DALLAS – Hello everyone, and welcome back to our newest episode of the Airways Profile.
Fiona, thank you for being here. The first question, and always the simplest one: what’s your name, and what’s your role in aviation?
My name is Fiona Morrison, and I’m an airline pilot as well as a certified flight instructor with my gold seal. I’m type-rated in the E175/190 and can instruct in single and multi-engine airplanes. I can also teach instrument training!
Further, I love to provide mentorship to other aviators, especially females in the industry who need advice.
Definitely a good start. Now to the second question. What’s your story? How did you end up being who you are today?
Flying is a second career for me. Before I started, I went to college and got my BA in Communications and then moved to Boston with a group of friends from school. I never really considered being a pilot as an option until I became increasingly fed up with my office job.
I worked in the law department of a financial company in the classic cube setup. I was scared of flying in little airplanes, I get motion sickness and I’m also scared of heights, so I thought it wasn’t really an option to pursue this career.
After a few introductory/familiarization flights, I decided it was something I really could do and started my flight training. It took me almost three years to the day to go from a zero-time student pilot to an airline pilot.
Okay, that actually puzzles me, but in a good way. So, you were fed up with your job, and that is something I can totally understand (a person in their second career here!).
What puzzles me is the fact that you were scared of little airplanes, scared of heights, so why a career in aviation? How did the idea of becoming a pilot come into your mind?
I come from a long line of pilots. There are nine of us on my dad’s side, making me a third-generation pilot. At the time, a couple of my cousins were going through their flight training, and they urged me to try an introductory flight to really rule out the possibility of not being a pilot since I had been somewhat against it as an option growing up.
My dad would periodically say to me “are you sure you don’t want to be a pilot?” It was never in a way that pushed me to take that route, but it was a constant reminder that this job could always be something I could do. Ultimately, it was my family who helped me realize that I could make this my career.
And that’s when you realize how important family is. In what terms can you say that your family was important in your decision?
They helped me figure out what options I had available to me, but they didn’t overstep or push me in one direction or another, which I appreciated. They really left the decision-making up to me and would support whatever I came up with!
So you took your decision. You decided that you wanted to be a pilot. What happened next?
Once I had made the decision to actually pursue this as a career, it was time to find a flight school and see what I could logistically make work. I had found ATP Flight School and they had a location close to my parents’ house, so I packed up and moved away from all my college friends and Boston and the life I had then headed to Utah to start flight training.
My dad flew out to help pack up my stuff and drove back home with me, where I hadn’t lived for almost six years! It was definitely an adjustment, but financially it made the most sense. Plus, my mom is a great cook.
After all, la mamma e’ sempre la mamma. So, let’s skip forward with our timeline, and let me ask you: how was your first time in the air? And how was your first solo flight?
I was very nervous my first time up. It actually took me a couple of flights to really think I could continue it as a career because I was so scared and unsure if I could get over that fear. I hated looking out to my side, and any bump freaked me out, but being the one to actually fly the plane made a huge difference.
Once I started flight training, I had an awesome instructor who knew how to make me feel comfortable on the plane and when to push me out of my comfort zone.
It also helped that he got motion sick too so we would avoid doing things that would make us feel sick. When it came time to solo, I knew my instructor was confident in me which definitely helped my own confidence. I felt perfectly safe and comfortable being up there and knew I could do this forever at that point, it was the most freeing experience I’ve had!
I know every case is different, but I am pretty sure that someone out there would like to become a pilot, and they are afraid of heights, or afraid of flying, etc.
How did you manage your fears?
I think what really got me to get over my fears was that I trusted my instructor, I trusted the airplane, and eventually, I trusted myself. Once I became confident and knew more about what was happening, and realized how safe and how much control I really had, all my fears went away!
Let me ask you another question that people who want to be a pilot definitely look forward to, and it’s about flight training: how does it work?
I mean, you go to school, you sit on a chair, and you learn how to fly?
