Published in August 2016 issue
By Mark L. Berry
A high school junior I will call Q asked me (circuitously, though his mom’s network) how he could become an airline Pilot. It’s been 33 years since I asked myself that same question, and Q’s query caused me to reflect. I’ll tell you how I did it, and how I’d do it differently in today’s job market.
But, first, here’s a little motivation check: are you willing to spend a significant amount of money upfront learning the basics of how to fly, spend years at low paying flying jobs to gain experience, and hope the job market will be growing—not furloughing—when you are finally ready to enter it as a probationary First Officer?
I ask because the journey from fledgling student Pilot all the way to airline Captain takes determination and patience. But, if you really want it badly enough, it can be done.
I have done my best to scare you off because, unfortunately, the industry has been stagnant for the last dozen years. On September 11, 2001, terrorism caused most airlines to scale back, and many major airline Pilots were furloughed. Additional stagnation occurred when, in 2007, the FAA moved the mandatory retirement age back from 60 to 65. There’s less room for new Pilots when retirements are postponed.
The good news is that most—if not all—of the furloughed are finally back flying; senior Pilots are once again getting pushed out of the cockpit at a predictable rate, and airline-hiring departments have re-opened for business.
But how do you become a candidate for these coveted new hire Pilot slots?
THE EARLY STEPS
I also wanted to become an airline Pilot back when I was in high school. I took a few introductory lessons, but I had no idea of how to break into the industry. The few times I rode in an airliner as a passenger, I saw that the cockpit door had a sticker (what the industry calls a placard) that read: Crew Entry Only. There was no box of applications underneath it, and no slot in which to slip a resume.
Research into aviation universities brought the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) to my attention. It’s an excellent school, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there back in the mid-1980s, but this isn’t specifically a promotional piece for my alma mater. Universities with aviation programs are a structured way to earn a Bachelor of Aeronautical Science Degree while simultaneously acquiring all the necessary Pilot licenses up to a Certified Flight Instructor Rating.
I mention the instructor rating because that’s most likely going to be your first professional aviation job. Even if your university offers courses on crew integration, and they have a full-motion Boeing 737 simulator (as ERAU does), after graduation, you’ll still be a long way from actually flying a commercial jet. The FAA requires new-hire applicants at every airline (even regionals) to have logged 1,500 hours of total flight time. University graduates typically log between 200-300 flying hours while earning their degrees.
That means you should be prepared to flight instruct—or endure another entry-level aviation job—before meeting the airlines’ bare minimum flight time requirements if you choose a university path into the profession.
GOING MORE QUICKLY
Is there a quicker way? By now, you might be asking why I would even suggest that speed is paramount over quality. After all, shouldn’t a Pilot’s education and career progress at whatever pace with which he or she is most comfortable? Well, yes and no. I emphasize speed not because we all want to reach our dreams as quickly as we can, but because the airline industry is governed strictly by seniority.
Say it with me: seniority. Somebody needs to drill this concept into your brain now, and it might as well be me. The sooner you get hired, the faster and higher your career will progress.
Will you hold weekends off? Will you be home for the holidays? Pilots’ schedules are bid for and awarded strictly by seniority. Sometimes a single seniority number can even determine what crew base you are assigned. Are you attached to your hometown? Try commuting halfway across the country to go to work, and the concept of seniority will sink in hard.
Just some of the places in which I have been based include St. Croix, San Juan, West Berlin, New York, St. Louis, and, most recently, Dallas. A single seniority number can mean the difference between holding a monthly schedule at all, or sitting at home stuck on reserve. Captain upgrade opportunities are offered in seniority order.
Basically, if something matters at your airline, your seniority is what determines it. Clear enough?
EARN YOUR LICENSES FIRST
With seniority in mind, here is the fast track: make a full-time effort to earn your Pilot’s licenses before attending a university degree program.
I can’t recommend a specific flight school, but there are many full-immersion training programs that offer an applicant an accelerated course for earning his or her Private Pilot License, Multi-engine Rating, Instrument Rating, then on to a Commercial Pilot License and, finally, a Certified Flight Instructor Certificate in roughly 12-18 months. For the serious future aviator, full-immersion flight schools allow the novice to live, eat, and breathe aviation from his or her first flight through that rewarding experience of becoming the Pilot teaching the next wave of new arrivals.
Think of this as prep school before applying to the college or university of your degree preference.
If you earn your Pilot’s licenses and ratings first, you will initially enter your formal university education program a year behind your peers—but you’ll already be qualified to teach flying while they will be just beginning to learn how to read a checklist. When they graduate, they’ll have to compete with each other for your flight instructor job since you’ll be ready to move on.
By then, you’ll have close to the 1,500 required hours needed for an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, and you’ll be sending applications out to the airlines.
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TEACHING TO LEARN
Here’s a little insight about those flight-instructing years I see in your future; embrace them. They’re not just stepping stones toward reaching the 1,500 total hours of required flight time. Teaching is also a license to learn.
