.

This is the first of a six-part series on Jeremy King’s adventures in going from a grass strip to an airline cockpit. He lives in Whitesburg, Ga.

Continue with Part II: Airline boot camp

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