The turning point in my aviation career came when I found myself hiding in a bathroom stall at Memphis International Airport silently crying between flights. I missed my new husband, my Great Dane puppy, and the cozy home we had remodeled together. I was getting ready to begin a four-day trip with the regional airline I was working for at the time—the same airline I had been working with for the past year—on trips that had me spending more nights in hotel rooms than in my own bed. But I had made a commitment. I had a job to do.
So I pulled myself together and went out to greet my passengers—passengers who never dreamed that their first officer was so unhappy, she was ducking into airport bathrooms to avoid displaying embarrassing emotions in the terminal. Well, it didn’t take me long to decide that something had to change. I put in my two weeks’ notice shortly thereafter and went back to my old flight-instructing job at the airport down the street from our home. My husband was concerned at first. We were still paying off a hefty flight school loan, an investment we thought would be well worth the cost in the long run, over the course of a lucrative flying career with a major airline. I gradually became my old, fun-loving self again, which helped my husband come to the conclusion that a happy wife is worth any amount of money.
The return to flight instructing was meant to be a temporary fix while I considered my options and answered a few questions for myself. What did I really want out of my aviation experience? Could I have a flying career without sacrificing a family life?
Growing up as the daughter of an Air Force pilot who later went on to have a successful flying career at FedEx, I knew plenty of families who made aviation work—and several who did not. I knew more than one child of divorce, whose parents weren’t able to handle the stress and separation that comes with flying for a major airline or the military. But, in my own family, my father made it work because his love for flying was second only to his love for us. The job did not come without its hardships, though. I can vividly remember dad in his uniform, sullen as he drove away from us on Christmas morning. As a fairly junior flight engineer, working for the biggest cargo company in the world, dad didn’t get to choose his trips or make his schedule. He flew when he was told to, and he was grateful for the opportunity to financially support his family while also doing something he loved. As my brother and I grew older, dad took a job in the flight training department, trading flights to Paris and Cologne for more appearances at Little League and birthday parties.
Now that I am entering my tenth year of flying, I’ve come to know lots of other men and women who have managed to be successful with both a flying career and a home life. One of my father’s friends just recently upgraded to captain, although he has flown for FedEx for more than 20 years. He passed up various upgrade opportunities to retain the seniority that would allow him a flexible enough schedule to have time at home with his wife and five children. In fact, he maintains that a flying career is actually very conducive to family life. Flying for a major airline means his work doesn’t follow him home, like it would if he worked in the medical field or owned a business. When a trip is over, he does not have to stay attached to his cellphone, waiting on calls from clients or patients. He just gets to spend quality time with his family until it is time to fly again.
Another of my flight school buddies went to work for a Nashville, Tennessee-based charter company. She flew Lears and Citations until she went on maternity leave to have her first child. In the interim, she started sales and marketing for that company as a way to meet the flexible schedule demands that a baby requires. It turns out that her experience as a pilot has made her the most effective salesperson the company has ever had. Her intimate knowledge of and love for the airplanes helps her sell more charter trips than any of her predecessors. She has never gone back to flying the line. She is happy to sell the trips so that others can fly—and she can keep her feet on the ground with her daughter.
My old flight instructor, who just recently celebrated his tenth wedding anniversary, has certainly made a very successful flying career for himself. He went to work for a regional airline before moving on to a major cargo carrier. He has taken every upgrade and advancement opportunity offered, and his marriage seems no worse for the wear. In fact, they are one of the most happy, fun-loving couples I know. His extremely supportive wife tells me all the time that absence makes her heart grow fonder, and she enjoys the time to herself to pursue her own interests. And now that he is gaining a little bit of seniority, she jokes that he’s home too much and wishes he had some more work to do.
So, here I am, five years back into flight instructing, not exactly in the place I saw myself when I got that commercial certificate almost 10 years ago. I have a two-year-old daughter, more friends than I can count, and a very happy husband. I have been promoted to assistant chief flight instructor of the largest standalone flight school in the state of Mississippi and I am the lead FAA safety representative for my state. I even have the time to pursue my love for writing through various aviation magazines and publications.
Although my salary is nowhere near what it would be at a major airline, I have the flexibility to make time commitments to my family, our church, and our loved ones. I know my decision would not make sense to everyone, but it is the right one for me. And I can honestly say I have finally answered that question—yes, you certainly can have both a successful flying career and a full family life, although it may not be the life you’ve imagined, and there may be a few sacrifices along the way. But if you still get that feeling of awe when your airplane first lifts into the air—and you also love the equally magical sound of your child’s laughter—I think you will find a way to make it all work.
Natalie Bingham Hoover, ATP/CFII/MEI, has given more than 3,000 hours of dual instruction. She lives in Germantown, Tennessee.