Flight training is very different for each person and depends on what kind of school they decide to go to. I did an ATP Flight School accelerated program that helped me accomplish my training in nine months.
The program included seven check rides for my private, instrument, commercial single-engine, certified flight instructor, certified instrument instructor, commercial multi-engine, and multi-engine instructor.
After I completed those, I was hired back as an instructor at the same company to build time for the airlines. As I said, lots of different ways but I loved my route!
Okay, that actually makes more sense now. You become a pilot and also an instructor. How do you build time for the airlines? I know that you need to log a minimum of hours, but can you do so with all types of flights?
I was instructed to get my hours for the airlines, which was the 1500-hour requirement in my case.
I can log any flight I fly with a student towards my total time which is what I did for essentially all of my hours prior to the airlines. I only flew 10 hours solo and the rest were mostly teaching plus a few flights here and there with friends!
What happens after you reach the number of hours?
Hopefully, an airline hires you! (If that is your goal, which was mine).
You can apply sooner than the hour requirement and get a job offer as well as a start date for training with an airline and continue to acquire the required hours by the start date. If you can’t make it, most places are okay with delaying the class date.
I applied when I had about 1250 hours even though I needed the full 1500. I got the job offer and I finished up my hours, which left me with about two months off before I started airline training. Since this was the first time in about 2.5 years, I had time off I was able to travel and decompress from flying before it was time to get back into training mode.
So, you reached the hours, you got hired by an airline, and you started flying. What was the first life impact of an airline pilot, with the crazy schedule, on a person who comes from a 9-to-5 job?
I was hired by SkyWest Airlines and currently work for them!
Becoming an airline pilot finally, after seeking out that role for so long, was such an exciting time that I didn’t mind the ups and downs of the scheduling and being on reserve (on call with a two-hour window to get to work). I love the day-to-day variety of the job and that I’m always going somewhere different and experiencing new places (even if it is just from a hotel room).
However, now that I’ve been flying for about 10 months, I’m becoming increasingly picky with what I want for a schedule. Luckily, I do get just about whatever preferences I want and days off! So, going from a 9-5 life with only looking forward to weekends and limited holidays to about 12-15 days off a month and halfway decent trips, I would say I’m much happier now!
There are still some days that are harder than others but even then, it’s still the best job ever!
Any tips on the ups and downs, in your personal opinion?
I think the ups are when you gain enough seniority to be able to bid on a schedule that gives you a good quality of life, fly with fun people, have around 12-15 days off a month every month, and travel to different places you wouldn’t otherwise go.
The downs are a lot of the opposites of those and also unscheduled delays, early mornings, or late nights, and I suppose having my job controlled solely by demand also has the potential to really change my entire career. But all in all, the ups are way more significant than the downs!
You are a pilot. You know how to fly, navigate, and communicate. But in terms of being part of an airline, what else did you have to learn?
I had to learn a lot when I started airline training!
Although I was a commercial pilot, the 121 world has its own rules and regulations to learn. Obviously, each airline is different, but in my experience, we did some classroom learning and then spent time in FTDs (flight training devices) and full motion simulators. The ground school consisted of indoc and then systems.
Indoc was more of the paperwork, planning, rules, policy, etc. aspect of the company in addition to some regulations in the 121 world. Then systems were specific to the airplane and we had to learn what every button was and what it did.
At the end of both indoc and systems, we had exams that had to be passed in order to continue. The FTDs also had evaluations to be passed and then the same with the simulators for maneuvers. After passing everything, you take the final check ride to become an airline pilot!
What’s the 121 world?
121 is the part of the FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations) that large US air carriers, regionals, and cargo operations operate under. Flight training is done under part 141 or part 61.
I am really curious about your schedule. I know some long-haul pilots sleep over in destination cities and then get back home the day after. I have some friends who work in various well-known low-cost airlines, and they always sleep “at home” (on base, as they say). What about you?
