What brought you to this career?
I never set out to be an airline pilot. I was always interested in aviation, but didn’t know any pilots growing up, so I never considered it as a possible career goal. In high school, I decided I was interested in becoming an officer in the military. I applied for and received a Navy ROTC scholarship for college. I attended Virginia Tech and decided during those years to try to become a Naval Aviator after graduation. That decision started me on the road to become an airline pilot, although I certainly wasn’t thinking about the airlines at that time. I flew F/A-18’s for ten years and was hired by my airline after leaving the Navy.
What is your most memorable experience in your career?
My most memorable experiences were mostly from my time in the Navy. I will never forget some of my flights: low levels through the Sierra Mountains, fighting against an F-15 over Danali Alaska, etc. My job has given me the opportunity to see many amazing scenic views. On the other hand, the most stressful moments also stand out. For example, some of the more challenging landings on the aircraft carrier, especially at night and during rough seas. One landing when the ship went into a fog bank will always stand out in my mind.
What is a typical day like for you?
My work day varies quite a bit, which is an aspect of the job I enjoy. I typically work 3 days and then have 4 off. A trip always begins and ends at my base airport (Baltimore Washington International). During the trip we have over 100 destination cities to fly to. The work consists of anywhere from 1 to 5 legs a day with 2-3 being average. At the end of each day the company puts the crew up in a hotel. The overnight lengths vary from 12 to 24 hours off, but the average is probably around 15 hours. Each pilot gets a monthly schedule and the routes and cities change every time, another aspect I enjoy very much. Typical work days are from 7 to 11 hours in length. It is typical to fly with a different pilot each week, often going a year or more before flying together again.
What do you like most about your job; what motivates you throughout the day?
I enjoy many things about my job. First and foremost, I love flying airplanes. Aircraft have become much more automated over the years, but I still enjoy hand-flying, especially the landings. I like working as a team with the rest of the flight crew. I particularly enjoy working with the First Officers (the other pilot). We have great people at my company and they’ve been fun to work with. I like how my job takes me all over the country and to some foreign cities as well. I’ve been to places I never would have been to otherwise. I love the amount of time I have off. When I walk away from the aircraft at the end of a trip, I truly don’t think about work at all until I go back. That is rare among careers with salaries similar to mine and I very much appreciate it. In addition to our normal days off, we also have a very good vacation system. I find it very fulfilling that I safely transport tens of thousands of passengers each year.
For someone interested in this field, what education/certifications, skills or experiences would they need, and what salary could they expect to make?
If aviation is something you are interested in, becoming a pilot is a long road that requires significant investment and dedication to reach a position at a major airline. There are two routes to become a pilot: military and civilian. For the military, you would become an officer in the one of the services and gain your flying experience during your years as a pilot there. Currently, the minimum obligation is around 12 years of service. The civilian route offers a few options. You can attend an aviation college program, which can be very expensive. When you graduate, you will have all the certificates required to be hired at a regional airline. The other option is to go to your local airport, start taking lessons and earn your private pilot license. From there you can continue to work on the subsequent qualifications. Many people then become an instructor pilot to try to “build” their flight time. You will probably need to take very low paying flying jobs during these years to eventually build up enough experience to apply to your first airline.
There is currently a pilot shortage, and salaries have climbed as a consequence, so it’s a great time to be looking for a pilot job. Even the notoriously poor paying regional airlines have been forced to increase pay and many now offer signing bonuses and financial aid for aviation training.
Salaries at major airlines, Fedex and UPS is currently very good. Captains will earn in the $300,000 range. Pilot pay is not salary but based on flight hours. Most companies’ pay scales depend on the type of aircraft flown, seat (Captain or First Officer), and years of employment. The industry is highly unionized and pay and benefits vary from one contract to the next.
What advice would you give for someone looking to pursue a similar career?
If I am going to be completely honest in my advice, I’d have to caution a young person to think very carefully before going into aviation as a career. Unfortunately, I am concerned that the future of the pilot profession may be very different then what I have experienced. It is impossible to predict what will happen, but I think it is very likely that huge changes are looming just over the horizon. Technology has advanced rapidly, and “pilotless” aircraft are starting to sound much less like science fiction. I think once the traveling public accepts the idea of self-driving cars, self-flying planes might not be far behind. The technology for fully autonomous aircraft is actually much easier to achieve then autonomous cars. We could probably do it right now; for example, aircraft have had auto-land capability for years and the autopilot is flying the aircraft for 95% of most flights. It actually is already occurring in the military with huge increases in drone use and a corresponding reduction in manned aircraft. Boeing and Airbus have already opened unmanned offices and even the FAA tried to do so last year. Many people think the first pilot jobs to be impacted could be the freight industry (companies like Fedex and UPS). There is also speculation that the industry would go to one pilot per plane, before getting rid of them altogether.
I don’t think the pilot profession will disappear tomorrow, or even this decade, but looking out to the 20-year horizon, it becomes much more questionable. The current mandatory retirement age is 65 for an airline pilot. So a 20 year old is looking at a carrier spanning 45 years. I cannot foresee the job existing over that time frame. This is just speculation on my part, but I think it’s worth some thought.