One of my students accidentally taught me about advanced avionics when he wrote what he thought was a comical entry in the maintenance logbook of a four-seat Cessna-172 after a flight: Autopilot lands hard and the number-three ring-laser gyro is out of tolerance.
While I was debriefing this student in the post-flight recap, the mechanic assigned to maintain that aircraft slammed the metal-encased logbook against my desk and screamed a lecture about responsible documentation: “He [my student] may think it’s funny making up stories, but writing ‘hard landing’ in my logbook, even as a joke, requires me to do an airframe inspection. The logbook isn’t a coloring book, and our aircraft aren’t toys. If he can’t get that through his head, he can learn to fly somewhere else.”
After I added the obligatory lecture about professionalism, I had to ask my student what a laser ring gyro actually was. It’s certainly not something a Cessna 172 has onboard, but he taught me that airliners use them for internal navigation—a system prominent for ocean crossings before global positioning systems (GPS) came along.
Where you decide to learn how to fly is a big personal decision but, wherever you choose, here’s a little advice on how to study: never climb into an airplane before understanding exactly what you are expected to perform.
Basically, learn your procedures and maneuvers on the ground first, and then you’ll be able to practice them in the air afterward. Anything less is a waste of time and money. Flying lessons are expensive, and cockpits are loud—not the ideal location for learning new concepts.
If you catch yourself asking your Flight Instructor before a flight: “What are we going to do today?” then turn around, walk away, and pay the no-show fee instead of the flight lesson expense. Your syllabus should spell out exactly what is expected of each particular flight, and you should have already studied those specific items and had time to discuss them with your instructor before preflighting an airplane.
So Q, what can you do right away, even before you finish high school? Begin your aviation journey by reading William Kershner’s The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual cover to cover.
I’m hesitant to recommend specific schools and manuals, but I’ve been telling potential flight students to read this particular book for over 30 years. It’s a great overview of an aspiring Pilot’s first 40 hours of flying, and it’s the first technical manual I ever read that was constructed with a sense of humor—way before the For Dummies manuals made this strategy popular.
Sadly, Mr. Kershner has passed away, but his books are kept current by the publisher, so be sure to purchase the latest edition. Older editions might contain outdated rules that have changed. As a Pilot, you’ll be expected to keep your charts and manuals up to date, so practice that habit now by only buying the most current version of any training manuals.
Before you invest a small fortune in a flight school or aviation degree program, find out if flying is really for you. Some people are not physiologically prepared for three-dimensional motion. it’s common for some students to vomit the first few times they fly, but I’ve seen a few wash out of flight training because they can’t stop getting sick in the cockpit.
It would be worth knowing whether you have a physiological aversion to actually flying an airplane, so pay for a few introductory lessons at your local airport (like I did) just to get the feel of flight training. Remember to keep a barf bag within reach until you are sure you have adjusted.
READY FOR A HARSH REALITY?
Aviation is a lot of fun, but it has a deadly serious side. We are a fraternal bunch (women included), and you will learn to see your fellow crew members as your extended worldwide family, but know this upfront: we study aircraft accidents during training. Did you watch car-accident footage while preparing for your driver’s license exam? Did you see photos of the horrible aftermath created by a drunken teenager, or a texting driver, or a trucker who crossed the median after falling asleep? This concept is magnified in the airline environment.
Aircraft have two black boxes (the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder) that enable us to review and learn from the mistakes of our mentors and peers, many of whom had become friends. My buddy Joe Heuchert was killed flying night freight in a Cessna 402. My classmate Kathy Digan died piloting a regional turboprop—a Swearingen Metroliner. My former roommate Rick Duney’s DC-9 crashed shortly after take-off due to icing. My fiancée Susanne Jensen was one of 230 onboard TWA Flight 800 when that Boeing 747 exploded on its way to Paris. I knew one of the Pilots—First Officer David Charlebois—whose plane was deliberately flown into a building by terrorists on 9/11.
As an airline crewmember, these news headlines cut deep. But, rather than ignore them, you will be required to explore and study aviation tragedies.
I don’t want to scare you away from your aviation passion. I’m just trying to give you a realistic view of what’s behind the locked cockpit door—the one that is placarded Crew Entry Only.
If you are determined to dedicate your life to a cockpit career, then you are mature enough to see inside an industry in which the highest price is sometimes paid for errors and unforeseen events. I didn’t write this article as a Pilot recruitment pitch. I want to convey realistic expectations to give you a greater chance of successfully integrating into commercial airline cockpits.
So, Q—my newest aviation enthusiast friend—and all of you aspiring airline Pilots at the beginning of your long journeys; I hope this information helps. It’s always exciting when new Pilots join the ranks with passion and enthusiasm. Go forth and earn your wings.
And remember: seniority is everything. Let that be the guide to your goals on the horizon.