My typical schedule right now is between 12 and 15 days off a month, with about four trips a month all being four days long. Since I currently live in Colorado but commute to Salt Lake City, where I am based, I prefer longer trips so I don’t have to go back and forth as much. I used to be based in Denver (and hope to go back eventually), but for now, SLC gives me much better flying and trips.
My trips are about 20–25 hours of flight during the four days. I also bid to fly no more than four legs in a day and no longer than a 2-hour sit in between legs on a given day. I try to get weekends off mostly, and for the most part, I do! I fly anywhere between 75 and 100 hours a month, depending on what I pick up or drop from my schedule.
How can you juggle your work with weird hours, with your family, friends, or partner?
Right now, it’s just me! I live with three of my cousins (two of them are pilots, and one is studying aviation management) in a nice duplex outside of Denver. One of my cousins is also a pilot for SkyWest as well, so we try to at least get similar days off to do activities together. It’s nice living with them because they know the lifestyle and accept that I’ll be coming and going at weird times of the day.
Additionally, since I have the flexibility of not having kids, I don’t mind the commuting life (for now) and it also allows me to see my family that lives near Salt Lake! As I start to have my own family I think my choices and time away from home will change pretty dramatically, but as I said, for now, I can be flexible and be home as little or as much as I like!
We just spoke about weird hours, weird shifts, and weird things. Do you think a specific mindset is required for being a pilot? What’s the most challenging thing about this job, in your opinion?
I think that a specific personality is pretty common when it comes to pilots, but I think the mindset would vary depending on each situation.
Most of the time in day-to-day operations I think an open and collaborative mindset is the most common one we have. The most challenging part (aside from weather, emergencies, delays, etc) I would have to say is honestly the time I spent becoming qualified for the job while gaining my hours as an instructor.
Day-to-day life is very standard, straightforward, and most of the time, predictable, which can make it fairly easy. In my opinion, it was much harder to get to the airlines and go through the training than it is to be an airline pilot.
However, I believe that’s because the training we do is so thorough that when we actually start flying the jet it feels comfortable and normal. Of course, some days are longer than others and things just never seem to go right, but those days are far, and few between.
Staying in the “weird things” field: what do you think is the worst mistake that a pilot can make?
I think the worst mistake that a pilot can make is thinking that they’re immune to making mistakes.
There’s a reason there are two people up front, we’re a crew and we back each other up. We have such a consistent routine that when something happens outside of the norm, we tend to have an expectation bias and overlook whatever inconsistency comes up.
Luckily, we have checklists and procedures to ensure we can catch those instances. The really comforting and awesome thing about the aviation industry is that everyone is safety focused. From the gate agents, to dispatch, to operations, to the rampers, to air traffic control, to pilots, to flight attendants – it’s one big group effort to ensure we get where we’re going safely without any hiccups.
When mistakes are made, we back each other up. So, in saying all that, yes, I have made mistakes! However, nothing that ever-compromised safety or that would be career-ending.
You joined aviation recently, so I cannot ask you directly how COVID impacted your job, but what’s your opinion about how COVID has impacted the aviation industry? Especially considering what is happening this summer.
I was flying when COVID happened as a flight instructor, and it did impact my career, although differently than the airlines.
I ended up transferring to instruct in Florida to have more students to continue building my flight time because a lot of the students I had in Arizona had left the state since their campus closed.
I think maybe I might have made the swap to another training location, but it was a good push to get me to leave and ultimately was a good move for my instructing career. I think COVID has been another example of how this industry is so largely dictated by the economy and demand for air travel.
It will have its ups and downs. It was obviously a bad time to be a pilot during COVID, but now in the aftermath, air travel is back to somewhat normal, and it’s been a good thing for newer pilots like me.
It’s left a huge demand for airlines to hire due to how many left during the pandemic in addition to the already large amounts of pilots retiring. However, I know it has posed as a bit of an issue for airlines to retain pilots.
Unfortunately, I think we’re at a point where all the qualified people have been hired, and now we’re at a place where the hour requirement is slowing down the hiring process. I’m not quite sure where I stand on maintaining the hour requirements for the airlines, but I do wonder how this will play out for the airline industry.
I would like to ask you this: where do you see yourself in 5 and/or 10 years? What kind of career would you like to pursue next in aviation?
I hope in five years I will be at a mainline carrier! I would love to work for Delta since that’s who my dad worked for, but as I said, I come from a big flying family and I have an uncle who retired from United and another who still works for American.
Hopefully, in 10 years, it’s the same job (assuming I like where I’m at) and I just continue to gain seniority at my company. I’m sort of an anomaly of a pilot because I don’t have a dream airplane to fly or a huge desire to fly international.
I think whatever is happening in my family life at home will largely dictate my choices at whatever airline I’m at. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to have the choices to do whatever will match up with my personal life.
The last question before moving on with the last part of this interview. You provide mentorship to other aviators. What is your definition of mentorship? Is there a reason behind your “especially females”?
I think being a mentor is helping and guiding someone to become aware of how capable they really are. It’s knowing they have potential and showing that person that it’s in them. And for females, in particular, there’s not a lot of representation out there for us to see that this job is an option and obtainable as a career.
I like to provide insight on how they can get to where I am today (or in another route of being a pilot) and also share in the hard times and acknowledge that this is a tough industry to be a female in, although it is changing (thankfully).
Fiona, thank you very much! Let me begin the final part of this interview with the Back and forth!
- What’s your favorite plane?
- Right now I’ll have to stick with mine, the ERJ-175! However, I do love F14s and P51s.
- What’s your favorite airport?
- KJAC: Jackson Hole, WY (if the weather is nice)
- What’s your least favorite airport?
- KIAH: Houston, TX
- What was your longest flight ever?
- 3.7 hours from KCLT to KDEN
- And the shortest flight ever?
- 0.8 from KCOS to KDEN
- The flight with the biggest delay?
- Around 4 hours
- The highest number of aircraft in front of you before takeoff?
- 23! Out of KDEN
- Takeoff or landing?
- An aircraft you would love to fly in the future, and one from the past you would love to fly?
- I would love to fly any airbus in the future, especially the A220! Such a pretty airplane that’s high-tech. In the past, it would have been so cool to fly a Concorde. Maybe one day I’ll get to fly something supersonic like the Boom!
- Left seat or right seat?
- Right seat, for now, I’m sure this will change once I upgrade!
- A flight you will never forget, and possibly why?
- Probably the first time I ever actually got to fly a jet! It’s a surreal feeling to get to that point in my career finally.
- Your favorite company outside of the US?
- I really liked my experiences of flying on KLM and usually fly them when I’m going to my favorite place – Scotland!
- Two engines, three engines, or four engines?
- Better flying cargo or pax?
- Passengers, I like the interaction with the general public.
- A question from a New York: JFK or LGA?
- I actually haven’t flown in or out of either, I stay mostly on the West but as a passenger, I would have to say JFK.
Someone said that “Find a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a single day in your life”. Is this true for you?
Yes! Every time I go to work and take in all the different places and people, I am so thankful that I get to do this for my job.
I think after having my office job and now this one I have an even greater appreciation for being a pilot because I know what the alternative is. Although I am still human and I don’t love getting ready to go to work and what comes with prepping for being away for four days, I do find myself incredibly happy once I’m there.
There are some days that are more work than others as I have mentioned but overall, I couldn’t imagine doing any other job and I truly can’t believe I get paid to do this!
Fiona, thank you very much for this! This one was a super nice interview, and I am so happy I had the opportunity to listen to your super interesting story.
I thank everyone for reading up to this point. I hope you enjoyed this interview.
Until the next episode of Airways Profile, take care of yourselves and each other!
Featured image and all photos: Fiona Morrison